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Rahal’s New Home Is Actually His Old Home

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 18 2011

Last season, Bobby Rahal's BMWs were the class of their class in the American Le Mans Series. His 2011 season starts this weekend at Sebring. (Photos courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Sebring, Fla. – If body language and tone of voice are any indication, Bobby Rahal is not totally comfortable about being asked about “moving’ from Indycar racing to sports car racing.

Instead, Rahal, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 as both a driver and a team owner, seems to prefer the word “returning” as he talks about his current job as point man for BWM’s American Le Mans Series effort.

“Sports car racing is really where I started,” Rahal said Friday as his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW Motorsports cars prepared to head out for practice for Saturday’s 59th annual running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. “I guess people associate me more with Indycar racing but the reality is, my life was involved in sports car racing and that had a lot to do with my expanding into it.”

Very involved and involved very successfully involved, he was. All as a driver.

It started in SCCA in the 1970s and moved up. He competed in everything from the Can-Am Series to IMSA GT and even Formula One. He is a veteran of Le Mans and Sebring, where he is a former winner.

It was not until 1982 that Rahal, a native of Ohio, moved into Indycars. That’s when he was hired by Jim Trueman to drive for Truesport – the team which he drove to victory in the 1986 Indy 500.

Rahal became an owner/driver in the Indycar CART series in the early 1990s. There, he

Bobby Rahal is back where it all started – in sports cars.

won the championship in 1992. In 2004, his Rahal Letterman Racing team moved to IndyCar, where it won the 500 with Buddy Rice driving.

Rahal continued on in the Indy Racing League, where he gave Danica Patrick her start.

But when times got tough for IndyCar teams in 2008 and 2009, Rahal threw in with BMW in North America for sports car racing.

“I felt in IndyCar, we built a very good organization,” Rahal said. “I think our IndyCar experience, from pit strategies and what have you, have been an advantage to us.”

While sports car racing in America does not enjoy the profile of IndyCar, it does have the thorough appreciation and total passion of those connected to it. Their are millions of people who love the cars, the sport, the history and the car companies associated with it.

Rahal is one of those people.

“We take on this project with as much, or more, seriousness as we’ve done with any project,” Rahal said. “Partly because it is BMW. To work with BMW is something I have tried to create for many, many years.”

It didn’t take Rahal long to achieve success with BMW in the ALMS. Last season, Rahal’s BMW won the GT championship for himself and for BMW as a manufacturer.

“For me, there is a lot of satisfaction for the success last year. Professionally, but perhaps more so, personally, because of the history” in sports cars, he said.

Best of all, perhaps, Rahal’s accomplishments in 2011, made his boss happy.

“Quite a successful year,” Dr. Mario Theissen, director of MBW Motorsports said, smiling, as he sat next to Rahal Saturday.

Rahal gets the 2011 season rolling Saturday in the 59th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve

Graham Rahal and father Bobby Rahal at Indy in 2010. (IZOC IndyCar Series photo by Dan Helrigel)

Hours of Sebring.

Rahal will have two cars cars on the track – one driven by Augusto Farfus, Bill Auberlen and Dirk Werner; the other by Andy Priaulx, Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand.

All veterans, all good.

“I’ll put our guys against anybody’s,” Rahal said of his drivers.

The cars, well, that’s an interesting topic.

Quite the challenge, Rahal says of putting together cars to compete on the 3.7-mile, 17-turn course which is partially utilizes the rough concrete runways of an old Air Force bomber base.

Rahal said cars need to be set up with a certain “robustness” at Sebring.

“It’s one of those things that no matter how much testing you do, you’re never quite sure it’s enough for here at Sebring,” Rahal said. “This track is very demanding. It presents challenges that are exclusive unto itself. It’s not like you can build for an off-road race. You still have to have the fastest car you can have out there so it’s a big challenge.”

Maybe the biggest challenge.

“Twelve hours here is like 24 hours anywhere else,” Rahal said.

Rahal and BMW start the 2011 season in North American with cars which are different from those of a year ago.

Because BMW is competing in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup – a seven-race endurance racing series which competes in North America, China and Europe (including Sebring and Le Mans) – all BMW M3s will have the same specs.

In Europe, the BMWs will be run by the Schnitzer group. Here, by Rahal.

This year’s Rahal cars will have different rear suspensions, aerodynamics and will have paddle shifters.

“It’s better for everybody,” Rahal said.

It’s always a bit ironic when Rahal comes back to Sebring with BMW. He had one of the most harrowing accidents of his career at the Florida track aboard a BMW GTP in 1986. At that time, Turn 1 was more a bend followed by a high-speed, 1000-foot straight that passed in front of the old airport hangars. In just it’s second race, the BMW GTP’s rear wing broke and Rahal went for quite a ride before emerging without injury. The car was withdrawn.

Rahal said his team are up to the challenge of putting the new cars on podiums. Hopefully beginning on Saturday.

History says he is probably right.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 18 2011
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