YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MOTOR RACING : Rahal Overhauls Retirement Talk

March 26, 1992|MARYANN HUDSON

There will be no more predictions from Bobby Rahal, who once said he would retire at 40. Now that he is 39, he can't believe how young 40 is.

"I said that when I was 33," Rahal explains.

Instead, his career is taking on added responsibilities, and Rahal was in Los Angeles Tuesday to talk about it. He is now an owner-driver, a situation unique to his sport in this age of corporate sponsors and endorsements. With partner Carl Hogan, Rahal bought the Patrick Racing team from CART founder U.E. (Pat) Patrick.

"As the sport evolved and the costs went up, a lot of drivers never accepted the business side of it because it seemed somehow contrary to the purity of the sport--what the sport was supposed to be 'all about,' " Rahal said. "As more and more money came in and it became much more a corporate affair, the demands on a driver became much more than driving a race car, and you either adapted or became a dinosaur.

"Now, as a driver, you represent the sponsor and you are the quarterback of the team, meaning you can really motivate others to get something done. Yet, I found that when things ultimately came down, you had no control over the direction of the team because you didn't own it. You are a hired gun."

Rahal learned the business side the hard way, breaking into the sport in the mid-'70s, when the country was in the midst of a recession and a gas crisis. Here he was soliciting sponsors for motor racing when people were lined up at the fuel pumps.

"I remember going in to talk with executives at companies, and they thought I was out of my mind," he said. "I learned that in motor racing, if nothing else, you need to be persevering. You would hear all kinds of 'No's' but all it took was one yes. So I was glad that I was not only able to keep doing well at racing, but also at getting people to help me."

This season, Rahal's team has a budget of more than $7 million for 16 races on the Indy Car circuit and 33 employees, including mechanics, secretaries, engineers and aerodynamic specialists. Rahal says he is not a figurehead but is involved in the daily operation of the team, which finished third Sunday in the season opener in Australia.

"I told some of the other drivers to be nice to me--they may need a job someday," he said.

About the only time Rahal doesn't think about driving is when he is playing golf, which now isn't very often. He has a 10 handicap and is a member of several clubs across the country.

"When they told me 14 clubs were legal, I thought they meant golf clubs," Rahal said.

Rahal briefly quit golf in 1983 after he played poorly in a charity event held as part of the Indy 500. Since then, he has started his own charity golf tournament, which has raised $500,000 the past three years for a children's hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He also finds golf to be an important part of his business.

"It doesn't matter what your sport is, corporate America plays golf," he said. "Only on a golf course can I spend six hours with the chairman of the board of a corporation. I bet his wife hasn't spent six uninterrupted hours with him.

"These corporations want to know that the guy they are sponsoring is more than just a race car driver. They want to be able to talk with him and understand the business side."

To keep in shape, Rahal works out daily, either cycling--alternating jaunts of 20, 40 or 100 miles--running or finding a gym in which to work out. He watches everything he eats and says some drivers even bring along nutritionists to cook for them. Rahal's resting heart rate is 41, considered low even for a fit athlete.

"It's a misconception that drivers are not athletic," Rahal said. "Surveys have shown that motocross is the most physically demanding sport, followed by the marathon and motor racing. You drive for 2 hours and 20 minutes with no rest, no sideouts, no timeouts, and you have to withstand the G-forces and the pounding. Even when you are in the pit, you can't rest, you are busy steadying the wheels. These cars don't have power steering, you know.

"To stay competitive, you simply have to be in shape."

Motor Racing Notes

DRAG RACING--Last week at the Gator Nationals in Gainesville, Fla., Kenny Bernstein became the first top-fuel dragster driver to exceed 300 m.p.h., and Eddie Hill established an elapsed time record of 4.801 seconds. On whether speeds can increase anymore, Bernstein told the Associated Press: "There's no telling. Don't forget, there were people saying we'd never go 200 or break five seconds just a few years ago."

OFF-ROAD--Dan Smith and David Ashley, who drive for Enduro Racing of San Bernardino, won both full-sized four-wheel drive classes at the HDRA Nissan 400 on March 14 at Las Vegas. Smith won Class 3, Ashley Class 4.

MIDGETS--ESPN will televise the first of five races of the USAC Western States Midget Series on April 4 from Ventura Raceway. The race will feature six-time defending Western States champion Sleepy Tripp of Costa Mesa; Page Jones of Torrance, who won 11 races last year, and Robbie Flock of Temecula, the defending ESPN/Ventura points champion.

INDY CARS--Amanda Donohoe and Larry Drake of the television series, "L.A. Law," will be in the pro-celebrity race of the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 11. There will be 18 professional and celebrity drivers in the 10-lap event. Proceeds will go to charity.

Los Angeles Times Articles