Originally created 07/10/98

Rahal looks for replacement as 'last ride' nears end



CLEVELAND -- Bobby Rahal talks about the glory days and the precious few he has left before retirement, surveying two cars that represent bookends to his career.

One is the antiquated car he drove to his first CART victory in the Cleveland Grand Prix. It sits next to the sleek, high-tech machine he'll climb into on Sunday for one last spin around his hometown track.

Rahal, retiring after 25 years in racing, ponders his own future and the future of his sport. He can't understand why young American drivers aren't lining up to take over his ride.

"I've been surprised how little interest has been exhibited by American drivers," said Rahal, a native of suburban Medina who got his first CART victory at Cleveland in 1982. "For a ride like this, I would have been camped out on the guy's doorstep, and there's nobody there."

Rahal, CART's oldest driver at 45, said in November that this would be his last season. His 24 career victories include the 1986 Indy 500, and he's captured three series championships.

A successful team with high-profile sponsors should have drivers lined up for the length of Gasoline Alley to hop in and replace Rahal. Not so.

"If I had my druthers, I'd rather have an American," said Rahal, who will continue to own Team Rahal with David Letterman after this season. "I'll probably get all kinds of nasty letters about this, but I don't see near the work ethic in our aspect of American driving. I just don't see the aggressive pursuit of an opportunity here relative to what I see in Europe or South America."

With 10 more races left, the time has come to choose someone to take his place. He has heard all the rumors, from Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve from Forumla One to Tony Stewart of the rival Indy Racing League. Rahal is keeping quiet, but don't count on his replacement coming from the IRL.

"I don't think Tony Stewart is going to come work for us," Rahal said. "I think he thinks he's better than all of us."

Rahal has nothing against foreign drivers.

"I'll defend the Brazilian guys ... because those guys work," he said.

But the issue of opportunities for Americans in U.S. open-wheel racing is what caused Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George to form the IRL. While coinciding with the colossal growth of NASCAR's Winston Cup Series, the split has harmed both open-wheel series.

"To say there are two open-wheel series is true, but to say they're both of the same stature isn't true," said Rahal, ever-loyal to his sponsors and fellow owners. "There isn't the money to support two series of the same type."

Despite the lack of interest from Americans, Rahal plans to decide on a replacement in about a month. Meanwhile, he's still trying to win his first race since 1992.

He likes his chances in Cleveland, where he always seems to run well. Rahal was fifth last year on the 2.106-mile temporary road course at Burke Lakefront Airport despite getting a stop-and-go penalty early in the race.

Series points leader Alex Zanardi is the defending race champion. Gil de Ferran, fifth in the points race, was second in Cleveland last year and won in 1996.

"If this was NASCAR, I'd win this race," said Rahal, joking about Richard Petty's 200th and final victory in a suspicious 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.

Standing next to his cars from 1982 and present, Rahal is floored by all the changes in his sport since he started driving in the 1970s. One glance at the paint job tells the story: the primary sponsor of the '82 car was Red Roof Inn, with the slogan, "Sleep for Cheap!"

Nothing is cheap in motorsports anymore. For one thing, Rahal is interested in owning a NASCAR team, "but only if the budget is there."

Whatever he does when he climbs out of the car for the final time, Rahal says he's leaving at the right time.

"The way I knew was, it used to never bother me to leave home," said Rahal, married with four children. "About a year and a half ago, all of a sudden it started to feel like work. And my racing has never felt like work.

"Years from now, people might say, `He got out too early.' But they don't know what I know in my heart."