The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be Bobby Rahal's 200th Indy car race, a milestone he never anticipated in 1978 when he first raced on the streets of Long Beach in a Formula Atlantic car.
His resume includes three PPG Cup Indy car championships, the 1986 Indianapolis 500, 23 other Indy car victories and $13 million in earnings, but one thing has eluded him--victory in Long Beach.
Making it more frustrating, he has finished second four times--in 1988, '91, '92 and '93.
"Not that winning one race is more satisfying than winning any other, but Long Beach is sort of a crown jewel," Rahal said. "It bothers me a little bit because I've always enjoyed Long Beach.
"I think we've been within a second of winning before, or a second and a half. And to be that close and not do it is kind of frustrating, but I'm patient, and hopefully, this will be the year."
After the first of two days of qualifying on the eight-turn, 1.59-mile street circuit, Rahal is in a familiar position: second. He qualified his Mercedes-powered Lola at 108.253 m.p.h., a tick behind Michael Andretti's track-record 108.604.
Another session at noon today will set the 26-car grid for Sunday's 105-lap Grand Prix.
"Long Beach is special to me for another reason too," Rahal said. "It was here, in 1978, that I got my first big break. I was on the pole in the Formula Atlantic race, but there was a false start and I was rear-ended. The guy flattened my rear tire, so I had to go in the pits and was about a half a lap behind the field when the race started.
"About halfway through, I was up to second and right on leader (Howdy Holmes') tail when my drive shaft broke. But Jackie Stewart and Walter Wolf, who had a Formula One team at the time, were at the race, and a messenger came over and said Mr. Wolf wanted to see me.
"Of course, I was pretty depressed at not winning and not finishing, but Mr. Wolf said to me, 'I want you to drive my Formula 3 car at Monaco and various other places. Are you interested?'
"It probably took me all of a second to answer him, and we went from there and I ran some Formula One races that really enhanced my career."
Holmes won that 1978 race. Some of the other drivers included Keke Rosberg, later a world Formula One champion; Kevin Cogan, Skeeter McKitterick, Divina Galica, Willy T. Ribbs, Danny Sullivan and Joe Sposato of Arcadia, who will be in this year's race on Sunday, following the Indy car race.
After two years in Europe and two more in the Can-Am series, Rahal made his Indy car debut in 1982 at Phoenix.
"I didn't think Indy cars were much fun after that first race in Phoenix," he said. "It was the first oval I'd ever driven on, and we had an absolutely inexperienced team. I don't think we had anybody with any oval track experience, and our performance showed it.
"And nothing I had done prepared me for a corner at 180 m.p.h."
Before the season was out, however, Rahal had his first Indy car victory, on the Burke Airport course in Cleveland, and a second one, on the two-mile oval in Michigan.
"Looking back at 1982, I had no idea whatsoever I would reach 200 races and would have won more than 10% of them. I was just pleased to be with Jim Truman and Indy car racing. (As I am pleased) to be here--the only three-time CART champion and to have a chance to be a four-time winner and maybe more in the future because I certainly don't intend stopping for the next several years.
"I saw Mario (Andretti) today and told him he didn't need to worry about his record. I wasn't going to be around for No. 407."
Rahal is 42 but says: "I don't know why everybody thinks 42 is old because I feel like I'm 32 or 22 right now."
Although he has not won yet, this year has been a renaissance of sorts for Rahal after two failed experimental seasons.
In 1993, he and team co-owner Carl Hogan elected to develop and race the Trusport chassis, but after failing to qualify for the Indy 500, he switched to a Lola and abandoned the chassis project. Last year, the Rahal-Hogan team tried to develop the Honda engine, which proved to be as unsuccessful as the Trusport chassis. In '94, however, before missing the Indy 500, Rahal bought a Penske-Ilmor, in which he qualified 28th and finished third.
"In each year, there were advances and there were retreats," he said. "The more obvious ones were the retreats where we didn't qualify for Indy or we didn't finish many races. But the advances were in the maturing of this team and in finding the right people and getting them in the right place doing the right things.
"I think it's paid off with our start this year."
In the two street races so far, Rahal finished third at Miami and second in Australia.