Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Bobby Rahal's busy & engaged mid-life

by Gordon Kirby
Bobby Rahal has always cut a wide swath across the sport. In his youth, Bobby raced F2 and F3 cars in Europe. As he built his primary career in Indy cars as a driver, then team owner, Rahal also raced GTP cars at Le Mans and at home in the old IMSA series. For six months in 2001 he was CART's interim CEO, then lived in the UK for a few years and ran Jaguar's ill-fated F1 team. These days, in his middle years, the 1986 Indy 500 winner and three-time CART champion is evolving into contemporary American motor racing's leading Renaissance Man.

This year, for example, Rahal-Letterman Racing enjoyed an encouraging first year racing a pair of BMW M3s in the ALMS's GT2 category. The team also fielded a car in the Indy 500, turned-out in retro All American Racers blue & white, with Oriol Servia driving. Meanwhile, Rahal enjoyed a series of trips to Europe over the summer and fall to race and win aboard a variety of his own and other historic cars. He's also in the middle of launching Historic Motorsports Productions which plans to organize and promote between three and six major historic racing events across the United States in the coming years.

Rahal is also president of the Road Racing Drivers Club and has been pushing the old club, founded in 1952, to modernize and take an active role in helping young drivers. The RRDC is a longtime supporter of Jeremy Shaw's Team USA scholarship program and under Rahal's leadership that support has increased this year. The RRDC is also introducing a series of three annual symposiums of advice for young drivers. The first of these will take place at the PRI show in Orlando on the second weekend of December followed by similar events at Long Beach next April and in May during the Indy 500.

Reflecting on a busy year Rahal says he's pretty well satisfied with Rahal-Letterman's first season in the ALMS with its pair of BMW M3s driven by Dirk Muller/Tommy Milner and Bill Auberlen/Joey Hand. Muller and Milner finished third in the ALMS GT2 class and won an Asian Le Mans Series race at the Okayama circuit in Japan on Oct 31st. Rahal is particularly pleased with Dunlop's progress with its tires over the course of the year.

"It's not just the development of the car but the development of the tire, too," Rahal says. "The easy thing would have been to go with Michelin because clearly, they're the gold standard. So it was a bit of a risk in going with Dunlop. But as the year went on, collectively everybody has worked very hard together to improve their game, whether it was Dunlop, or the team, or BMW.


"Obviously, BMW and ourselves have worked together very closely to develop the car. But certainly as the year went on the tire program has picked up a fair degree of pace. I think at some of the races where we did particularly well it was because there was a marked improvement in the tires over the season."

Rahal believes that Rahal-Letterman's and BMW's engineers did a great job introducing the M3 to the ALMS.

"I think everybody can feel pretty good about starting with a brand new car," Bobby says. "There's no question that we fought the rules group from the beginning because the car was a very unique car. There was a lot of politicking against it by our competitors, which is normal, purely and simply out of respect for BMW.

"Given where we started the year with a brand new car and unproven tires to see where we are now with a pretty dominant win at Elkhart and some good placings and a number of other podium finishes, I think we have to look back on the year and be pretty pleased.

"That's not to say that we're totally happy," Rahal adds. "You always want to do better. But given that it was the first year for us and the car, I think everybody has to be fairly satisfied. The trick over the course of this winter is to improve the car, make it more reliable, and do all the things we have to do to make sure that it's competitive, race in and race out."

The GT2 category includes factory-backed teams from defending champions Porsche, as well as Ferrari, Corvette and BMW with Jaguar joining the action next season. Rahal believes the new GT2 Corvettes will be hard to beat next year.

"I think it's pretty clear that the Corvette is the strongest car out there," Rahal remarks. "We have a lot of work to do, for sure. But it's a fabulous category. It's really where the competition is, and when you do well it's very satisfying."

Rahal believes Rahal-Letterman's driving team will remain unchanged in 2010.

"I think we're set with the drivers. BMW hires the drivers, not us. But I think everybody has been pretty pleased with the guys we've got."

The team is contracted with BMW through next year but Rahal hopes and believes the partnership will last for many years.

"We're set for next year and there are options for the years to come," he comments. "Certainly, we hope it will continue for many years. I think, historically, if you do a good job for BMW they're a manufacturer who tends not to change partners if they're happy with the progress that's being made. So we've just got to keep doing what we're doing. We just have to concentrate on each race weekend and do the best we can."


Rahal thinks BMW's F1 pull-out should help rather than hinder the ALMS program.

"I can't tell you exactly, but my hunch is that there is a lot of capability at BMW Motorsport that is not being utilized now because of their withdrawal from Formula One," he observes. "Maybe they'll take some of those fellows and transfer them to other parts of the company. I don't know, but my assumption is that there will be a greater focus on not just our program but all of BMW's other programs.

"I expect there will be some greater technical commitment to World Touring Car and every other category they're competing in. I expect everyone will get the same treatment. It's not like we're going to get the Formula One level of commitment but I think there will be some increased technical support, for sure."

He believes it's unlikely BMW will again tackle building an ALMS LMP1 prototype as they did a few years ago.

"I think they've been there and done that," Rahal says. "Prototypes are extremely expensive. You're not talking Formula One money, but you're talking a lot of money. As BMW made very clear in their withdrawal from Formula One, the focus is going to be on the cars that have the most relevance to their street cars and products. So I expect they will stay focused on their touring cars programs in the WTTC and ALMS."

Rahal hasn't given-up on the possibility of running a car at Indianapolis next year. But it's a long shot at best.

"We're still working, trying to put something together for IRL," he shrugs. "If that doesn't happen, the BMW program will be our only racing program."

You can hear the excitement in Rahal's voice when the conversation turns to his own successful run of historic races in Europe this year.

"If there's been a pleasant side effect of not having an Indy car program it's that it's given me the opportunity to do some more historic racing which I've always enjoyed but have been restricted from doing because of the Indy car schedule. Now that I don't have to attened all those races I've been able to do a fair amount of racing this year.

"It's just a thrill for me," Rahal goes on. "I always enjoy it, especially the cars I've been driving. I've been to Europe a couple of times to race this year and that's always a pleasure because the circuits you race on over there are fabulous and the competition is tough. There are a lot of people I know from when I raced over there in F2 and F3 and the year and a half when I was with Jaguar in F1. It's not quite like going home but there's a lot of familiarity there.

"But in the end it's the circuits you get to race on that make it so special. Silverstone and Goodwood and places like that are fabulous. I really enjoyed it and want to continue doing it."

Bobby won races in Europe this year in both the Lola T290 two-liter sports/racer he raced in the United States and Canada in 1973 and '74 and a beautiful Chevron B16 coupe.

"I won a big race at Silverstone in the Lola and I also won my class in Portugal in October in the Lola," Rahal enthuses. "So I've had a pretty successful summer. It's tough over there. Those guys are serious. There are people in Europe who actually make a living driving vintage cars, so it's been great and I'm quite sure that we'll be able to do more of that next year. It really is fabulous racing."

Bobby was delighted to win the RAC Tourist Trophy Celebration race at Goodwood in September co-driving a lightweight E-type Jaguar with his old friend Adrian Newey. Rahal gave the lead to Newey and the Red Bull designer did a fine job to bring the car home in front.


"That's kind of the big race that weekend," Rahal remarks. "People take it very seriously, so for us to win it was great. I was supposed to do it with Adrian two years ago but he had an accident in the same car. It was badly damaged and he spent the night in hospital. But this year his team really worked hard. There were some engine problems early in the week, but they got them sorted out.

"It was great for us to win at Goodwood and Adrian was thrilled. He did a very good job. Most importantly, he kept it on the island and he did some pretty quick lap times. He definitely contributed."

Bobby has great respect for Goodwood but freely admits the competitive juices take over when the moment arrives.

"That's a tough and very dangerous circuit," he observes. "When you race there you try to remember all that. But of course, when you put the helmet on you tend to forget that. You just want to go out and win."

At the Monterey Historics in August, Rahal announced the creation of Historic Motorsport Productions. Rahal owns HMP in partnership with Just Marketing founder Zak Brown and BMW Oracle man Peter Stoneberg and HMP will promote three historic racing events in the USA next year.

"Many people who compete in historic racing in this country have done races overseas," Rahal says. "They know that there really isn't what I want to call the top tier of historic racing here in the United States compared to the Silverstone Classic or Goodwood, or European events like that. There's nothing in this country that approximates those events.

"The Monterey Historics is perhaps the closest. Certainly the cars that come to the Monterey Historics are just as good as what you see in Europe. But the rest of the event and the show and the spectator appeal is not as strong as you see in Europe."

Rahal and his partners plan to stage and present their race weekends at a Goodwood-style level, much higher than anything we're familiar with in the United States.

"Our goal as Historic Motorsport Productions is to create a series of races that will first of all focus on a narrow grouping of categories. We'll focus on the most iconic categories in North America--Formula One, Can-Am, Group C, GTP, two-liter sports cars, World Championship of Makes. We'll be looking at what we call wings and slicks which is everything from more current Formula One cars to Formula Atlantic and Formula Two cars with wings and slick tires.

"We're not going to replicate what's already out there," Rahal continues. "Instead, we're going to try to have a consistent palate of categories for each event that we can really promote and generate more spectators and commercial support. The end game is to produce events that become truly happenings more than just vintage car races. We want to broaden the appeal of historic racing and also provide the sponsors and, most importantly, the participants with a quality event that they can't get within North America."

HMP has announced two weekends at Barber Motorsports Park on May 20-23 and Watkins Glen, June 11-13, and expects to confirm at least one other event for 2010.

"So far, we've had good receptions to the idea," Rahal says. "We've had a lot of people who have said, 'About time,' or, 'I'm all for it.' The circuits are excited, too. We're never going to have more than five or six events per year, but we hope to create big events that really satisfy all the constituencies involved in the sport, whether it's participants or sponsors, or spectators or the tracks.

"It's a little intimidating because there's an awful lot to do and the fact that nobody's really done it here in the United States. But the reception to the concept has been very positive. So I'm optimistic."

Five years ago Bobby was elected president of the Road Racing Drivers Club, founded in 1952, and he's been pushing to bring the club into the 21st Century.

"We've been on a membership recruitment drive over the last several years," he comments. "We've brought in guys like Dario Franchitti who are current and the young drivers look up to. We want the kind of people who are ready to contribute and give back to the sport that's treated them so well. We're excited about expanding our base and sphere of influence."


Under Rahal's leadership the RRDC has taken a larger role in Jeremy Shaw's Team USA. The club is also about to kick-off a series of three annual young driver symposiums.

"The RRDC dates back to the fifties," Rahal relates. "It was the brainchild of people like Walt Hansgen and John Fitch, and Mark Donohue became a major proponent. At that time the club was dedicated to improving the safety of circuits, which was non-existent at the time. They also used to do drivers schools. You could go to a driver's school as an SCCA National-licenced driver and Mark Donohue could be your instructor. In those days, it was a very prestigious club.

"But over the years complacency settled in and the club wasn't really quite sure what it wanted to be because circuit safety and things like that had been taken up by other entities. But over the last three or four years a number of us in the club have explored what we can do, or what value can we provide to the sport that will give us a reason for being. Otherwise, we're just a bunch of old guys talking about how great we were, which is boring.

"So as a group we said, 'What can we contribute to the sport?' There are plenty of drivers schools today and track safety has been taken up by others for many years. So we came to the conclusion that our biggest contribution would be to take our experiences and knowledge, both on and off the racetrack, and try to educate the young drivers coming up about the discipline they're going to need if they want to be successful in motorsports at any level."

Two years ago Bobby and his wife Johanna worked with Rahal-Letterman's vice-president of technology Jay O'Connell and independent driver coach Mike Zimicki to produce a presentation for Andersen Racing's F2000 drivers about how to succeed in racing.

"It went over quite well," Rahal says. "It was a full day with a lot of classroom, but we thought it was quite successful. The drivers from Andersen Racing at the time thanked us and said it was a good thing.

"We've used that as a basis for our RRDC symposium but we've gone beyond and expanded on that material. We'll have three symposiums every year for young drivers as early as twelve or thirteen years old who are in karting up to people who are trying to make it in Atantic or sports car and touring car racing. It's not just for open-wheel racers."

The first of these RRDC symposiums will take place at the Performance Racing Industry show in Orlando on Saturday, December 11th. The second symposium will run at next April's Long Beach GP, and the third will take place in Indianapolis during the month of May.

"We're quite excited about it," Rahal says. "The program has been blessed by the FIA. They've approved and accepted it internationally. At the PRI show we'll have Townsend Bell and Mike Zimicki talking. I think Mike is the best driver coach in the country. Jim Leo who owns PitFit will be there talking about the fitness that you have to have to succeed, and several other experts. It's free of charge to those who attend and we think it's going to create great value for them individually and ultimately for the sport.

"It's a three-hour program," Rahal adds. "We've condensed it a little bit from what we did for the Andersen group, but I think that's the right amount of time. So the Road Racing Drivers Club really has something it can hang its hat on and be proud of contributing to the furtherance of the sport."

Rahal says the RRDC will contine to support the Team USA scholarship program

"The RRDC has been a supporter of Jeremy Shaw's Team USA for over ten years and this year our commitment is even greater," he commented. "Jeremy has done a fabulous job with Team USA and it's good to see young people going over to Europe and comparing themselves and seeing where they stack-up."

Rahal is delighted to see young open-wheel drivers like John Edwards, Jonathan Summerton, Alex Rossi, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and latest Team USA candidates Connor de Phillippi and Bret Smrz making their marks in the sport.

"I think there are always young guys who show well at a certain level," Bobby adds. "It's getting them to the next level that's so difficult. That's where we hope our RRDC program will be beneficial in getting those young guys and gals over the hump and onto the next level.

"A lot of people show talent at certain levels but then you never hear from them again. There are all kinds of reasons why that happens. But ultimately it's all about the fact that motor racing is a business, not just a sport. Young drivers have to recognize that and portray themselves and act accordingly."

Bobby's son Graham is one of America's most promising open-wheel racers. At 20, he has two years of IRL racing and one in Champ Car under his belt. Graham won in St. Petersburg last year and has enjoyed a number of good races this year on both ovals and road courses. Graham expects to continue in the IRL next year with Newman/Haas/Lanigan.

"I thought they made tremendous progress this year," Bobby remarks. "They still need to make more, both Graham individually and Newman/Haas/Lanigan as a team. Graham ran extremely well at some of the most difficult ovals--Richmond and Milwaukee--and had a good race in Japan despite his radio not working. That's always a bit nerve-racking in those cars because you can't see anything out of the mirrors.

"They were consistently in the top five or six in qualifying this year," Rahal adds. "On more than one occasion he outqualified guys like Dixon and Dario and Helio, and that's all good stuff. One more year together and they're that much more knowledgable and that much better. I think they could have a very good year next year."

Last spring Bobby's wife Johanna gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Isabella. At 56, Rahal is starting his second family and is a lucky man, fully occupied in many different ways in the sport and business he loves.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page