We're celebrating 50 years of racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with personal recollections from some of the racers who've made their mark at one of America's finest natural-terrain tracks. This week, an Ohio-born racing legend, Bobby Rahal, talks about a track that brought him success in several different categories. He also remembers his friend and former team owner, Jim Trueman, who took Mid-Ohio into a new era when he bought it in the fall of 1981.
Rahal's wins at Mid-Ohio are many and varied. His first win came in 1979, in the Lumbermen's 500-mile race, where he shared a Ralt-based Can-Am car with another prolific winner at Mid-Ohio, Brian Redman. Over the years, he added two CART wins (including 1985, ABOVE LEFT), two IMSA wins and two IROC wins (from only three IROC races ever held at the track – not a bad batting average…).
In 1998, in his final race at Mid-Ohio as a driver, he battled a talent-packed CART field to finish on the podium, aged 45.
As co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal will be back at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 5-7 to oversee the team's factory-backed BMW program in the American Le Mans Series' close-fought GT class, as well as keeping an eye on son Graham, who drives for Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Bobby Rahal's first memories of Mid-Ohio are spectating there with his father soon after it opened in 1962. And a half-century later, the layout remains little changed – which is absolutely fine with Rahal…
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will always have a special place in my heart because of it being my home track and, of course, the Jim Trueman connection. More of that later. But it would be one of my favorites even without the emotional ties, because it's such a challenge.
It's a very difficult circuit, because you have to be very smooth, but you also have to attack the course all the time. Every time I went into a race, I felt the same way I did heading into qualifying – that I had to be aggressive, but in such a way that it doesn't interrupt the rhythm that's so vital there. There's not much time for you to take a breath because the turns are quicker than they appear to be, there are off-camber corners, elevation changes and so on. There's something about those demands and the flow of the circuit that I really like and that worked well with my driving style, so I ended up having a lot of success there in different types of car – sports cars, IndyCars, IROC cars, Can-Am, and so on.
The great thing about the track is how little it's changed, apart from the section heading toward the Keyhole, which has made it a much better place for modern-day racing. Having said that, I thought the original right-left-left-right was good, too: it was a real challenge to get through there quickly. But aside from that, it's the original layout, and I think Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake are pretty much the only tracks I know that are virtually the same today as the day they were built.
A couple weeks ago, Patrick Carpentier was here on RACER.com talking about the grip of the track, and I'm 100 percent with him on that. I remember in the CART days, there was so much grip that when you came out of the pits carrying a tank-load of fuel and on fresh tires still at low pressure, it was all you could do to turn the steering wheel! Throughout the weekend, it would get faster and faster – particularly the corner at the end of the back straight – because as the track rubbers up, it gets better and better. That sounds obvious but, in fact, it isn't always the case – some tracks get greasier and therefore slower. But Mid-Ohio was the opposite of that, so a lot of times back in the 1980s in IndyCars, we often wouldn't run in the first session because it was a waste of time.
But there's no escaping the bond I feel with Mid-Ohio, and its place in the personal history of my dear friend Jim Trueman (RIGHT: with Rahal after an IROC win at Mid-Ohio). Interestingly, Jim had been looking at building a track up near Fort Wayne, Ind. – he'd worked out the most densely populated area within a 500-mile radius, and that was Fort Wayne. Well, obviously that would have been a bit crazy because Mid-Ohio wasn't that far away. Les Griebling had owned the track for a long time – I went to the first-ever race there with my dad – and he'd been running it for about 20 years pretty much as a one-man band. It was a great circuit, but there wasn't much in the way of facilities – grass paddock, much like many circuits in those days. It became obvious to Jim that it would be cheaper, more convenient and quicker to buy an existing track, so he met with Les, told him to write down on a napkin the price he wanted for the track, Les wrote it down, and Jim said, “Deal!” Apparently, the exchange did go that quickly.
Then, of course, Jim immediately started to change the face of Mid-Ohio, and most, if not all of his changes remain to this day. I don't know of anything that's been built in addition.
Back in 1980, when there was that brief marriage between CART and USAC, Mid-Ohio had held its first IndyCar race, which Johnny Rutherford won in the Chaparral 2K. But Jim's goal once he took over the track was to keep those big races there year after year. With Truesports' entry into IndyCars in 1982 and with the series really starting to expand, he obviously wanted Mid-Ohio to be a part of that. IMSA was well attended and was a big affair, but IndyCar became the major race of the circuit's year, right from the get-go. So you can imagine how special it was for all of us on the Truesports team to go and get pole for my first IndyCar race there in 1983.
It had already proven a good track for us. That Lumbermen's win in '79 with Brian Redman, pole for the Can-Am race in '80, and then Jim and I had teamed together for the Lumbermen's again in '81 in the Ralt-Hart 2-liter Can-Am car. We were leading but, unfortunately, Jim had been hit by a Corvette earlier on and, as a consequence, our suspension broke with 10 laps to go and we finished fifth. Then in '83, Jim, Doc Bundy and myself won the IMSA race in the March 83G from pole. Those ground-effect sports cars were fast and my pole time for that race was only about 3sec slower than my IndyCar pole. That car was built for the Mid-Ohio-type course – it had downforce and Chevrolet grunt. It didn't have the aero for straightaways, as we discovered at Le Mans, but it was damn good around Mid-Ohio.
So to then go and get pole for my first IndyCar race at that track was very satisfying. Ultimately, on race day, it turned frustrating because we had a fuel-feed problem and had to make twice as many pit stops as everyone else, and although we still managed to finish third, with that car we should have won the race going away. We had the normally aspirated Chevy for that race, when everyone else was running Cosworth turbos. At Mid-Ohio, there are a lot of off-throttle and part-throttle moments, and a turbocharged engine really didn't like that as much as a normally aspirated unit. Our engine builder was Franz Weiss at VDS, and he always made the best Chevrolet engines. Sure enough, he did a great job and the performance of the car that weekend was what persuaded CART to state that for 1984 you had to declare what engines you were going to run before the start of the year. Their fear was that teams would start using different engines between ovals and road courses, so it would get expensive. So, in the end, that engine would have a short lifespan, but that was definitely the combination to have that day.
In 1985 (ABOVE), though, we got the job done. Adrian Newey was my engineer, we had an awesome car and, as I recall, we pretty much walked the race. It was a hot day and, beforehand, I remember Jim leaning into the cockpit and saying, “Think of it as a 10-lap sprint race,” and he was absolutely right. We were out there for 84 laps and it was the most physically demanding track that we raced on in IndyCar. (I think the current era of IndyCar driver would say the same thing.) So you had to just go out there and ignore that, like Jim said, and take it corner by corner, brake zone by brake zone, lap by lap, and not even think about asking, “How many more laps to go?” Trust me, when you do that and they come back at you and say “40!” I can assure you that isn't the answer you want!