This Week in Ford Racing July 9, 2002 CART FedEx Championship This weekend's Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland marks the 20th anniversary of Bobby Rahal's first career Champ Car victory. The three-time CART champion (1986, '87 and '92) and...
This Week in Ford Racing
July 9, 2002
CART FedEx Championship
This weekend's Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland marks the 20th anniversary of Bobby Rahal's first career Champ Car victory. The three-time CART champion (1986, '87 and '92) and current owner of Ford-powered Team Rahal who concluded his driving career in 1998 with 24 career victories and 18 pole positions, captured his first open wheel victory on July 4, 1982, in just his third CART start. Not only did that win in Cleveland propel him to seven top five finishes and second place in the championship as a rookie, it also raised his profile as a driver and helped establish him as one of the top talents in open wheel racing.
BOBBY RAHAL - Owner, Team Rahal
LOOKING BACK WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF YOUR FIRST CAREER VICTORY IN CLEVELAND?
"I think probably at the time I couldn't believe it. When you look at who was in the race - Al Unser, Sr., Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and I think A.J. (Foyt) was in that race - these guys had been American heroes. They had countless Indy 500 wins among them and everything else and then to go out and to beat them; we had actually run quite competitively at Milwaukee, which had been the race prior to it and it was an oval. We started out the year in Phoenix and it was a disaster. This was a team that had no Indy car experience, let alone any experience on an oval. We had Can Am and other forms of road-racing experience, but we didn't have any oval-track experience. So we go to Phoenix and we were humbled horribly. The first pit stop was a disaster - we caught fire and that was that. It was an ugly beginning. We skipped the second race to get our act together for Indy and we had a very good Indy 500 going before the engine broke with about 20 laps to go. But we gained confidence with the car and felt comfortable with it and then we go to Milwaukee and were in the top three or four in terms of speed all through practice. But then we blew up the engine right before qualifying, started at the end of the last row, and worked our way back to fourth about halfway through the race before the right rear suspension collapsed. I guess the reason I mention all that is we were progressing and we were more and more confident with what we were doing with the car as a team and, of course, with me as a driver. Then we go to Cleveland, and now all of a sudden everybody is in our area of expertise with regards to road racing, and we had been doing well, so we went to Cleveland believing that we would be competitive. Of course, what made it all the more special is that I'm from the Cleveland area, my father and mother are Cleveland natives, Jim Trueman, who I drove for, was from Cleveland and the guy who owned the cars was from Cleveland. So it was literally a Cleveland team in a lot of respects and the press and everybody really latched on to that. And then, of course, it was a long race - it was 500 kilometers in those days, which is over 300 miles. And to win the race, forgetting the fact that I had just beaten Mario Andretti and guys that I had always admired ... it was one of those things that I guess Hollywood might write. You know, the hometown team wins the hometown race, it just couldn't have been any better. And it was really from that race that I went from being someone who people knew about from the Indy car racing circles to all of a sudden being seen as a winner and certainly the perception about me as a driver changed in racing."
IS THERE ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR THAT STICKS OUT IN YOUR MIND FROM THAT RACE?
"Not any one specific thing, although I remember banging wheels with Al (Unser), Sr., and he went off the road and I kept going - I don't know if he was too happy about that later on. I don't think any one specific thing other than it was a long race, but the big thing was that we had won. For Jim Trueman, who's the guy that gave me my real chance and had been my long-time supporter, it was probably confirmation of his feeling about what I could do. And for the team, who, as I said, three months earlier had entered Indy car racing with zero experience, for Steve Horne and the whole crew, in fact, Jimmy Prescott, who's still with us today and was on that team and Clay Filson, who's still with me today, was on that team, that was the first win and it was a very euphoric and very gratifying time. So I think if I remember anything specific it's just sort of that sense."
YOU QUALIFIED SECOND FOR THAT RACE, SO WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD THE NIGHT BEFORE? WHAT WAS YOUR RACE STRATEGY? Because it was such a long race we really treated it sort of like an endurance race. And it was pretty rough, so we thought to expect those cars to go 312 miles flat out was too much to expect. Kevin Cogan, who drove for Penske at the time, he took off like a scalded cat and the rest of us kind of hung back there and I don't want to say cruised around, but we weren't using the car quite as hard. And sure enough he broke a shock absorber about halfway through the race and that was the last we saw of him. And then it was really a race we went in thinking we just want to stay in touch, and in the last 15 or 20 laps is when you really start to race hard and it was the right strategy."
WERE YOU SURPRISED TO WIN?
"I wasn't surprised that we could be competitive for the win. I mean, you never assume you're going to win, but particularly after qualifying, we thought we had as good a chance as anybody. I remember feeling a great sense of personal satisfaction because the previous two years ... 1979, when I came back from Europe and I entered the Can Am series, I won a race and finished second in three or four others. I came in halfway through the year, missed half the season and still finished fifth in the championship. In the five races I did, I was never off the front row in qualifying, so I was a very hot commodity. At the end of 1979 Carl Haas asked me to drive for him, Paul Newman asked me because they had separate teams at the time, but I had committed to the guy I was with. And frankly, he didn't live up to his promises and by the end of 1980 the star that had shown so brightly in 1979, one year later had been dimmed and everybody was saying, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' And really 1981 was a tough year for me. My career could much more easily have ended than gone on, but midway through that year Jim Trueman said he wanted to go Indy car racing. He had sponsored a car at Indianapolis in 1981 and they finished third and he wanted to start a team. He said if you're smart you'll say yes to everything, I have to say, so off we went and started this team. Of course, I'd always had great faith in Jim Trueman because he never said something and failed to follow through on it. I felt great vindication for him and for me when we won that race because all of a sudden everybody was knocking on the door again. In 1981 Roger Penske and Pat Patrick said, 'Don't call us, we'll call you,' and at the end of 1982 they were asking me to drive for them. I just felt great vindication and a great sense that perhaps we had turned a corner in my career and that we had met the moment and that we would go on."
LOOKING AT YOUR RESULTS FROM THE REST OF THE 1982 SEASON, IT SEEMS LIKE THAT RACE WAS A SPRINGBOARD FOR YOU IN THE RUN FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP AS A ROOKIE.
"It really was, although I have to say I think midway through the Indy 500 - it's hard to believe this, but midway through the race all of a sudden it was like me and this car started to click. And I ran with (Gordon) Johncock and (Rick) Mears for a lot of the race. I was a lap or two down at the time and Al (Unser), Sr., and I were fighting for the same position so he was right behind me. And it was like all of a sudden halfway through the race I felt at home. Then we went to Milwaukee and Lee Dykstra, who now is CART's chief technical guy, he had come on with us at Indy or just after Indy. So we went to Milwaukee to an oval that had been a troublesome type of racing for me because I had no experience. All of a sudden we're in the top three or four guys, and I almost look more towards that last half of the race at Indy or the race in Milwaukee sort of as the turning point for me as to how I felt about the car and the series. But without question, winning, maybe more so from a team standpoint, was like okay, we've met the challenge and now we can win. >From there on out, I mean, we should've won Elkhart Lake, but we ran out of fuel. We could've stopped and still won, but we thought they were going to throw the red flag because it was starting to rain and they didn't. We won Michigan, the Michigan 150 at the end of the year and had we won Elkhart we probably would've won the championship in our rookie year, but we finished second. And in those days the 500-milers were a multiple of points, so there were two or three times as many points for a 500-mile win as there were for a 200-mile or a 150. Not taking anything away from Rick (Mears), but he won both Pocono 500 milers and he won Michigan. But I look at maybe Milwaukee being the turning point for me, internally, but I look at Cleveland as the place where realization hit all of us as a team that not only could we compete, but we could also win.
WAS THIS THE MOST SIGINIFICANT WIN OF YOUR CAREER?
"Yeah, I'd have to say it was. Well, it was the win that turned my career around because I think I had won 10 races by the time I had won Indy. Indy turns your life around from a commercial point of view, but after that race win in Cleveland all of a sudden I was a winner in the minds of the team owners and the interest in me took a step up. So I think for my career that race sort of got things back on track and moving forward."
YOU FINISHED THAT SEASON SECOND IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP TO RICK MEARS AS A ROOKIE, BUT DIDN'T CHALLENGE AGAIN FOR THE TITLE UNTIL 1986. AFTER THAT 1982 SEASON, WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR THE NEXT SEASON? DID YOU THINK YOU'D BE A REGULAR CONTENDER FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
"Yeah, I think the expectation after that year was we should be vying for the championship and for wins every race. And of course in '82 we didn't have a very good year for a variety of reasons. We won a race, but we had some mechanical issues. The big thing that came out of that was there was an expectation on our own part that we should challenge for every race. The one thing that you learn is that you have to work more with the car. Prior to the time I went Indy car racing, I always felt, and maybe I always didn't have the best guidance, coaching or whatever, but I always felt that for the car to go faster I just had to try harder. And in Indy car racing you find out very quickly that if you try to make the car do something it doesn't want to do you're not going to be around very long. It really made me appreciate the technical side (of the sport), much more than I had appreciated prior. And I think that ended up being one of my strengths and why I won so many races in the '80's in particular and maybe even before the real computerization of racing. I became very sensitive to the engineering side and the ability to recount or relay to the crew chief initially, and then the engineer, what was actually going on. In those days your success was based on how clearly you could verbalize what was going on with the car and how sensitive you were to understanding the changes that were made to try and solve those issues. You didn't have reams of information coming out of some computer telling everybody what was going on with the car; it was all on you. And you took great satisfaction from that because intelligence as a driver came much more into effect than today. Not saying drivers don't have to be intelligent today, but I think back then the onus was on the ability of the driver to understand what was happening and convey that to the engineer, who had to be able to interpret all that and make the correct changes. Today you still have to do that, but it's so informational-based and data-based that it kind of mitigated that to some extent."
SOUNDS LIKE YOU TUNED THE CAR BASED ON FEEL AND BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS.
"Definitely more on feel. There's no way in '82 in Formula One or CART that a 20-year-old would be given the opportunity to drive because experience was the most important factor that a driver had to have. Today, with all the data acquisition and everything, I think that mitigates the necessity towards experience to a large extent. You need a driver that's smart and one who can stand on the gas and not make mistakes, and with the amount of data that's generated today, in my mind you can season a driver at a rate that's three to five times faster than it took in the old days because there's so much information. If you have a young driver who's not only capable of going quickly, but capable of understanding all of this and coming up to speed with it, it makes a big difference. The day where subjective knowledge was critical I think is pretty much over with in open wheel racing."
HAVING SAID THAT, HOW DIFFICULT TODAY WOULD IT BE FOR SOMEONE WITH THE EXPERIENCE AND THE OPERATION YOU HAD IN 1982 TO COME INTO A SERIES LIKE CART AND DUPLICATE THE SUCCESS YOU ENJOYED AS A ROOKIE?
"I don't think you could do it. But you've got to remember that when went Indy car racing that first year in '82 we were a high-buck team. I mean, everybody had the same shirts at the races (chuckling). In 1982, CART had 10 races of which six where at three tracks. You were at Milwaukee twice, Michigan twice and Phoenix twice and you had a 10-race schedule, so six of the 10 races are at the same track. You could buy an off-the-shelf car and you could buy a Cosworth engine ... I remember our engine bills - we were a little bit taken aback because we found out we had to budget about $240,000 for rebuilds for the year (laughing). Sounds kind of funny now, but that was a lot of money back then. You know, a car was $90,000, which was a lot of money, but I think an engine kit, a Cosworth kit that you'd buy and we had Franz Weiss do our engines, I think the engine kit was $35,000, then he put it together. Everybody says, 'Well, 35 grand isn't that much,' but in today's terms it's probably not too dissimilar. But I think the big difference then was we had like five people on the team, including the trucky. Today, you can run an Atlantic team with five people and the trucky."
YOUR WIN IN CLEVELAND ELEVATED YOUR PROFILE AS A DRIVER AND ATTRACTED THE ATTENTION OF THE OTHER OWNERS WHO WERE INTERESTED IN SIGNING YOU TO DRIVE FOR THEM FOLLOWING THE '82 SEASON. WAS IT DIFFICULT TO SAY NO TO GUYS LIKE ROGER PENSKE AND PAT PATRICK AT THAT POINT IN YOUR CAREER?
"The thing that made it difficult was here you had names like Pat Patrick and Roger Penske, guys that had been around forever, and of course Roger's success was well-known. And I agonized over it, but you know I always felt that Jim (Trueman) was the guy that brought me to the dance and without Jim none of these guys would've given me the time of day. Jim was a wonderful man and I often think about how open wheel racing would've been different had he lived because I think he would've made a big difference to CART and what have you. He was really the only guy that wasn't awed by Penske and believed in doing what was right. He worked with Penske, you know, not saying that he was anti-Penske, but Jim did what was right. He was just a fantastic guy and he had tremendous sense of appreciation for what he had achieved. He came from very humble beginnings and was a tremendous people person, and so many people owed their racing to him. Not just me, it was a lot of other people who raced professionally and as an amateur. You'd see, 'Sleep Cheap,' everywhere because he had the vehicle to do it with the company, but he believed in giving people opportunities. I think in some respects that's why I'm doing what I'm doing with Danica (Patrick) and maybe a few other people that I'm looking at because I think you kind of owe it to the sport. If it's been good to you then you owe something back, and it's fun to see young people trying hard to make it, and it's not so long ago that I don't remember how difficult it was. And Jim was just that sort of guy. He had tremendous capacity for helping people and I think he achieved great satisfaction from seeing people take an opportunity and really run with it and we all did. In those years me, Steve Horne, the crew we had, those were some special years."
WITH ALL THE TALK SURROUNDING THAT VICTORY, ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO GOING BACK TO CLEVELAND NEXT WEEKEND? I'M SURE IT'S GOING TO REKINDLE A LOT OF MEMORIES AND EMOTIONS FOR YOU.
"Yeah, I'm sure it will. Jim's been dead now since 1986 and I so often think about him. I think about what he would say or how he would feel. He was a funny guy in a lot of ways and I think he would've been tremendously proud of what we've achieved over the years. I have no doubt in my mind that had he lived I never would have left Truesports and we would have achieved a lot more success together. Those were some special days. And yeah, when you go up there now it's amazing how everybody, whether it's winning this race here in Toronto, a lot of people say that was the greatest when you won in '86, or winning Cleveland in '82, the events almost evoke the same feelings. It's going to be a great weekend and I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure we'll see a lot of good old friends."