We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With three days to go, correspondent Phillip B. Wilson spent a few minutes with 1986 “500” champion and longtime Verizon IndyCar Series owner Bobby Rahal, talking about watching his son race, who would win and unforgettable words after the triumph of 1986.
Phillip B. Wilson: Your thoughts as you drove back in here for the 100th Indy 500?
Bobby Rahal: It’s always an amazing experience to come here, whether you’re a driver or a fan or a mechanic. This is an event that just lights everything up. It’s fabulous coming here and, this year, I can’t wait. It’s going to be nuts on race weekend. It’s going to be crazy, in a positive way. Every hotel is sold out. You can’t get a restaurant reservation. That’s the way it was. That’s what is so exciting about it. I’m just really hopeful that we take this year and that becomes now the springboard for everything in years to come.
Indy car racing is still the best racing in the world. All you have to do is look at the races. That’s not braggadocio. That’s not wishful thinking. You look at the races, nothing else comes close. This year, we’re going to have the chance to really showcase that. I’m really excited about it. Our sponsors are excited. We’ve got a number of new companies that have joined us this year. I can’t wait for them and their customers to see this event because they’re going to walk away after the race just in total amazement.
PW: How much of an honor is it to know you are part of this race history?
BR: Oh, it’s a fantastic honor. When you look at how many people have either run this race or tried to run this race over 100 years, and you’re one of 69 winners. When you take all the multiples that other people have won into account … I was just saying to someone, “I won three IndyCar Series championships, which is clearly more difficult to win than one single race, but I’m never introduced as a three-time IndyCar champion.” I’m always introduced as the 1986 Indy 500 winner, and oh, by the way, he won three IndyCar championships. That’s the impact this event has on your life. I was up in Vancouver, British Columbia, (on May 18) for a Mercedes-Benz dealer meeting. We have 16 automobile franchises in the state of Pennsylvania and all of those came from my victory here at Indy and the success I had in Indy car racing. It created the financial wherewithal to start the businesses and the connections and to attract good people into our company.
PW: Ever think about how your life would have been different if you didn’t win this race?
BR: I don’t think about that because I don’t know. What would it have been like? Let’s face it, if you don’t win this race, winning here is like saying you’re the Masters champion in golf, Wimbledon in tennis, stuff like that, right? Really special events. You won the Kentucky Derby. Yeah, there’s the Preakness and the Belmont, but it’s the Kentucky Derby, isn’t it? Had I not won this race, certainly my life would not be what it is today. I think that’s pretty clear.
PW: How much do you like watching your son drive?
BR: I love it.
PW: I know it’s not the same as when you were driving …
BR: No, but I love watching him drive. I think he’s damn good. He’s a heck of a racer. We saw that again last weekend (in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis).
PW: I told him he drove his ass off. Nobody made up more spots.
BR: He put on a pass on (Scott) Dixon and (Ryan) Hunter-Reay going into the first turn and I go, “Holy smokes!” Luckily, it was Scott, who I’m sure gave him some room. He’s around the good guys. But you saw what happened at Barber (Alabama), where he finished second with no front wing and kept people behind him. He’s a hell of a driver and a hell of a racer and it’s fun to watch that. I think he’s got a bright future.
PW: How would Graham do against the old man?
BR: Oh, I’d beat him, of course.
PW: Of course.
BR: Of course.
PW: You ever have that spirited discussion?
BR: Oh yeah, I tell him I didn’t have no drink tube, I didn’t have no HANS device, I didn’t have that thing that told me what gear I was in. You had to know that kind of stuff. Yeah, I wind him up every now and then. You’ve got to keep him grounded, right?
PW: He’s convinced he can take you?
BR: Oh, I’m sure he’s convinced. But not a chance. Not a chance.
PW: How old are you?
BR: I’m 63.
PW: Does this keep you kind of young?
BR: Racing does. It’s a lot of work and some sleepless nights, but I’ve done this my whole life. What else would I do? This sport has been very, very good to my family and me personally. There are more days when it’s disappointing versus elation, but yeah, I think it keeps me young. I love the competitive atmosphere, going up against Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, especially with our team right now, I call it, “The Little Team That Could,” here we are going toe to toe with the giants. It’s fun and it probably aggravates them. (Laughs.)
PW: I’ve been asking “500” legends about their favorite memories and you would say the win, of course. What memories endure from that day? Happy 30th anniversary, by the way.
BR: For me, the enduring memories are of Jim Trueman leaning into the cockpit before I left, shaking my hand and saying, “Go get ‘em.” Then, of course, winning the race and on the victory stand. He barely made it. He was so sick (from cancer).
PW: You can still see his face?
BR: Oh, yeah, you see him on TV and then in pictures, he was so ashen. I think about how happy we all were to win that race for Jim, and yet how sad we were that he was soon to pass away (11 days later). He had a motorhome at the track and he was with a couple of friends in there having a beer after the race. I said, “Come on outside and be with us.” He said, “I can’t. I’m dying.” (Long pause.)
PW: That kicks you and sticks with you.
BR: It’s just sad. If you take anything out of that whole week, that month, that race, it was that we gave him that victory that he wanted before he passed away. Had we not won, you would have said, “God, he died and how disappointing we weren’t able to win that one for him.” Instead, we can say we won that race for him and he died a happy man.