The Most Versatile Man In Racing

There are several claims and comparison about who might be the greatest this and that in all of racing. Most would probably agree that Formula One czar Bernie Ecclestone is arguably the most powerful man in racing. Many can spend hours and even days arguing whether Mario Andretti or AJ Foyt is the greatest driver in history. You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that Roger Penske is not the most powerful owner in IndyCar.

How about the title of the most versatile person in racing? The word versatile is defined as capable of or adapted for turning easily from one to another of various tasks, fields of endeavor, etc.

There is someone who is still active in IndyCar racing that once raced in Formula One, won the SCCA National Championship Runoffs and raced in CART. This person is now a car-owner in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Oh, by the way – he also won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and again later as an owner. Hint: It’s not AJ Foyt. Do you know who I’m referring to or should I continue?

This driver is in the SCCA Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the International Hall of Fame.He was also one of the few drivers in the series with a college degree. Not only is he now a car-owner, he finished his driving career as an owner-driver. This was not a mom & pop situation. His first year as an owner-driver, he won the CART championship – which was his third CART championship.

After finishing a seventeen year career as a driver in CART; he had a short stint as CART Commissioner and was hired by Jaguar to head up their Formula One team to reverse the fortunes of their struggling program.

In case you haven’t figured out who this person is by now, it’s Bobby Rahal. Let’s check out the highlights of that resume again. He drove in F1, he had a seventeen year driving career in CART, won three CART championships, won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 as a driver and the 2004 Indianapolis 500 as an owner. He was a one-time commissioner of the entire North American open-wheel series and headed up a well-funded, albeit unsuccessful Formula One team.

Bobby Rahal was a risk-taker throughout his career as an owner and a leader. Some decisions worked out well, while others blew up in his face. Buying what was left of Pat Patrick’s team following the 1991 season proved to be a smart move. After double-crossing Chevy and allowing Alfa-Romeo to see their engine, Patrick was a dead man walking in CART’s business circles. Rahal bought the team and won the CART championship in his first year as an owner-driver.

Other decisions didn’t work out so well. In 1993, he eschewed the proven Lola chassis in favor of the Truesports chassis, which had been the dream of Rahal’s late owner and friend, Jim Trueman. The Truesports chassis was built completely in the US, but was underfunded and under-developed. Rahal and business partner, Carl Hogan, took over the project and renamed the car the RH-001. It had its moments in the first three races; finishing sixth at Surfer’s Paradise and a surprising second at Long Beach. But it was a sled at Phoenix and was so uncompetitive at Indianapolis that the defending CART champion missed the Indianapolis 500.

Before Race Day, Rahal announced that they were shelving the RH-001 for the season and had ordered new Lolas to finish out the year. From Milwaukee, Rahal’s season settled into some very consistent runs. He went winless, but still salvaged a fourth place finish in the points.

Do you think that convinced Rahal to settle for the status quo for a while? No. For 1994, his was the only team to run the Honda engine, which was making its debut in US open-wheel racing. He and teammate Mike Groff would be the only two cars to have this engine. If it was a hit, they were sure to dominate. It wasn’t.

Honda’s first foray into CART was a bust. Rahal’s first three races in 1994 produced results of twenty-sixth, fourteenth and thirtieth respectively. The first week of qualifying at Indianapolis proved that Rahal was in danger of missing the race for two years in a row. He owed it to his sponsors to work something out, so he got the semi-blessing from Honda to scrap their engine for the “500” in favor of an Ilmor in a Penske chassis, instead of the ’94 Lola, which also had its issues. Rahal finished third in the “500’, but returned to the Lola/Honda the next week at Milwaukee.

Seeing how well the new Reynard chassis performed for Ganassi in 1994, Rahal decided to go with a Reynard/Mercedes in 1995. Two years later, Rahal jumped to the Ford-Cosworth engine. From 1993 to 1997, Rahal changed engines and/or chassis four times in five seasons. No one can accuse the man of getting complacent.

Rahal retired after the 1998 season. By that time it was predictable that he wouldn’t be content with just being a car-owner. He was drafted to serve as interim CART commissioner. Then he continued to run his team and serve as interim commissioner from across the pond while he headed up Jaguar. Predictably, that didn’t last long and Rahal was back to running his race team that ran full-time in CART and part-time in the fledgling IRL. Soon afterward, Rahal won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice as his driver. The following year, he brought in rookie driver Danica Patrick who brought a load of attention to his team and the series.

Rahal closed up shop from 2009 through 2011, running only one-off programs for the Indianapolis 500. But he returned full-time in 2012, coming within three turns of winning the Indianapolis 500 that year with Takuma Sato. His son, Graham, has driven for him since 2013 – finishing fourth in this year’s championship.

I don’t always agree with all of Bobby Rahal’s choices. Some of them are regular head-scratchers. But you cannot say he is stagnant or willing to rest on his laurels. He is always looking for an edge. He revamped his staff for 2015 and it paid off with great results, including two wins.

But when it comes to his resume and his accomplishments, you have to give it to the man. His overall racing resume will stack up with almost anyone. And the variety of positions in different series, certainly qualifies him to be the most versatile man in racing.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “The Most Versatile Man In Racing”

  1. Petr Sedina Says:

    A.J. and Mario are the greatest of all survivers. They have ever been on the top of all kinds of races. Many things have been changed . Currently, highly specialized drivers have no chance to race in many kinds of races in one season. This is a different World, not so colourful.

  2. Rahal did continue to run the BMW GT cars when the Indycar program went on hiatus. And the Reynards came in 96 after Lolas in 95.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Rahal, at least in his public statements, seems to be the owner most sympathetic to the Indycar’s management. His service leading the snake pits of a modern Formula 1 team and the entire CART organization perhaps gives him a unique perspective on the owner-management tug-of-war.

    His continued presence in Indycar is a definite positive for the series, even if his cars are not consistently front-runners.

  4. I, too, would go with AJ, but Rahal is still a tremendously active owner and might become a two-time Indianapolis winning owner.

  5. As a young Indycar fan I always found myself rooting for Bobby. One of the biggest highlights of my life was meeting him at the Houston Grand Prix and getting him to sign a book I had (it was his biography) in 1998. billytheskink, remember that autograph session? We were young ‘un’s then. Wow how time flies. He was super nice and great with the fans. Why did I like him so much? Obviously he was a great driver. And when I was 7 yrs old I thought he kinda looked like my dad (insofar as they both were balding and had mustaches and glasses). But the biggest reason I was such a fan was the amazing cars he drove. My favorite paint job hands down was his Miller Genuine Draft car. Black and yellow; I can picture it now, it was the best looking car on the track bar-none. The Miller Lite car he had in 97-98 were awesome too. And anyone remember the car in 1996? With the multicolored design on the top of the sidepod. Man those were the days! Thanks for the article, George. That really took me back to my childhood days.

  6. Chris Lukens Says:

    He is no longer an active participant, but I always thought John Andretti was pretty versatile. He had wins in Sprint Cars, Midgets, IMSA, CART, NASCAR, NHRA, which is about as varied as you can get.

  7. ecurie415 Says:

    Isn’t Juan Montoya the most versatile racer? He’s won the Indy 500 twice in different series and cars, he was part of a winning team at the Daytona 24 Hours in a sportscar, and in F1, he triumphed at the prestigious Grands Prix of Monaco, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Brazil (Bobby’s F1 career was never so stellar), and he’s a CART single-season champion. He’s also won NASCAR races at the Glen and Sonoma, which Rahal never achieved, and he finished runner up at Pocono, the Brickyard and Dover (all ovals).

  8. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I like Rahal, but as of this moment, I’d be hard-pressed to put anyone in any seat of any racecar before Scott Dixon. The only other one I’d consider would be Montoya.

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