Bobby Rahal personified Indy car racing’s shift from its oval racing roots to more of a technology-driven form of racing dominated by road racers.
Rahal’s father, Mike, was a successful amateur sports car racer, and Bobby made his debut at age 17 in 1970 driving Mike’s Elva-Porsche. Bobby dovetailed his studies at Dennison University with his amateur racing exploits, but he quit driving after the 1976 season to work for a Chicago advertising firm.
The hiatus lasted five months. Rahal returned to racing in 1977, competing in Formula Atlantic against the likes of Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg. He then drove Formula 3 and Formula 2 in Europe before returning home to contest the SCCA Can-Am series.
In 1982, Rahal’s sponsor, Red Roof Inns owner Jim Trueman, formed the TrueSports Indy car team. Despite driving for a team new to Indy cars and oval racing, Rahal acquitted himself well, winning the Cleveland Grand Prix in his fourth Indy car start. A couple months earlier in his Indianapolis 500 debut, Rahal was running fifth when his engine let go with 26 laps remaining. He was still classified 11th.
A pair of retirements at Indy split a seventh place finish in 1984. Then in 1986, Rahal was part of one of the most emotional storylines in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Trueman was dying of terminal cancer, and when the race was delayed six days by rain, the Truesports team feared their leader would not live to see another ‘500.’
But Trueman hung on, and Rahal drove the race of his life. After qualifying fourth, he led six times but trailed Kevin Cogan when the caution flag flew on Lap 195. Plus, pole winner Rick Mears was right behind Rahal in third place, seeking his third Indianapolis victory.
The restart occurred at lap 198, and Rahal quickly darted out and passed Cogan as the cars crossed the Yard of Bricks. With a frail Trueman leading the cheers, Rahal pulled away over the final three laps in what was then the closet finish among three cars in Indianapolis history.
“I knew if I could go into Turn 1 with the lead, no one could probably get by me again in less than two laps,” Rahal recalled in his biography ‘The Graceful Champion.’ “The fuel light was blinking the last two laps and I knew Mears and I were tight on fuel. Going down the back straight I was screaming ‘Don’t leave me now, baby!’ like a jockey. And I don’t remember crossing the finish line!”
Bobby qualified an Indy career best second for the 1987 ‘500,’ but retired after just 57 laps. He finished fifth in 1988, then second in 1990 in the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history. Rahal led 37 laps in the ’90 race but crossed the line 10.878 seconds after winner Arie Luyendyk.
Rahal finished sixth at Indianapolis in 1992, his first year as an owner-driver. A year later, he sensationally failed to qualify when attempting to develop his own RH-01 chassis. Making the non-qualification even more astonishing, Rahal was the defending IndyCar World Series champion.
Rahal won three CART-sanctioned Indy car championships, in 1986, ’87 and ’92.
“I suppose the highest point in my racing life was winning Indianapolis in 1986 and the lowest point was in 1993 when we didn’t qualify here,” Rahal said. “I remember sitting in our suite watching the cars come down to take the green flag and I was very emotional. If I ever knew whether I should be racing or not, I recognized at that moment in time that I was in the wrong place.
“More than any other track, this place evokes those kinds of feelings. I’m a tremendous historian of racing, and just like Yankee Stadium, this place evokes all aspects of motorsport - triumph, tragedy, you name it.”
Rahal’s final two appearances in the Indianapolis 500 as a driver netted third place finishes in 1994 and ’95. He returned to IMS in 2002 as a team owner, now with talk show host (and Indianapolis native) David Letterman as his partner.
Rahal Letterman Racing won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with driver Buddy Rice, and the team also launched Danica Patrick’s Indy car career. Patrick was driving a Rahal Letterman car when she captured the attention of the nation by leading 32 laps of the 2005 Indy 500.
“When you’re a kid, the Indy 500 is part of a dream and part of your life and something you carry with you as an adult,” Letterman said. “I’ve been fortuitous in my relationship with Bobby and the team, and being here as a team owner is a combination of a dream and happenstance. As a fan, as somebody who loves auto racing, I’ve been handed the best of everything.”
Rahal has maintained a presence in the sport as a team owner in the ALMS sports car series and the IZOD IndyCar Series. In 2008 his son, Graham Rahal, established a record as the youngest driver to win an Indy car race.
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