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!
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.