To some, the name Bobby Rahal conjures up memories of multiple CART IndyCar Championships and an emotional Indianapolis 500 win in the 1980s and 1990s. To others, his name represents one of the most successful and broad-based race teams in the US, entering cars in both the preeminent open-wheel series and the preeminent sports car series in North America with great success. To others who live on the border of the Northeast and the Midwest, the name Bobby Rahal may first recall one or more of his 10 new car dealerships in western and central Pennsylvania.
This is the first of many interviews we’ll be conducting with successful race drivers, some at the peak of their career, others after retirement, and still others working their way up the steep pitch to reach the top. From these interviews, we hope you’ll gain insight into what it take to become a professional driver – helpful if that’s your goal – or even how you can take the lessons learned and shared by these drivers to improve your own performance at a club level.
First, a little more background on Bobby Rahal, who is definitely an example of an overnight success that was years in the making. After a solid career in lesser classes, his made his first Indianapolis 500 start in 1982. Had his car not expired it’s likely he would have been named Rookie of the Year (typically awarded to the highest-finishing rookie).
He amazed the IndyCar world by taking his maiden win at the very first Cleveland Grand Prix just five weeks after the 500. He went on to win again on the high banks of the Michigan International Speedway in September and stood on the podium six times that season, finishing second in points.
Bobby Rahal is well-known for his consistency and ability to bring the car to the finish line in one piece. Through his entire 17-year IndyCar career Rahal only once finished the season outside the top 10.
Besides IndyCars, Rahal has competed professionally in Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1, Can Am, IMSA GT, and at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Rahal has also served as temporary chairman of CART and manager of the Jaguar F1 team. He’s the son of a successful SCCA Club racer, Mike Rahal, who competed in both club racing as well as professional events in the 1960s and 1970s, and father to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal.
Bobby is currently the principal in Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (typically shortened to Team RLL), with partners former talk show host David Letterman and businessman Mike Lanigan. The team competes in the IndyCar Series, BMW Team RLL with an M8 GTE, and the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY.
We asked Bobby Rahal the same 10 questions that we will ask of every other driver in this series:
TURNology (TO): When did you know you wanted to be a race driver?
Bobby Rahal (BR): Growing up, even though my father raced in the SCCA, I never figured I’d ever make a living from it. My dad raced at Sebring and Watkins Glen in a Lotus 47, the racing version of the Europa, and I saw the greatest drivers in the world, and I thought to myself “what a great life.” But in my family it was college, then a job, then go racing, so it was never an expectation. When I did start driving one of my dad’s cars and started winning I started to think that there may be an opportunity.
TO: When did you decide you were good enough at it that you wanted to pursue it full-time?
BR: It was at the end of 1974. I’d done well in the SCCA National Championship (Runoffs) and then thought “what’s a year out of my life?” and decided to race in the 1975 Player’s Canadian Formula Atlantic Series. The first race was in Edmonton where I was up against drivers like Tom Klausler, Bill O’Connor, James King, and Chip Mead (not to mention Gilles Villeneuve – ed.). If I could qualify 10th, I thought it would be great. Instead, I actually qualified second. And at the next race at Westwood, I qualified on the pole. I figured that as long as I could improve I would keep at it. You know, ‘keep the faith.’
TO: Who was your biggest inspiration when you started racing?
BR: Jim Clark. Dan Gurney, too. Dan was representing the United States around the world. He’s what really made me want to go into Formula 1.
TO: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
BR: It takes money to go racing – that’s the challenge. You win fewer times than you lose. It’s really the relationships you build that carry you forward. You also need determination and the willingness to sacrifice other things in your life. There have been some great drivers who had the talent but not the discipline. If you persevere and believe in yourself, in the end, you can succeed.
TO: What is it about you that’s different from other drivers?
BR: I was really good at understanding what the car wanted and had the ability to communicate that to the engineer or chief mechanic. Setting-up the car is the most important task. You need to understand what the car is saying to you and communicate that.
What’s your proudest moment in your motorsports career (so far)?
Winning Indy is special. It’s the 800-pound gorilla of racing. I think too it’s having the kind of career that I’ve had.
TO: When you’ve experienced a setback, how did you put it aside and move forward?
BR: In 1992 we’d won the CART IndyCar Championship. In 1993 we failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 (the team was running a car of its own construction that year – ed.). Not qualifying was something I had never even thought of. There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake. The problem is making the same mistake twice.
TO: What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?
BR: I tried to do everything by myself, especially when I went racing in Europe. Making the right moves, meeting the right people is very important. I wish that I’d hired a manager based in Europe to help me.
TO: What is the biggest difference between amateur and professional drivers?
BR: Focus, commitment, dedication. A professional race driver is a race driver 24/7/365.
TO: What advice would you give to a young driver just starting out?
BR: Commit yourself 100% to what you want to do. Pay the price. You won’t see a rainbow every day. You can’t ever give up; it’s an all-consuming job. The demands are huge – you have to be willing to accept these.
TO: Bobby, thank you for your time and your advice.