There are race tracks Bobby Rahal loves, such as Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis., but on which he never seems to do well. There also are tracks he hates--he would rather not identify them--where he always seems to have success.
Then there is the ideal situation, a track he likes and on which he has remarkable success. That would be Laguna Seca Raceway, the 1.9-mile, nine-turn jewel set in the hills near Monterey.
Rahal has won the last three Indy car races at Laguna Seca, and another win Sunday in the 30th annual Nissan Monterey Grand Prix would clinch his second straight PPG Cup drivers' championship for Indy cars. In fact, he doesn't even need to win. All he needs to do is finish no more than two positions behind Michael Andretti, his only challenger, to sew up the $300,000 first prize before the season's final race Nov. 1 at Miami.
"I really like the circuit," Rahal said of Laguna Seca. "If you can get the car working well, which we've been fortunate to do the last few years, the race goes by so quickly that you barely realize it's happening. Our whole team has a good feeling about the place. We seem to hit it right on the nose in getting the right set-up for the car. It's a tough track to pass on, so it's important to have the car the way you want it."
Rahal also enjoys having Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and other assorted golf courses close at hand.
"I got my invitation to the Crosby again," he said, ignoring the official name of the PGA event (AT&T National Pro-Am) next February on the Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass Hill courses. "This time I'm going to be there--no matter what."
Last year, as the Indianapolis 500 champion as well as the national driving champion, Rahal was invited to play last year, but he had to decline.
"The new Lolas were a week late coming from England last year," Rahal said. "That was the week I had free for the Crosby. I make my living driving a race car, not driving a golf ball, so I went testing. This year, though, I told (team manager) Steve Horne that I was going to the tournament, and he'll have to schedule any tests around it."
Rahal keeps his game in shape on Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village course in Dublin, Ohio, where his home overlooks the 17th fairway.
One unusual factor last year was that Horne's TrueSports team was making a radical change, switching from the March chassis that won Indy to an untested Lola. That decision, Rahal believes, is the reason for his comfortable position 25 points ahead of Andretti with two races remaining. Last year his winning margin was eight points, also over the younger Andretti, after a tense finale in Miami.
"The Lola is a very well-built car, and it was delivered that way," Rahal said. "With the March, we had to spend half the year trying to figure out what it took to get it bullet-proof. With the Lola, the reliability has been fabulous, right from the start. Consequently, we've been in the hunt nearly every race.
"We've been in a position to win more races than last year, but strange things keep happening to keep us from winning. But we're consistently high finishers."
Rahal has won two races, consecutively at Portland and the Meadowlands, and has five seconds, two thirds and a fifth in 13 starts.
"With reliability like that, you can take a fifth place and it's not terminal to your championship hopes," he said. "I want to wrap it up Sunday, though, and not have to sweat out Miami."
Rahal has 162 points to 137 for Andretti, who won his third race two weeks ago on the new one-mile oval in Nazareth, Pa., the Andretti clan's hometown. The maximum number of points a driver can win in one event is 22, getting 20 for winning the race and one each for winning the pole and leading the most laps.
Mario Andretti is the only other front-runner who drives a Lola on the Indy car circuit, although veteran Dick Simon, Derek Daly and Jeff Wood each will have one at Laguna Seca. Twenty-one of the 22 other cars entered are Marches.
The lone outsider is a Porsche, which, if it runs, will be making its debut in Indy car competition after many years of dominating sports car racing. Al Unser, who won the Indy 500 in a Roger Penske-owned March, will drive the Porsche.
Rahal had been rumored as a candidate to drive the Porsche next season, but he ended that talk by signing a new contract with True-Sports.
Rahal drove a Porsche 962 to victory last Sunday in the Columbus Ford Dealers 500, an International Motor Sports Assn. GT race through the streets of Columbus, Ohio. It was Rahal's third win in five races driving Bruce Leven's car and he may alter his late October schedule.
"Winning at Columbus moved me up to fourth place in the IMSA standings, so now I may have to drive Leven's car at Del Mar in the final race to get the points money," he said. "I'm supposed to be in St. Louis that day, making a personal appearance, but maybe I can make some sort of a switch."
The Del Mar race is set for Oct. 25 on a temporary course built at the Del Mar fairgrounds.