Laguna Seca Indy Car Race : Rahal Not Only Wins Title, He Wins Race

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Bobby Rahal capitalized on misfortune that struck down both Andrettis, Michael and Mario, to win the national championship and the race Sunday at Laguna Seca Raceway.

When Michael dropped out after only 36 of the 98 laps with alternator problems, it assured Rahal of his second straight CART/PPG Indy car drivers championship.

When Mario dropped out on lap 68 while leading by nearly a full lap, it enabled Rahal to win his fourth straight Champion Spark Plug 300-kilometer race.

The windfall earned the bespectacled college graduate (Denison University, class of ’75), $300,000 for the CART title and $58,410 for Sunday’s race.

Rahal completed the 186.2-mile race around the 1.9-mile, 9-turn course in 1 hour 33 minutes 58 seconds, averaging 118.879 m.p.h.


To prove his versatility, Rahal will switch to sports cars of the International Motor Sports Assn. in two weeks at the Southern California Grand Prix at Del Mar. He will drive Bruce Leven’s Porsche 962 in the Camel GTP race and, although it will be only his sixth IMSA race, he stands to collect as much as $125,000 from the driver’s pool.

In five IMSA races, Rahal has three wins and two seconds.

In 14 Indy cars races, driving a Lola, he has three wins and has finished in the top three an incredible 10 times.

Only Danny Sullivan, who finished 23.6 seconds behind Rahal in a March, was on the same lap with the winner. Rick Mears, Sullivan’s Penske teammate, finished third.

“I can’t think of a better way to win the championship than by winning the race, too,” Rahal said. “It is much more satisfying than last year.”

Last year, in the season finale at Miami’s Tamiami Park, Rahal finished eighth to win the championship by eight points over Michael Andretti.

The largest race crowd in Laguna Seca’s 30-year history, more than 50,000, watched a rather unexciting parade in which the only lead changes occurred when first Michael, and then Mario Andretti, dropped out.

The only larger crowd ever gathered on this former Ft. Ord military training ground was 72,000 for a Pope John Paul mass last month.

From the way Michael jumped off the starting line ahead of his father, it appeared that he was prepared for an all-out effort to keep Rahal in sight for the championship going into the last race at Miami.

“The car felt like it was on rails, it was running just perfect,” the younger Andretti said after pulling into the pits. “We had trouble with the charging system. I think if we could have kept the battery working, we had this race in the bag. I got the lead easily on the first lap, and I don’t think they could have touched me.”

The crew changed batteries three times, losing five laps, before Michael finally called it quits.

Mario, looking for his 50th Indy car win in a career that dates back to 1965, took over and looked even stronger in the lead than his son. When his Hanna Lola came down the corkscrew from the top of the hill on lap 68, Andretti was 45 seconds ahead of second-place Rahal.

What appeared to be a routine pit stop for fuel and tires ended abruptly when Mario slowly climbed from the cockpit.

“It just blew up,” he said. “The oil pressure light started blinking in the corners right after I took the lead. I had no oil pressure the last 34 laps. The car was just fantastic. Once again, it seems one got away from us.”

That left Rahal in front and that’s where he stayed for the final 30 laps.

It might have been Sullivan who inherited the lead, however, had it not been for an unfortunate pit stop early in the race. After Michael Andretti left, Sullivan was running second behind Mario when he made his first stop for three tires and fuel.

The airjack failed to lift the car, however, and before the crew could change jacks and get the tires on, nearly 30 seconds had elapsed.

When Rahal pitted, also for three tires and fuel, in 13.5 seconds, he came out in second position.

“We had a bit of a struggle after the first pit stop,” Sullivan said. “Bobby (Rahal) was running strong and I just kept pressuring him, but I couldn’t really close the gap.”

Rahal said his strategy changed once Michael Andretti dropped out and he knew the national championship was his. Rahal started with a 25-point lead and with only 23 points available at Miami, the race was over.

“In the beginning we were all running strong, me, Michael, Mario and Danny, but I was only racing one guy and that was Michael,” Rahal said. “I was in third, but that was just fine with me as long as he was in the race. While he was running, we had to be sure and finish. Once Michael dropped out, we got with the program and set out after the win.

“My feelings are really with Michael. He is a tremendous driver. I don’t know of anyone who can get more out of a car. But he is young, I know he will still be running long after I retire.”

Mears, who was fighting a head cold all weekend, held off Al Unser Jr. for the third spot.

After the race, Sullivan was needling his teammate.

“You should catch a cold more often, if you can run like that sick,” Sullivan said.

“If I wasn’t sick, I wouldn’t have been a lap down,” Mears countered.

Rookie John Andretti won the family honors, finishing seventh in his first ride at Laguna Seca and his fourth in an Indy car. John is the son of Mario’s twin brother, Aldo.

Porsche’s entry into Indy car racing continued to disappoint as Al Unser was the first driver out of the race. The Porsche ran only seven laps.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Unser said. “I came into Turn 9 and the engine died. Then I noticed the leak. Everything had been going according to plan until that point.”