So to win on a track like that in dominant style was important for all of us. It was important for another reason: we were going for the championship. People forget that if Jacques Villeneuve Sr. hadn't taken me out at Sanair, we would have won the championship in '85. We were very competitive and on pole for seven races that year, so to win at Mid-Ohio made for a dream weekend.
Getting the same result a year later (ABOVE) was altogether more poignant. Cancer had taken Jim just after we won the Indy 500, Mid-Ohio was the Truesports track, obviously, and all of us lived in Columbus, just an hour away. It was a very partisan crowd, as it was throughout my career, and there wasn't anybody in the paddock who didn't like Jim, and who didn't wish us a fabulous season after he passed away. He was just a compelling figure.
Jim had been new to IndyCar racing in '81, but he played such a huge role at Mid-Ohio and he had this strong relationship with Leo Mehl at Goodyear, to the extent that Leo recommended to Ferrari that Truesports should be their team when Ferrari got into the idea of entering the IndyCar series. So Jim's presence and influence in racing in general and IndyCar racing in particular had really grown quickly and hugely. I often wonder if he could have been the sane voice, the balanced individual, the saving grace, who might have prevented the split in U.S. open-wheel racing.
So that '86 win at Mid-Ohio was a form of tribute to him. It was an exclamation point for everything he'd done for all of us at Truesports, everything he'd done for IndyCar racing, and everything he'd done at Mid-Ohio.
Naturally enough, another strong memory for me is my final IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, back in 1998. The whole weekend was pretty special. There was a huge billboard on top of the grass bank at the Keyhole and it said, “Thank You, Bobby” and there were pictures of my helmet design put on sticks, and whenever I came past, there were people waving those in all the spectator areas. There had been a lot of promotion going on locally about this being my last time there as a driver, and so there was a huge crowd.
As I recall, we didn't have a very good qualifying session, so we started only mid-pack, but through the race we worked our way up to third. For the last 20 laps or so, we had a good fight with Adrian Fernandez and Scott Pruett nose to tail. It was a very demanding race, and here I was at 45 years old being able to race these guys who were…well, a lot younger! So, although I would love to have won, I got a lot of satisfaction from reaching the podium, and beating some of the guys we beat that day [including Paul Tracy, Al Unser Jr., Carpentier and Tony Kanaan]. That felt pretty good after a very hot, very demanding, typical Mid-Ohio race day.
It would be very special to see Graham win there. I mean, to be honest, I'll take any win, but for us as a family, there is a lot of history at Mid-Ohio, not just for me. Graham watched me race there a lot – actually, he used to come and hang out even when I was just testing – and he won the SCCA National Championship there, too. He probably knows every square inch of the place, he has a strong following there and he's been very competitive there, so I'd say he'd regard a win there as extra special – as would the crowd!
The crowd at Mid-Ohio is excellent – lots of passion, lots of knowledge – so it's great they have this impressive weekend of racing with the IZOD IndyCar Series and the American Le Mans Series on the same bill. The place is a natural amphitheater, so on the banks that Jim put in, the grandstands on the back straight that he put in, and again at the Keyhole, the atmosphere is very special. Mid-Ohio was built for people who enjoy watching races, and they show that appreciation by attending in good numbers and being strong advocates of the track. Even at the height of CART, I don't remember as many people on the hillsides as we saw last year at the IndyCar/ALMS event. It's a very loyal and strong spectator base from which to pull, and there's no doubt that people enjoy going there, because there are a lot of repeat customers.
But even aside from that marquee event, it's just a very popular venue, period, and you can see that even in events that aren't necessarily professional. Go to the Historic race in June, for example, and you'll see a pretty reasonable crowd. There's just real loyalty from the local fans, and it's not surprising. Mid-Ohio has a real allure.
Next week: The story of the track.
For more on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and its 50th season of racing, visit the official website at MidOhio.com.
Coming up Aug. 5-7 in an action-packed 2011 schedule is a double-header starring the IZOD IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series. To purchase weekend or single-day tickets for the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge/Honda Indy 200, CLICK HERE.
Sept. 16-18, the Grand-Am Rolex Series takes center stage with the EMCO Gears Classic presented by KeyBank. For tickets, CLICK HERE.