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Vasser Win Comes Without a Tracy

After 29 years of racing, Rahal says goodbye to driving. It's a safe bet that he enjoyed the ride.

November 02, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

FONTANA — As soon as the Marlboro 500 ended, Debi Rahal did something unprecedented for her.

She grabbed a headset, put it on and talked to the driver in the No. 7 car, her husband Bobby.

Bobby Rahal's 29 years of racing--the last 17 of which were on the CART circuit--had just concluded.

More important, Rahal would be around to talk about them.

"Congratulations, Bob," she said. "You're out safely. I love you."

He made it. In one piece.

Of all the accomplishments in a career that included an Indianapolis 500 victory and two CART championships, that is one achievement not to be overlooked. It might not mean much in other sports, but racing is an occupation where an off day can spell the end of your life. At 230 miles an hour, mistakes aren't always something you simply work on in the next practice.

The drivers don't like to talk about it, but they think about it. As Rahal looked at his wife and kids before Saturday's race, one of the thoughts going through his head was, "You want to get out of the car safely."

Drivers have one advantage: when they're zooming around the track there almost isn't enough time to worry.

"When the race starts, you're just thinking about going fast," Rahal said.

Wives don't have that luxury. Three hours of driving affords plenty of time to let fear creep into their minds.

"Not every race," she said. "But a big oval like this, that's very nerve-racking. That's one thing I didn't like: qualifying on ovals and the big oval races."

It was here at the two-mile California Speedway that a qualifying lap just over 241 miles an hour last year scared CART into implementing the Handford Device, which is designed to reduce speed on dangerously fast oval tracks.

It was racing on ovals, Rahal said, that gave him his gray hairs and caused him to lose the hair on top of his head.

When asked what he won't miss about racing, Rahal said, "Loose cars on ovals."

Which is exactly what he had Saturday. Nothing bad enough to cause him to crash into a wall, but his car wasn't tight enough to keep him in contention.

Rahal finished 11th in the race won by Jimmy Vasser. His first thought as he crossed the finish line was that he should have beaten Helio Castro-Neves there to finish 10th.

Really, results weren't the story of Rahal's year. Victories would be nice, but the whole season was one big victory lap. Since he announced one year ago that 1998 would be his last season he has been deluged with tributes.

At times all the interviews and appearances at every stop on the circuit have been draining. It would have been easier had he kept his plans a secret, climbed out of the car today and said, "That's it."

Easier, but far less rewarding.

"It was a chance for me to say thank you to [the fans] and for them to let their feelings known to me," Rahal said. "Every race has been something special. All the races kind of blur, but I think that this year I will long remember, and I think it's because of the opportunity I had to meet all those people and hear from them."

A career defined by speed slowed down at the end today. Fourteen of the last 15 laps were run under the yellow caution flag, affording Rahal an opportunity for reflection in his 15 inch-wide office.

"On that last yellow, I was kind of looking around the inside of the cockpit, trying to remember everything about it and take that away with me," Rahal said. "I had so many great days and met so many wonderful people. I'm going to miss it."

His eyes were watery when he climbed out of the car, and his wife wiped away a couple of tears of her own.

A member from another crew came over to talk race strategies. Rahal listened and participated in the discussion, but his eyes looked away and it was clear he had other things on his mind besides optimal tire pressure.

It was, as he said, the end of a chapter.

He isn't finished with racing. He will continue as the owner of Team Rahal, and his wife thinks that will satisfy his competition fix, if not his need for speed.

Rahal wanted to collect a couple of victories along with the thank-you cards and e-mails this year.

He came up short in that desire, but he did record nine top-10 finishes and came in third in the Mid-Ohio, his home track. He finished in the top 10 of the season point standings, after failing to do so last year for the only time in his career.

He goes out with no regrets and no visible scars. He started 260 races and came out unscathed, a winning record that ranks with any sport's best mark.

"I've been very, fortunate," Rahal said. "I enjoyed it. I was very lucky. I left the way I wanted to, and that was on a competitive note."

Sure beats leaving on a stretcher.

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