Named by Racer Magazine as one of the Top-20 greatest American drivers of the 20th century, Bobby Rahal is one of the most successful drivers and team owners in North America over the past thirty years. Rahal’s career as a driver spanned 18 years and included such diverse series as Can-Am, Formula 1, LeMans/IMSA, and CART (where he won three championships), with numerous wins including the 1986 Indy 500, the 1981 24-Hours of Daytona, and the 1987 12-Hours of Sebring. After his driving career, Rahal ran the Jaguar Formula 1 Team and served as interim President of the CART series. Currently Rahal is a team owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the IndyCar Series, and BMW Team RLL in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Bobby is also the current President of the Road Racing Drivers Club and owns a network of car dealerships in Pennsylvania.
KanonOnCars recently sat down with Bobby at the Honda Indy Toronto race in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Rahal was nice enough to participate in our inaugural “Five+One Questions” series.
(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
KOC: Of all the racecars you’ve driven in your career, what would be the one you’d turn up to race if you could only ever have that one?
Rahal: As much as I really enjoyed driving the Porsche 962, which was a great race car in its day and could do almost anything, I would still have to look at an IndyCar because nothing I ever drove was anything like it in terms of performance. When I look back on my career and at my three championships, I can say the 1986 (March/Cosworth) car was like this and the 1987 (Lola/Cosworth) car was like that, but I would probably tell you that the 1992 (Lola/Chevrolet) car was the one that for me was the most impressive.
The year we won at Belle Isle (Detroit), and also won 3 of the 4 one-mile oval races (and should have won the 4th; we were on pole and just got caught out by a yellow and ended up second). There was something about that car that I had a good relationship with it. No matter what race I was in, for the most part we were always at the front with that car, particularly on the ovals. Whenever I would get in that car, I felt like we had a chance to win the race, and a good chance. I felt a similar feeling in 1987 with that Lola, and even the 1986 car, but there was just something about the 1992 car. It liked me and I liked it.
KOC: Of all the racers you’ve known (aside from yourself or anyone related to you <cough> Graham Rahal <cough>), who is the one you most admired/feared on the racetrack?
Rahal: There were a lot of really famous guys I drove against, like Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and Al Jr., AJ Foyt; a lot of really good drivers. But to me, I always looked at Mario Andretti as the yardstick. Early in my IndyCar career, he was very, very good and to beat him was really something. Probably the most rewarding race I had in my career, one of the top three certainly, was at Meadowlands in 1987 when in similar cars we beat him on a very hot and humid day. I had a big lead and there was a yellow with about ten laps to go which erased the lead, and we had a restart and I think I won by about five seconds over Mario. I just felt that was a tough day and to beat Mario, that was one of the best races I ever drove. So I always looked at him as the yardstick.
Having said that, I give the same kind of respect to guys like Rick Mears and Al Jr. So it’s kind’ of difficult to narrow it down to one, because there were a bunch. But in the end, I’d say that Mario was the guy that, if I beat him on any given day I’d leave the racetrack feeling pretty good about what I’d just done.
KOC: You’ve got a section of the circuit (the “Rahal Straight” between turns 6 and 7) named for you at Laguna Seca. How did that come to be?
Rahal: That’s probably the track where, as a driver and an owner, I’ve had more success than at any other. I won my first big pro race in the US there in 1979 (I was 26 years old), the Can-Am race, and that was a big victory for me at that time (driving a Prophet/Chevrolet). And from 1984 to 1987 I won the IndyCar race there each year. As an owner, we won two or three other times. So Laguna Seca was always a circuit I loved going to, including the whole Monterey and Carmel area. So I guess they thought, well, we might as well name part of the track after him. And I’m glad they chose that run between turns 6 and 7, up to the Corkscrew, because that’s one of the most famous corners in racing, so I’m really proud of that and pleased. It’s pretty cool.
KOC: (Guest Question from reader Alex Curtis): Would you like to see IndyCar return to a more “bespoke” series or are you happy with the “spec with mods” format?
Rahal: While I’d like to see the old days come back, the reality is that we can’t afford the old days. If you go back to the sixties people would show up with a turbine car, for example, and only one team would have it. The racing wasn’t that good. I mean, it was competitive but you didn’t have the depth of competition like you do today. There are certainly areas in today’s car that I think should be opened up, but the reality is I don’t think we can afford to just have a clean sheet of paper and you do whatever you want to do.
Times have changed, and the most important thing is the quality of the racing, and the quality of the racing today is as good or better than it’s ever been. The depth of talent is incredible. It used to be difficult to finish in the top six; now it’s hard to finish in the top 15. And some of that is due to the fact that there are a lot of restrictions. So yes, emotionally I’d love to see the old days come back but realistically we can’t afford the old days.
KOC: What’s the best all-around road car made today (whether or not you happen to sell it at one of your dealerships)?
Rahal: Well that’s tough to answer because it depends a lot on your personal preference. Today, it’s pretty hard to find a bad car. 20 or 30 years ago that was easy; 40 years ago even easier. But today, most cars are reliable; the quality of the car itself has never been better. If you’re an emotional guy about cars, you think, “Oh, in the old days it was oh so great.” Well I have had old cars, I still do have old cars, and I’m going to tell you, nobody would buy those cars today; they would be such a disappointment!
So today, for example, BMW produces great products, and they attract themselves to a certain kind of person. Mercedes also produces great products, and they attract themselves to a certain kind of person. I think it’s a personal preference really. Suffice it to say, regardless of what your preference is virtually every manufacturer has a car that will float your boat. Jaguar is doing great things, Land Rover/Range Rover, Audi, Toyota, Honda... There has never been a time like today where there have been so many great choices and then it comes down to personal preference.
It’s really an unbelievable time today for the buyer of a car, because not only is the car reliable and the styling is attractive, the performance is just amazing. I remember in 1983, I had a 380SL Mercedes and I think it had 180hp, which was a lot of power in those days because everything had been choked down by the EPA. Now your Honda Civic has 180hp! I remember thinking the good old days were the sixties, with muscle cars and supercars that made 427hp. Today 427hp doesn’t move the needle! I’ve got a Mercedes E63 AMG Wagon that has 585hp, goes 0-60 in like 4 seconds. If you love cars, there’s never been a better time than today.
[Ed: Sensing a hedge on Bobby’s part, I pressed him on one car in particular.]
The guys who really understand what cars are, car valets at restaurants and stuff, they know what cars are cool and what cars aren’t. And if you know cars like those guys, when I pull up in my E63 Wagon they go “Woah…” Most people go, “Oh, it’s just a station wagon,” but those folks know their stuff and they go, “Oh, you got one of those!” So I guess I’d pick that one.
And now just for fun, our “+One" question:
KOC: You’re stranded on a desert island. What albums would you take to keep you company?
Rahal: I’m a guy whose SiriusXM channel is always set on channel #6 or #7 so the bands I’d take would be The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Eric Burden and The Animals, groups like that. I’m a guy from the Sixties!
If we’re talking songs, “LA Woman” by The Doors; “Radar Love” by Golden Earing; “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; “Hey Little Cobra” by The Rip Chords; “Little GTO” by Ronnie & The Daytonas; “Little Honda” or “409” or “Little Deuce Coupe” by The Beach Boys. I can go way back! Somehow all of my favorite songs revolve around driving and cars.