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Rahal Loves His Bumpy Relationship With Sebring

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 14 2014

Bobby Rahal loves Sebring International Raceway for reasons of racing, and, reasons of heart. (Photo courtesy of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship)

The racing surface at Sebring is really old concrete that is so hard and bumpy that it wins most of its battles against steel and carbon fiber racecar parts. It sits on land that is flat as a butch block, and the sandy Central Florida grit surrounding the circuit clogs parts and intensifies the corners.

Sebring International Raceway truly is 3.74-miles of bad road.

But for Bobby Rahal, Sebring is, well, it’s what hipsters used to call a real slice.

“Personally and professionally, Sebring takes a big place in my heart,” Rahal said of the former World War II B-17 bomber base during a recent phone chat with RacinToday.com.

“My father raced there in the late ‘60s. I went there as a teen-ager and it had a huge effect on me. Raced there and won there, of course, in ’87 so I love going to Sebring. It has meant a lot to be personally so we look forward to going back.”

Rahal is back at Sebring this weekend for the 62nd running of the 12-hour event which many purists call the best sports car race not located at Le Mans, France.

He’s back with his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW Z4s competing in the GT Le Mans class. He’s back with a talent-stocked stable of drivers which includes Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx and Joey Hand in the black No. 55 Z4; and Dirk Muller, Dirk Werner and John Edwards in the white No. 56.

He is not back with the American Le Mans Series. That series ceased to exist after the end of the 2013 season as it merged with the Rolex Grand-Am Series to form the new Tudor United SportsCar

Bobby Rahal returns a favorite venue this weekend.

Championship.

Sebring will be the second showing of the new series, which debuted in January with the Daytona 24-hour race.

While the RLL Z4s had a good day/night at Daytona, the series, Rahal said, fared even better.

“I thought it was an unqualified success,” Rahal said. “A lot of close finishes at the end after 24 hours so based on that, you’d have to say it is off to a pretty good start.”

Even with rule glitches which prompted the ire of some of the teams and drivers?

“You know,” Rahal said, “there’s a tremendous amount to do and it seemed the rule book was being written even past the start of the race. There was a lot that needed to be done in a short amount of time, but a lot of the people, if not all of them, had a lot of experience from previous series so it’s not like they were rookies. These were people who had been in racing for many years. That’s why everything went relatively smoothly. I think for the first race, the first race of a new series and the biggest race, the longest, hardest race, you’d have to say it was a pretty good start.”

Most around the sport were in agreement over the years that the two series needed to merge. Or that one had to go. Or something. Two major series, the consensus was, was one too many. It caused confusion among fans and, perhaps more importantly, uncertainty among sponsors.

When word broke that ALMS and Grand-Am would join forces, however, many who sided with the ALMS were wary of the fact that the new series would be dominated by the folks who own NASCAR. Fans and competitors alike worried that the Tudor series would succumb to NASCAR-ization: That is, a dumbing down of racing and equipment in an effort to contain costs.

While NASCAR-ization is still being criticized by  some of those in the prototype class, it is not by those in the GTLM class.

“In the GT Le Mans class,” Rahal said, “we have to be in step with the Le Mans regulations so that probably protects us from the ‘NASCAR-ization’ of the rules. Having said that, last year in the ALMS there were quite a few changes made to the cars with those changes not necessarily conforming to the Le Mans rules, so, no matter what series you’re in, at the end of each rule there is a subset that states that the series can do whatever it wants anyway. So, for our class, it’s really no different from what we’ve seen in the past.”

Asked if BMW, who supplies cars and logistics to RLL, was happy with the say the Tudor series is playing out, Rahal said, “If everybody were happy there would be something wrong. You always think somebody else is getting more freedom than they should or you’re not getting enough. The rules were just changed again the other day for Balance of Performance adjustments. You’re never in total agreement with them. You’re never satisfied with them, that you’re being ruled against for some reason but everybody feels that way at some stage so that’s kind of the nature of the beast. But all in all, I think they’re pleased.”

Sebring will not just mark the second showing of Tudor for Rahal. It will mark the one-year anniversary of the race in which the Z4s replaced the highly successful M3s as BMW’s GT weapon of choice – well, not really of choice as BMW’s decision to put the M3 line of production cars on hiatus forced the change on the race tracks.

The anniversary sounded kind of bittersweet to Rahal. His M3s were solid, proven winners. At bumpy old Sebring in their debut, the Z4s took a pounding on the track.

“It was the first race of the new Z4 and it was actually pretty competitive and then we had a couple of mechanical issues. Of course Sebring is prone to bring out problems if you’ve got them. But we were competitive so I’m hopeful that we have a car that is more robust and are in the race for the win again. We won there two years in a row with the M3s and hopefully we can be on the top step of the podium again.”

At Sebring last year, the podium eluded the Z4s. Primarily because Sebring is Sebring.

“The M3 was better than the Z4 is in some areas, and not as good in others,” Rahal said. “It does not have the straight line speed the M3 had but it has better cornering. That was the reason for the strength of our cars at Long Beach and Lime Rock (in 2013) and places like that more so than places like Austin and, well, Daytona for sure, Mosport – the fast tracks. We sturggled there in terms of shear pace. But we continue to make our strong points stronger and mitigate our weak points. Hopefully we’ll have a racier car in the future but right now we got what we got.”

What all in Tudor have this weekend is Sebring. And ain’t it great, Rahal said. Chiropractor-necessitating bumps and all.

“That’s part of the charm,” he said of the bumps in the track. “That’s what makes Sebring Sebring. If Sebring was smooth it probably wouldn’t have the same cache. It really is the ultimate test of a car, the drivers and the crew too, but more so to the car. If you can finish Sebring and run hard for 12 hours you can pretty much do anything.”

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 14 2014
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