Bobby Rahal is different. At least among racecar drivers. And I do mean that in the best possible way. I know him better than anyone I've talked to for Racer2Racer; after all, I drove for him for four years in IndyCars (LEFT). But more than that, he treated my family and I like we were part of his family during those years. We spent off weekends at backyard BBQs, he let me hitch rides on his jet to and from races, and we've watched each other's kids grow up. So you'd understand if it were slightly awkward to sit down and interview someone who you have that kind of history with. But like I say, “Big Bob,” as I call him, is different.
The nicest thing I can say about him is that he seems too smart to have been a racing driver. Big Bob has cut a pretty wide swath through the racing world – everything from Indy 500 winner to three IndyCar titles, to IndyCar and now sports car team owner, Formula 1 team principal (remember Jaguar F1?), and even a brief (I said he was smart) stint as Champ Car CEO. Then there are his successful car dealerships and interests outside racing, too. All these things he accomplished through hard work and determination.
During his driving career, Bob was probably never the most naturally gifted guy on the grid – but he was likely the smartest and hardest working, and it's those attributes which have carried him to his glories. That hunger for success is still evident as we sit down to reflect on some highlights from his career. But first, let's start at the beginning...
BH Let's talk about how you got started in racing, what drew you to it and at what point it turned from a hobby into a career.
BR Well, my summers were based around going racing with my dad, and I just loved it – got absolutely hooked. I was very fortunate to grow up in the 1960s when racing exploded in this country in particular. It was virtually impossible not to be entranced by what you saw. So my dad let me go to races, but he raced for fun, and never had the latest cars by any stretch of the imagination. It was family-style racing, like in the SCCA.
When I was in college, I bought a seven-year-old Lotus and got my SCCA license. I won races at Pebble Beach – low-key stuff – and I convinced Dad to buy probably the closest thing to a new car he ever had, a one-year-old Lola. He'd race it one weekend, I'd race it another. It was kind of funny that it started with me described as “Mike Rahal's son, Bob,” and as time went on, he became “Bob Rahal's dad, Mike!”
My last day at college, I won the SCCA National Championship, but I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. So I found a guy in college who agreed to buy a Formula Atlantic car, Jim Trueman agreed to give me some money, my dad agreed to give me some money, and I thought, “What the hell? What's one year out of my life?” and I decided to join the Atlantic circuit. I had a pretty good year, and somehow things kept going, I kept finding sponsorship. I was convinced that I was progressing every year, and decided that so long as I felt that was the case, I'd keep going.
BH In the beginning, you worked on the car yourself and I recall an interesting story about you, a car and a vacuum cleaner.
BR Ah, that would be 1970. The governing bodies had started mandating fuel cells and my dad had this Porsche racecar, which had an aluminum fuel tank, and although we had some kind of rubber coating on the exterior, we were told that now they've got to have fuel-cell foam inside, so I drained the fuel out and softened up the foam. Obviously the aluminum shavings, dregs of gasoline and swarf had to be cleaned out and I felt the quickest way to do that would be to use a vacuum cleaner. So I was pretty happy that I'd done a great job and put the vacuum cleaner away. About an hour later, my mother came out to vacuum, and this thing just turned into a flame-thrower.
The great thing was, I took it back to the local Sears with the inside all charred, and I told the guy, “Don't know what happened. It just caught on fire,” and he gave me a brand-new vacuum cleaner.
BH That's great. But it's different now. You don't see family-style racing any more, or drivers working on their cars.
BR Well, in SCCA and NASA it probably is still similar to that but the difference is, when I started, very few people thought you could race for a living. Now, every dad at a kart race is hoping to turn his son or daughter into the next Jeff Gordon or whomever. But I started in amateur racing – and it was the very definition of that! You and your buddies would go together, no one got paid, you slept at the track, it was a lot of hard work but it was also a lot of fun.
BH Yeah, and it never does get more fun than that, does it?
BR No, because as you get further up the ladder, it becomes much more of a job. You still have to love going to do that job, obviously, but the pressure keeps increasing. I loved when I ran the Can-Am series when teams would take it in turn to do a Sunday night barbecue after the race. Paul Newman and Carl Haas weren't yet partners so, for instance, Haas' team would do the barbecue at Elkhart Lake, Newman at Laguna Seca, and so on. You'd get everyone sitting there drinking beer, eating steaks, and so on. There was a community spirit. Today there's almost a competition to see who's the first guy who leaves the track after a race. That whole camaraderie has gone.
BH You did Can-Am and Formula 1 (RIGHT), but at what point did IndyCar racing become the goal? Was it even a goal, or did it just sort of play out that way?
BR It was never the goal. But by 1982 or '83, the Can-Am series had lost the cream of the crop, team-wise, to CART IndyCar racing because more and more road courses were appearing on the schedule. Jim Trueman, Doug Shierson, VDS, Paul Newman and Carl Haas had gone there. My grand plan had been Formula 1, that's why I'd gone to Europe, and when it didn't work out, Can-Am was my next choice. Then when everyone started going the IndyCar route, I went with them.
BH Now you're connected to Indy in two very different ways: you're a successful team owner but also you have your son racing for another team. What do you get the most satisfaction from?
BR For Graham to be where he is now makes me extremely proud. I want the most for him, I want him to be successful because it is his dream. It's nerve-wracking as all hell to watch him, but I take great pride in seeing him carry on the name. Some time ago I told him, “I don't care how many races you win; first and foremost you need to be a gentleman, a first-class guy. You don't have to be a jerk to be a winner.” So I get real satisfaction when people, many of whom I don't know, come up and say, “Hey, your son's the nicest guy, he was great with my kids,” etc.
BH That's great. Now I want to shift topics to something else you know a lot about. You ran the CART IndyCar series as an interim president in 2000, so what are your thoughts on the IZOD IndyCar Series, Randy Bernard, and what things should be next on his agenda to benefit the teams and fans?
BR Well, I think Randy's bringing good people in and around him; Tony Cotman was a good hire for the 2012 car and Will Phillips is the technical engineering guy and he's good, too. There's some much-needed depth there. For Randy himself, well, no one knows better than him how to build something commercially and he's getting it better all the time. He's very respected in areas that this series has traditionally suffered in. So the main thing I tell him is: “Do what you think is right.”
The thing that killed CART was that every meeting was a free-for-all – every owner was self-serving and it killed a great series. The selfishness of it conspired to prevent great ideas from happening. If a concept didn't suit one person, that person would rally the troops and shoot it down. The inmates were running the asylum. NASCAR doesn't do that, Formula 1 doesn't do that. So I tell Randy, “You have good people around you, rely on them, you do what you guys think is right. Don't put it up for a vote because if you have 20 team owners, you'll get 20 different answers.” The potential for that kind of chaos is always with us in this series, for some reason, and it needs to go away for good.