Rahal-Letterman: Gone For Good?

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When I saw Bobby Rahal standing in his son’s pit at Toronto this past Sunday, it struck me how comfortable he seemed standing there being a dad. Not that he was happy watching Graham being taken out by Ed Carpenter, mind you – but he had this certain sense of contentment about him. That’s when it struck me that we may have seen the last of Bobby Rahal as an IndyCar owner.

But Bobby Rahal has ever been predictable in his business career…far from it. In fact, as steady and consistent as he was on-track as a driver – his career as an owner has been anything but stable.

Rahal had an excellent driving career that included three CART championships and winning the 1986 Indianapolis 500. But for the point of this article, the real story begins when Rahal became a car owner in 1992.

After the 1991 season, Bobby Rahal announced he was buying the assets of Patrick Racing along with businessman Carl Hogan. Together they formed Rahal/Hogan Racing. It was to be a one-car team with Rahal as an owner-driver. Surprisingly, they were successful right out of the gate. Rahal had four wins that season as he won his third CART championship in his first year as an owner.

Things must have seemed too easy. Instead of staying the course with the Lola-Chevy package for 1993, Rahal chose to use the American-built chassis that the now-defunct Truesports team had been trying to get up to speed. The results were disastrous. The car proved to be a sled at Indianapolis and the defending CART champion was bumped from the field on the last day of qualifying by Eddie Cheever. Rahal was a spectator for Race Day at Indy.

Immediately afterwards, Rahal/Hogan announced that they had ordered a Lola for Rahal. Driver Mike Groff was hired to continue development work on the Truesports (R/H-01) chassis for the rest of the season. At season’s end, the R/H-01 chassis was scrapped.

Rahal had a new surprise for 1994, changing equipment again, as he announced that he had signed a deal with Honda to bring them into IndyCar racing. This was not the Honda we know of today. This was one of the strangest sounding engines I ever heard. To make matters worse, it was woefully underpowered.

For the second year in a row at Indy, Rahal/Hogan and their Miller Genuine Draft sponsorship were facing another year of sitting in the stands on Race Day. It was painfully obvious that they had nowhere near the horsepower required to make the race. Fortunately, Honda allowed Rahal to cut a deal with Roger Penske. It helped that Philip Morris owned Miller at the time, so there was a connection. Rahal and Groff drove one year-old Penske-Ilmors and Rahal actually finished third. The next week, they were back in their Lola-Hondas.

Another switch was on for 1995. Just as Honda seemed to be getting their act together (which, of course they did), Rahal announced he would not renew with Honda. For 1995, he drove a Lola-Ilmor when the chassis of choice had become the Reynard, which was introduced one year earlier. Honda was back with Tasman and should have won the race, except Scott Goodyear passed the pace car on the last re-start of the race. Again, Rahal finished third at Indy.

In 1996, Rahal finally switched to the Reynard chassis. 1996 also saw Rahal split with Carl Hogan and the team was renamed Team Rahal and David Letterman join Team Rahal as a minor investor. In 1997, Rahal switched to the Ford-Cosworth engine even though Honda was now clearly the engine of choice. For the sixth year in a row, Rahal had changed either his chassis manufacturer or his engine manufacturer. Not only was Rahal constantly jumping around, it always seemed that he was making the wrong choice. Rahal retired from driving after the 1998 season, but continued to operate his two-car team.

While still a participating car owner, Bobby Rahal was named interim CEO of CART to replace the ousted Andrew Craig in 2000. He stepped down in December of 2000 as he announced he was accepting a position to manage Ford’s Jaguar team in Formula One. He moved to England, but quickly learned of the political world that is F1. Ford had also hired the tempestuous Niki Lauda in a management role and he and Rahal butted heads from the beginning. Rahal failed in his attempt to lure designer Adrian Newey away from McLaren. It was the beginning of the end and Rahal was gone from Jaguar before the end of the 2001 season.

All the while, Rahal continued to own Team Rahal as CART CEO and then at Jaguar. In 2001, he changed equipment again, back to Lola. In the meantime, he was flirting with yet another change. He was exploring the possibility of running the Indy 500, quite a step for someone who was barely a year removed from being the CEO of CART.

He ran Jimmy Vasser at Indy in 2002. For 2003, Rahal moved Kenny Bräck over to the IRL full-time and also ran Jimmy Vasser as Bräck’s teammate at Indy. Ironically, he was back with Honda whom he had jettisoned less than a decade earlier. For 2004, the team changed their name to Rahal-Letterman Racing and moved full-time into the IRL with Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira as the drivers. Honda was the dominant engine that year and Buddy Rice won the Indy 500.

Rahal-Letterman expanded to three full-time cars for 2005, as Rahal moved Danica Patrick from Atlantics, into the IndyCars as a rookie. RLR didn’t fare as well even though Danica was making headlines. 2006 brought more changes as Vitor Meira left for Panther Racing and Paul Dana brought his Ethanol sponsorship over from Hemelgarn. Sadly, Dana was fatally injured during the morning warm-up for the season opening race at Homestead, and RLR withdrew their other entries. The underwhelming Jeff Simmons was signed to drive the Ethanol car afterwards.

The 2006 season was disappointing and RLR made a mid-season chassis change from the Panoz to the more popular Dallara. RLR scaled back to two cars for 2007 as no sponsorship could be found for Rice and Danica had moved on to AGR. Scott Sharp brought sponsorship from Patron Tequila so he was signed to join Jeff Simmons, who was released in favor of Ryan Hunter-Reay midway through the 2007 campaign.

Sharp took his Patron sponsorship to the ALMS in 2008, leaving Rahal with only the Ethanol sponsorship for Hunter-Reay. The team had gone from a three-car power to a one-car team in just two years. They lost their big advantage when all cars were powered by Honda beginning in 2006. Hunter-Reay had a solid season and won at Watkins Glen, but the Ethanol sponsorship went away at season’s end leaving Rahal-Letterman Racing on the sideline.

For 2009, Ryan Hunter-Reay signed with Vision as RLR had announced they would not race without a sponsor. They raced at Indy with Oriol Servia who brought DAFCA sponsorship. There are no signs that Rahal-Letterman will be back on track anytime in the near future.

Which begs the question…why can’t two high profile individuals such as Bobby Rahal and David Letterman land sponsorship? This isn’t a function of the economy. Bobby Rahal has NEVER had much success in landing sponsorship on his own.

His original sponsor as an owner, Miller Brewing Company, was inherited as part of the package with Patrick Racing. Raul Boesel brought Duracell on board in 1995. I’ll assume he was able to land Motorola for Mike Groff, Shell for Bryan Herta and Centrix and Menard’s for Vitor Meira; simply because I don’t know the particulars on those deals. Danica Patrick had Argent Mortgage as her sponsor in Atlantics, Paul Dana brought Ethanol, Scott Sharp brought Patron and Servia brought DAFCA.

His inability to land sponsors coupled with his erratic decisions regarding equipment as an owner, makes me question how he ever had the success he has had. Add to that the choice to run CART and Jaguar, and you realize it has been a pretty interesting and unusual ride for Bobby Rahal in his eighteen years as an IndyCar owner. I just wonder if we have seen the last of his team on the track.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “Rahal-Letterman: Gone For Good?”

  1. I pity all the RLR employees who’re unemployed or underemployed because Rahal and Letterman couldn’t/wouldn’t … run their business! -exasperating- I was a big Rahal fan in the 80s and 90s. I said “was.” Rahal should’ve stuck to racing (driving). Could’ve raced for Ganassi or Penske or the Greens…

  2. redd carr Says:

    Always thought it was strange that Rahal–every racing connection–and Letterman–media king–couldn’t come up with one sponsor.

  3. Is he still running the BMW M3 ALMS program? Both his buildings in Hilliard have had big “available for lease” signs on them for a while, but there has been a lot more cars in the parking lot the last week or two. If he is still involved in the BMW deal, where is it run out of? You can’t blame him for no longer being interested in ownership now that he has his son to follow.

  4. How will Rahal -Letterman Racing “be DONE” when they field the factory BMW’s in ALMS GT2??? Have not read that program has been pulled away from Bobby Rahal & Co.

  5. Hi George,

    I know this question is not related to your nice piece on Rahal, but I know you are the best blogger out there for responding to your readers, and I have a question for you:

    With TG out of the Indy power structure, what do you think will happen the next few years? I am really worried. It seems to me, with sponsors likely continuing to fall by the wayside, and no clear-cut leadership in sight, is the IRL a goner? What will that mean for the 500? Please tell me no tin-tops for the 500!

    No, I’m not a total doom-and-gloom guy. That would make me an old Champ Car fan! Just kidding. No offense to those folks. But I”m not one of them. I’ve posted on your sight before, as you know, about my passion for the IndyCar product, but I’m really worried about the near future.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks,

    Vic Lovisa,
    South Bend, IN

  6. Dale Nixon Says:

    Bobby Rahal never put the “team” above his personal gain/revenue derived from it and this was the major reason he went from 3 cars to 1…in his wake Rahal left a number of disgruntled sponsors (Patron, Ethanol, Argent, Pioneer) and burned through more than a few drivers and hurt their careers in the process (Meira, Rice, Simmons, Hunter-Reay’s results pre Watkins Glen). The inability of Rahal to pony up and switch to a Dallara when it was apparent the Italian car had a significant performance advantage is just one example of how this affected the team’s results and probably impacted the ability to retain Danica, as well. Questionable strategic calls on track also showed the team’s leadership was lacking (watch the 2007 Indy 500 and see how Jeff Simmons was running in the Top-5 much of the race, only to be victimized by an ill-timed final pit stop with the rain rolling in)

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