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A Viewer's Guide / Grand Prix of Long Beach

Full Bore to the Finish

Rahal Aware His CART Future Will Be as a Full-Time Owner, but the Business of Winning on His Farewell Tour Comes First

April 01, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a few frightening seconds last Sunday in Japan, it looked as if "Rahal's Last Ride," as Bobby Rahal has dubbed his final season, might end right there.

Running third behind Adrian Fernandez and Al Unser Jr. with 15 laps left, Rahal's Reynard spun into the wall, flipped upside down and skidded across the track on its side into the inside wall. Fortunately, none of the trailing cars hit his.

When Rahal slowly crawled out of the cockpit, with help from CART's Dr. Steve Olney, he looked every bit a 45-year-old man. But he was not injured.

"It was a wild ride," he said. "A lot of things were flying around but I was OK. Thank God for the safe cars in CART. The crash must have been more spectacular from the outside because things weren't too bad for me.

"I know this is 'Rahal's Last Ride' tour, but they can't get rid of me that fast."

Rahal said the last time he was upside down was in a GTP sports car at Sebring, Fla., in 1986.

Last November, Rahal announced this would be his final season as a driver and that he was going to call the 1998 CART FedEx season "Rahal's Last Ride."

It has a ring to it. One of the few college graduates--history major, Denison University, class of '74--in major league racing, Rahal has won three Indy car championships, in 1986, '87 and '92; the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and 23 other CART races.

"When I first started racing with CART, I was 30," he said. "I figured I'd drive for maybe 10 years and then go into some other business. Now I'm 45 and still haven't lost the desire to drive, but I promised myself that I would retire when I thought I could be of more value to my team as an owner than as a driver."

So Rahal will still be a member of the CART family.

"This business of race cars is growing rapidly, and my future is as an owner, not a driver," he said.

"However, I want to state emphatically that I am going to put everything I've got into driving, right through the final race, the Marlboro 500 at Fontana [Nov. 1]."

Although he is the only owner-driver in CART, Rahal already is expanding his team with an eye to the future.

He has Bryan Herta, 27, as his FedEx racing teammate in CART, he has Mike Borowski in an Indy Lights car being groomed to possibly become Herta's teammate next year, and he has Dave Rezendes driving for a Craftsman Truck series team he owns in partnership with former sports car champion Tom Gloy.

And he has a number of car dealerships.

David Letterman, the late night talk-show host, is a partner in Team Rahal.

"It would be great to see him continue to drive forever, but why?" Letterman said. "He's done everything. He's succeeded and succeeded and succeeded. I think his retirement is also a huge success.

"Not everybody is lucky enough to call their own shots. Not everybody is lucky or smart enough to form and shape their own destiny. It's great when you see somebody do it with grace, the kind of thing that is just the perfect complement to a lovely career."

But the job of winning races remains through one more season. Although he is second in CART earnings at just under $16 million, Rahal has not won since 1992, the year he became an owner-driver and won his third championship.

One obstacle after another has frustrated him.

In 1994 as the guinea pig team for Honda in Indy cars, he barely survived a dismal season with a noncompetitive engine. He had his darkest moment when he failed to qualify for the Indy 500.

After switching to Mercedes in 1995, he finished third in PPG Cup points and was looking forward to 1996, but that was the year the Indy Racing League split from CART, creating turmoil for the entire season.

Rahal was an outspoken backer of CART's stand, claiming that Indy needed CART drivers more than the drivers needed Indy. But in 16 CART races, he led only a single lap.

Although he made another engine switch last season, from Mercedes to Ford Cosworth, it didn't seem to help. When he finished 12th last season, it was the poorest season finish of his 16-year career.

This year there has been yet another change, from Goodyear to Firestone tires.

"I think all the teams on Goodyears last year, particularly on the road courses, were at a disadvantage," Rahal said. "I had been with Goodyear for my entire career, but last year's results forced me to make a change. Already, both Bryan and I are extremely pleased with the way the Firestones work."

Fourteen of his 24 victories have been on road courses, but none have been at Long Beach, where he will be running Sunday in the Toyota Grand Prix.

"I've come as close as you can to winning at Long Beach without winning," he said. "I finished second there four times, three years in a row [1991-93]. This is my last chance. Maybe this will be the year."

Rahal said he had only two regrets in his career, during which he drove Formula One, Can-Am, Formula Two, Formula Three, NASCAR, Formula Atlantic and IMSA cars before becoming a CART driver in 1982 with the Truesports team.

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