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CART'S MARLBORO 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEDWAY

New Horizons

Bobby Rahal Will Race for the Last Time Sunday, and He Can't Wait for the New Challenges That Lie Ahead

October 28, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CART's FedEx champ car series has reached remarkable successes--a sellout crowd of 60,000 in the rain at Houston, a record 93,000 in Australia and an expected 100,000 plus Sunday at California Speedway--but something vital is missing: the Indianapolis 500.

"There is no question that open wheel racing as a whole has suffered from this [split between CART and Tony George's Indy Racing League]," says Bobby Rahal, a former Indy 500 winner who will retire as a driver after Sunday's race.

"It would be in everybody's interest if we could get things back the way they were. The split has been harmful, no question about it. On the other hand, CART has shown unbelievable resilience to grow the way it has without Indianapolis.

"We have some quality events, Long Beach, Fontana, Laguna Seca, a number of them. We can exist without Indy, but it's no secret we'd all be better off with it back. I've heard some rumors that someone's talking. I hope so. There are some serious philosophical issues that would have to be addressed, but hopefully it will happen.

"If you remember, before CART, the series was just Indy and everything else about 12 notches below it. We sure don't want to go back to that."

Rahal joined CART in 1982 with Jim Trueman and the Truesports team and was named rookie of the year after finishing second to Rick Mears for the PPG Cup championship.

Since then, the once bespectacled history major from Ohio has won three championships (1986, 1987 and 1992), 24 races, 18 poles and has driven in 264 races, more than anyone else since CART was established in 1979.

"When I first showed up 17 years ago, the average age of the drivers was something like 40 or 41," he said. "I think the average now is about 28, and the minute I retire, it'll be 27. Being 45, I'm totally screwing up the curve.

"We had, I think, about 10 races [11 actually] that year and three of them were at places we went twice--Milwaukee, Phoenix and Michigan. There was not much prize money and two teams, Patrick and Penske, dominated competition. Everybody else was just kind of trying to pick up the scraps. There was hardly any TV, no sponsors to speak of, at least little involvement.

"Then you compare it to today, it is about 180 degrees different. Obviously, the competition is much more intense, we have 20 races in 1999 and probably more on the way. The difference between 1982 and 1998 is so great that it's like comparing apples and oranges."

Rahal announced last November that this would be his last season and his sponsor, Miller, initiated a "Rahal's Last Ride" promotion, a ride which will end with the Marlboro 500.

"It would be the ultimate accomplishment to win my final race," said Rahal, who was fifth in last year's inaugural CART race on the two-mile oval. "I told myself and my team I didn't want to cruise around on my last season. We've been close, but haven't won a race."

Rahal's last win came in 1992 at Toronto, the year he won his last championship.

Although he personally has not won, Rahal scored his first win as a car owner when Bryan Herta held off champion Alex Zanardi to win at Laguna Seca last month.

"It would have felt a lot different if I'd won myself, but I got a tremendous satisfaction seeing Bryan win. Make no mistake, the work we've put in over the last three or four years finally paid off. It was also somewhat poetic, Bryan winning at a place where I had so much success as a driver, to get my first win there as a team owner."

Rahal won four straight races at Laguna Seca, from 1984 to 1987.

"For myself, I haven't given up yet, there's still that one race to go. Anything can happen in a 500 miler."

Next season, Rahal will mastermind his team with Max Papis, now a Toyota driver, joining Herta.

"I had a rare opportunity to choose my driver [Papis] after driving against him on the track. I was very impressed with him. I compared him directly with Robby Gordon, who is a . . . . good driver, and for the most part Max held his own, perhaps did a little better, with similar equipment."

What isn't certain, Rahal said, is how he will operate his team, how he will run the day-to-day duties and how he will handle the team on race day.

"I'll be feeling my way, working different ideas out," he said. "At times I may be a spotter, especially on ovals, where I might be able to see grooves developing. By the same token, I want to spend time in the pits, helping to map the strategy.

"I also have some ideas of my own about pit equipment, what we need and how we operate it. It sounds sort of mundane, but it may help. I'll also be sort of a buffer between the engineers and the drivers. I can't wait for our first test."

Rahal will receive the team's first new Reynards on Nov. 19 and will test them the first week in December at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix.

"I think Bryan will have a heck of a chance to win the championship next year. Right now, I'd say it should be between him and [Dario] Franchitti."

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