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He's Fueled by Failure of Year Ago : Auto Racing: After failing to qualify for the field in 1993, Rahal returns to Indianapolis seeking redemption.

May 09, 1994|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Raindrops pelting the windows of the motor home in the speedway paddock had only served to heighten Bobby Rahal's frustration at not getting his new car on the track for the start of Indianapolis 500 practice.

The last time Rahal was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was one of the most embarrassing and frustrating moments of his life--and he wanted to get on with his program and prove that 1993 was an aberration.

Rahal's last lap on the 2 1/2-mile oval, where he won the 500 in 1986, was run at 214.424 m.p.h., too slow to qualify.

"After last year, everything is looking up," the balding, bespectacled Rahal said Saturday. "Last year, we came here with our own chassis, and when problems arose, we had no backup plan. This year, we're here with a new engine, but the comparisons aren't the same.

"I know people keep asking me, 'Well, what if you don't?' but even though the Ilmor and the Ford are the two best Indy car engines ever developed, we have no doubt the Honda will get us in the race."

Sunday, with the track open under sunny skies, Rahal made the most of his first outing with a lap at 219.791 m.p.h in his new Honda-powered Lola. It was 10th fastest of the day.

Co-owners Rahal and Carl Hogan, a St. Louis trucking magnate, packaged the unproven Honda Indy V-8 with a 1994 Lola chassis for Rahal and Mike Groff to drive. It is the first entry into Indy car racing by a Japanese manufacturer, but it comes with a California connection.

After the turbocharged engine was designed and manufactured by Honda in Japan, the task of preparing it for Indy car racing was assigned to the Honda Performance Development operations center in Valencia.

Honda, which built an engine that dominated Formula One in the '80s, is intent on attaining similar stature in American racing. Before the Rahal-Hogan team debuted the engine in Australia last March, it had been tested for nearly a year by Groff.

"The engines are changed every time the car runs, race to race or test session to test session," said Tom Elliott, HPD president. "Last year was our test year. This is a development year, so we constantly want to be trying new pieces. Obviously, our intent is to develop the pieces and run them during testing, and then run those pieces during the next race in a continuing development of the motor."

Honda's Formula One success, which cost upward of $50 million, has no bearing on its Indy car effort.

"The two programs are totally different," Rahal said. "For one, we use different fuels, but more important, we have strict technical restraints in building an Indy car engine, while in Formula One there are basically no regulations. It is much more difficult to create a competitive Indy car engine because the rules are so confining."

Groff, Rahal's test driver before being promoted to teammate, has tested the engine three times at Indianapolis, the most recent coming right after the Australia race.

"The test was not just for the engine, it was for the total package," said Groff, who moved with his wife from Van Nuys to Columbus, Ohio, to be near team headquarters. "Getting the proper balance between the engine and the chassis has been a trial-and-error thing, but after Long Beach our tests at Portland and Mid-Ohio were very encouraging."

Groff lapped Indy at 224 m.p.h. during the latest test, faster than Arie Luyendyk's pole speed of 223.967 last year.

"Test speeds don't mean a thing when it comes to qualifying, but it does give us a feeling of confidence going in," Rahal said. "We just hope, by race day, that we have a real good race car."

In three races this season, Australia, Phoenix and Long Beach, Rahal has struggled. At Australia, he was hit from behind on the first lap and knocked into another car, breaking the front suspension. At Phoenix, he made six pit stops with an ill-handling car before he finished 14th. At Long Beach, he qualified 11th, but after two laps retired with a broken gearbox oil line.

"The season certainly hasn't started the way we would have liked," Rahal said. "But we are moving in the right direction, and our recent testing has given me an optimistic outlook here."

Groff has done slightly better. He finished eighth in Australia, sixth at Phoenix and 27th at Long Beach after being sidelined early by Paul Tracy's spinning car.

Although the engine program began only last year, the idea has been around since 1986.

"Not long after I won Indy, I was at a dinner in Marysville, Ohio, where they build Hondas," Rahal said. "I gave a speech to some key people visiting from Japan and mentioned that I hoped Honda would come to Indy cars some day.

"I kept in contact with them, more or less, until 1989 when Mr. (Michihiro) Asaka--he has been the project leader--came to the Long Beach race and we set up a channel of communication about Indy cars. There was no confirmation that Indy cars were in their plans, but from time to time Mr. Asaka would show up at races.

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