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.
BH OK. Let's take things in a different direction again. Your 1986 Indy 500 win was so dramatic and emotional. Jim Trueman, the man who helped you through much of your career, was watching from pit lane and everyone knew that cancer was due to take him soon. Take us through that last restart, lining up second behind Kevin Cogan (BELOW: Rahal in No. 3 and Cogan in No. 7) – what you felt you had to make happen and what you felt was on the line there.
BR Well, even though we all knew Jim's situation, throughout that month I never felt any pressure from this being Jim's final 500, like something hanging over me the whole time.
I think I led about 60 laps of the race, and I know Rick [Mears] led a lot, but Kevin had only led maybe 10. Our car had been handling pretty well all race long, and although we'd had to make little changes, it was pretty good. Kevin, on the other hand, had been doing a high-wire act, way up in the gray almost all the way around and almost hitting the wall on corner exits for about 10 laps. There's no question my car was handling better than his and I always had felt I was pretty good on restarts. I still drill into the drivers today that there's no time easier to pass someone than on a restart.
BH Yeah, I recall you telling me that. And you're right; there's no easier time.
BR Right, so you need to be on your toes to take full advantage. I was ready for what was effectively a whole new race. People say I jumped him, but when the green was waved, he started to scrub up toward the wall on the exit of Turn 4 and my car didn't so I had the momentum on him. I was just thinking of winning, not winning because of Jim. This was my chance to win the Indy 500. We had a very crude low-fuel light in those days that probably gave us more angst than help. When it would flash, you wouldn't know if you had one gallon left or 10. Those last couple laps, it was on solid, so going down the back straight after I passed Cogan, I was like a jockey, yelling at this car, “Don't leave me, don't leave me!” If I'd had a crop, I'd have been out there beating on it. But we had a great car – I set the fastest lap of the race on the last lap – and it won the race that day.
I still don't remember the moment of crossing the finish line. You've got so many thoughts going through your mind, and it was very emotional. I got out of the car and there was Jim, and he looked like hell. I felt bad for everybody on the team, because they never really got a chance to celebrate in the way we would have if the situation had been normal. Afterward, Jim sat in his bus, some of his close friends around him, sipping a beer, and everyone was happy but also sad. He was a shadow of his former self, and everyone knew the end was coming. A real bittersweet day.
BH I was sitting at home watching the race on TV, and I've got to say, it was one of those moments where TV really did it right. They conveyed the background story, the way the race unfolded and the director cutting to show Jim, and so on. Sometimes it's annoying how they cut away to other people in the pits, or whatever, but that was different. You were already an IndyCar star, but this launched you in a different way, there was a personal connection.
BR Yeah, if Hollywood wrote a script like that, everyone would have said, “Well that would never happen,” but it was a genuine case of truth being stranger than fiction. And I'll never forget Doug Shierson, who both Jim and I were friends with and who I'd driven for in the past, came up to me a couple weeks later and said, “You know what? None of us realized that 32 of us didn't stand a chance that day. It was like the good Lord ordained that was going to happen.”
And you're right about how that win affected me. I believe in every person's life, there is one crucial point at which you go on, or you stay still. And after Indy, my career just went straight up and I went on to win the championship that year and also the following year. And after Indy, Kevin's career, which had generally been very positive up to then, was to all intents and purposes over. So that was a major tipping point; life changed for me from there on out.
BH OK, got to ask: besides me, who was your favorite guy who ever drove for you?
BR Besides you, huh?! Hmmm…I'm not sure I have a particular favorite because they're all characters. There's one guy who I wish I'd never had anything to do with, but I'm not saying who it is. But everyone else brought their own attributes and assets to make them different. You won races for us, did a great job for us, in fact; Max Papis won races for us and has a personality bigger than life; Kenny Brack was the Iceman, won a lot for us…. It was great to see what Danica did with us and to be so instrumental in her career. It was great to grab Ryan Hunter-Reay out of nowhere, when no one was giving him a shot, and have him win Watkins Glen for us.
One of my favorites, a real class act, was Michel Jourdain Jr (RIGHT). In 2003, he could have been CART champion. He won three races, got robbed at Long Beach when the gearbox broke. So the short answer to your question is a cop-out: I don't think there was any favorite. All of you brought something unique and positive. The drivers we've had, for the most part, were really class acts and that was reflective of the team.
BH Yeah, it was a great team to drive for, and that era in CART was an amazing experience. When you look at the depth of the field during your era, it must give you a lot of pride to have come out on top in the championship three times in the space of seven years.
BR Absolutely, absolutely. Take 1986: we won six races that year, the other five coming after Indy. The first part of the year, we were kinda nowhere – didn't finish at Long Beach, didn't finish in Phoenix, had no real points to speak of. And '87 was very similar, but we won four races including the [non-championship] Marlboro Challenge. Then, in 1992, we won four races again and should have won the Marlboro Challenge but for CART officiating at the time. But, importantly, there were a lot of high finishes, too. If I didn't win, I was second or third, and that is how you win championships.
BH So, the Dario Franchitti of your era.
BR I have a lot of respect for Dario. He's a good guy and a hell of a driver. He makes it look easy. You look at Scott Dixon, and he's all elbows in the car, saving his life the whole time, whereas Dario is very smooth. He reminds me a lot of Al Jr. who was always very smooth, and one hell of a racecar driver. He was a much better racer than qualifier, so if Al was on the front row, the rest of us felt we might as well forget it because we knew he'd just be gone!
I had the privilege of racing against a lot of great drivers; Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and Junior, Michael Andretti and, of course, Mario…. He was a guy I'd watched as a teenager and so to find myself racing against him was really something. I regarded him as a yardstick; when I beat him to win, it felt extra special. One of the best races I ever drove was at Meadowlands in '87. It was extremely hot – 95 degrees – and humid too. I had an 11-second lead over Mario and a yellow came out with 10 or 15 laps to go, and of course, that meant he was suddenly right up under my rear wing. When we got the green, I drove away and won by 10 seconds. If that had been against other drivers, I'd have felt a lot of satisfaction, of course, but not as much as I did for beating Mario. I considered that he set the standard.
Bob has always loved the history of our sport, and I think that's very evident when he speaks of fellow greats like Mears or Andretti. And, like the Racer2Racer interviews I did with those great names, there was much more from our conversation that did not make the cut. I am always left at the end of these conversations with thoughts of 100 more questions I'd like to ask, but maybe it is best to always save a little bit for next time. -Bryan Herta
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the June 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.