Another shoe dropped this afternoon when Bobby Rahal, three-time Champ Car titleholder, former CEO of CART and longtime entrant with partner David Letterman announced his plans to leave the Champ Car World Series and have a two-car Panoz G Force/Honda entry in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series for the balance of the year.
Team Rahal will have three cars for the Twin Ring Motegi round next month and in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, as Roger Yasukawa has already been named to drive a Team Rahal entry for those two events.
While Rahal has campaigned a Gigante Lola/Ford for Michel Jourdain Jr. over the past two years, the two have gone their separate ways. "I tried to entice Michel to stay with us to no avail," Rahal said by phone from Sebring, FL, where he will be inducted into the track's Hall of Fame this weekend.
Jourdain, who finished third in the Champ Car World Series standings last season said in response, "I will always be grateful for the opportunities and successes I had with Team Rahal. I am sad to see them leave but I am excited about the future of the Champ Car World Series. It is extremely important to me to be able to continue to race in my homeland of Mexico in front of the passionate Mexican race fans."
Looking to his 65 employees in Hilliard, Ohio, Rahal felt the best business decision he could make is to race two cars in the IndyCar Series for 2004 and beyond. "Definitely two cars will help us. We realized that at Homestead," where temporary driver Buddy Rice took pole position in the #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone car he is piloting in relief of injured Kenny Brack.
"This decision has been very difficult emotionally for all of us," Rahal noted. "I've said before that we need to focus on one series and this decision has been driven by business reasons." Finances weren't 100% of the reason for the change, "but they were a big part of it."
Team Rahal has not announced the second fulltime driver the team will enter in this season's remaining 14 races nor have they announced a sponsor, but "those names will be announced very shortly." And whomever the team does choose "must have been at the top of open wheel racing.
"We have stated before than running a multiple car effort in a single series not only provides competitive advantages, but certain economic benefits. It was simply becoming too much of a drain on our team in terms of resources and time to run championship caliber programs in IndyCar, Champ Car and Atlantics," Rahal declared.
Letterman stated that he "fully supports our team's expansion in the IRL IndyCar Series. Bobby and I believe the additional entry will increase our team's competitive level."
While Rahal will not contest the Champ Car World Series, his two-car effort in the Toyota Atlantic championship will continue and he intends to run son Graham in the first year of Formula BMW USA competition. "I may not be the most popular guy in the paddock there and I may get hung in effigy, but this two-car IRL team is the only way to fly."
Rahal's choice may not have been triggered by the departure of Adrian Fernandez late last week, "but certainly Adrian leaving was a brave decision on his part. With 65 people on our payroll, it's not been good to live with the uncertainties in the Champ Car series. For both the short and long terms, this is the best opportunity for Team Rahal," he said.
"The people who work with us are extremely important to me."
Echoing the feelings of most passionate open wheel racing fans, Rahal feels certain "NASCAR has taken advantage of the discord in open wheel racing over the past decade. It is my hope that we can regain our popularity and go beyond. What's good for the sport is definitely good for our team," Rahal noted. "Open wheel racing at its height had a good selection of oval and road course venues, yet its focus has always been on the Indy 500. The healthier the Indy 500 is, the healthier open wheel racing will be."
Rahal, of course isn't the first team owner to leave Champ Car racing. Marlboro Team Penske came to the Indy Racing League fulltime in the 2002 season, and Mo Nunn Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, together with Andretti Green Racing soon joined them. "I worked hard to support the series and I hope this redoubles their efforts to succeed."