Bobby Rahal

Concours: Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal touches on his career and the future of racing

Full-throttle legacy

Story by Lisa Allen + Photos Courtesy of Hilton Head Concours & Motoring Festival

Every year the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival recognizes one Honored Collector for his or her continued participation and support. The 2023 Honored Collector will feature six outstanding vehicles, hand-picked from the collection of Bobby Rahal. He is the co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, a three-time Indy Car champion and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986.

Driving fast is nothing new to Bobby Rahal. It’s only fitting that the 1986 Indy 500 winner learned how to drive in his father’s Porsche 911S.

“I’ve always been around sports cars,” Rahal said. “My parents had sports cars back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Like a lot of men coming back from the war, my dad saw cars there one didn’t see in the United States. It was easy to import cars back then, and that’s what they did.”

Soon Rahal was racing with the SCCA’s feeder series. From there it was onto Formula Atlantic and European Formula Two. In an 18-year career spanning F1, Can-Am, Le Mans/IMSA and CART, Rahal won three CART championships, including that1986 Indy 500, along with wins at the 1981 24 Hours of Daytona and the 1987 12 Hours of Sebring endurance races. Rahal started 264 races for five teams and took 18 poles and scored 24 wins. He collected back-to-back CART championships in 1986 and ’87 and picked up his third in 1992.

Rahal also was instrumental in bringing Honda into North American open-wheel racing in the early ‘90s, which has produced 19 drivers’ championships and 279 victories, including 15 Indy 500 triumphs.

He retired from competitive racing after the 1998 season. Today, Rahal is part owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (yes, that Letterman, as in former talk-show host David Letterman.) It sponsors three IndyCar teams (with son Graham Rahal as one of the drivers) and two BMW M teams.

There are parts of driving he still misses, but others, not so much. 

“I don’t miss the pressure, the tension and the time away from home, although I’m still away from home a lot,” Rahal said. “It’s an intense lifestyle. As a friend who is a Hall of Fame former baseball player said, ‘I miss everything that is inside the lines between the bases. I don’t miss the rest.’ I miss the competition but am able to participate in that and experience it by owning the team.”

When Buddy Rice won the 2004 Indy 500, Rahal became only one of a handful of people to win the Indy 500 as both a driver and a team owner. Rahal also worked on Jaguar’s F1 effort and in mid-2000 returned to the U.S. to become the interim boss of CART. 

Rahal has overseen the growth of the RLL team from a one-car program to a multi-car, multi-discipline organization. Rahal found and developed some of the top talent in open-wheel racing. Among his protégées are Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard, Takuma Sato, Oriol Servia, Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, Danica Patrick, Bryan Herta, Max Papis, Kenny Brack, Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr. 

He looks for drivers who conserve their energy for when they need it. 

“They have to be fast, that’s a given. But you want a driver who is smart and doesn’t make mistakes, or if he does, they are little ones. 

“A driver trait that is so under-appreciated is that they are very smart people. They know how to win a race, but they are in themselves. No one races 100 percent all of the time. They are driving 80 percent. They know how to pace themselves.”

In 2018 RLL entered the world’s first production-based electric vehicle race series – the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY — with a two-car effort for the 2018-19 season and earned three wins. The Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY was a support series to the FIA Formula E Championship.

But Rahal doesn’t see racing going all electric.

“They lack range,” he said. “Also, racing is about noise and the sounds of racing. I’ve likened the sound electric motors make to being in a dentist’s chair. I think we’re a long way from (electric-only racing), just from the aspect of popularity.”

Instead, he sees a middle path. 

“Next year the Indy 500 is going to be hybrid. I think that’s the solution to our problems. You’ll still have pitstops for tires and fuel stops.”

He’s quick to point out, though, the importance of Formula E racing. “It’s giving the industry insights into battery technology.”

Technology also has made racing safer.

“Formula 1 racing is much safer from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Aerospace materials make it much safer despite that the cars are going faster than ever. The quality of racing and reliability of cars is much higher. There are much closer differentials in times that make the entertainment value better.”

He’s glad to see racing’s popularity grow among younger people. “I love to see a grandfather in the grandstands with his son and granddaughter,” he said.

Away from the track, Rahal is a collector himself.

“Most of mine are from the ‘60s. We collect the cars that we wish we had when we first saw them.”

He doesn’t like to pick a favorite, but two stand out. The 1965 289 Shelby Cobra is a great blend of an English chassis and a Ford engine. The 1967 Porsche 911S is just like the one he learned how to drive in. “My dad had one too. My cars all represent a period of my life.”

Rahal is also the founder and chairman of the Bobby Rahal Automotive Group which includes more than a dozen car dealerships in Pennsylvania. He’s president of the Road Racing Drivers Club and on the boards for the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Tying it all together, the Indianapolis museum is sending a fleet of racers to Hilton Head.

“The Indianapolis 500 has been around for 100 years,” Rahal said. “It’s a story of America. It’s a special circuit to highlight.”

The museum will be bringing a racer from each decade of the 500, including the first one and the one that Rahal drove to victory in 1986 Rahal is looking forward to visiting Hilton Head.

“The show has gotten really good, particularly over the past 10 years,” he said. “It gets compared to Amelia Island, so it’s been tough to toot its own horn, but it’s really grown in stature.  The golf course is a tremendous venue, much like Pebble Beach. They’ve done a great job in elevating the show.”

He’ll feel right at home.

“Cars have been my life,” he said. “They’ve been in blood for many, many years.”

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