Rahal Is Planning to Stay Cool, Put the Heat on Faster Cars

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

Drivers getting ready for the Indianapolis 500 usually include a fervent wish for a cool race day, maybe even overcast.

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner, isn't one of them.

"I'm hoping for it to be hot," he said. "The Fords and the Buicks are going quicker, there's no question about that. But on full (fuel) tanks and in the heat, who knows?"

The forecast for today is cloudy skies and temperatures in the 60s.

Rahal, driving a Chevy-powered 1992 Lola that will start on the inside of the fourth row in the 33-car field, hopes that a properly handling car will make up for whatever speed deficiencies he might have.

After all, only seldom does the fastest car prevail. Slow and steady doesn't win any races at Indianapolis, but neither does fast and fragile. The idea is to be fast enough to run with the leaders and strong enough to outlast them.

And that's precisely what Rahal hopes to do.

"We spent a lot of work, a lot of laps, last week, getting the car right for the race, and I think we have a real good race (day) car," he says. "We're probably going to have to run harder than I would like in the beginning, just to make sure we stay on the same lap, but what may happen after the 400th mile may be a totally different ballgame.

"I'd like to think we've got reliability on our side . . . but I think the pace of the race and the demands we're putting on these engines and cars is such that I don't know if anybody's got a reliability edge."

For what it's worth, Rahal's car qualified at 224.158 m.p.h. with a Chevy-A engine, the only tried-and-true race-day power-plant at the Speedway. It has won every Indy 500 since 1988.

The Buick stock block, which has been here for several years, has yet to establish a reputation for reliability, and the Ford and Chevy-B engines are new, their reliability still unproved.

There have been gearbox problems with the '92 Lolas, but even there, Rahal hopes he might have an edge.

"We were the only '92 to finish Long Beach--that didn't fall out with gearbox problems," he said. "It's still marginal, I think, but it's probably more marginal in the Ford application and the Buick application, where you've got more power and more torque than . . . in our Chevy."

But chassis setup is the big edge he is hoping for, because a smooth-handling car reduces race-related stress. And he figures if he has a smooth car in the heat, he'll be ahead of the game whatever comes up.

"That's why we ran so much . . . when it was hot," he said. "The first week it was abnormally cool. It's a lot easier to develop a good-handling car, to get the engines to run, when it's cool. There's more down force, the engines run better and it's just a lot easier.

"The hotter it gets, the more difficult it becomes, and people who didn't run in the heat may go out there and find that the car they thought was so comfortable is not very comfortable anymore.

"There is a big difference here between cool conditions and hot conditions. I think I ran close to 1,800 or 1,900 miles in the last two weeks, which is far more than I've ever run, and it was to try to prepare for any weather conditions, because it does make a difference. And at the speeds we're going now, the differences become greater.

"When it's hotter, the setup of the chassis becomes more important. I think if we have a better handling car than somebody with a more powerful engine, we can either minimize or totally erase that power advantage he may have.

"I don't care how much horsepower you have, if you can't get (the car) through the corners. . . .

"I think if it's hot, we can compete head to head. If it's cool, I think the Fords are going to have a definite advantage, and maybe we'll end up being forced to bide our time a little bit.

"But I don't know. It's hard to say who really has what capability . . . and I'm afraid we probably won't get a real good feel for that until the start of the race. But I think if it is hot, with a better-handling chassis, we can minimize whatever advantage any other engine may have, even the other Chevys."

Since his Indianapolis victory in '86, Rahal has developed a reputation for consistency. He still wins his share of races, but he also tends to finish well in those he doesn't win.

"I think I've probably been able to improve my perspective of where I am in the race and what's going on," he said. "Prior to '86, I got involved with some people in some incidents that, probably now, I'd have the patience to figure I'd (pass them on) the next lap.

"I don't think I've changed (driving styles) that much, but maybe I'm a little bit more capable of picking my spots to do what I have to do, instead of forcing an issue."

And so, he hopes, with a slightly more mature attitude, a properly handling car and, perhaps, some hot Indiana weather, he can again conquer the Speedway.

"I don't know if I feel very confident right now, but that's usually a good sign for me," he said. "Usually when I think I'm going to have a good race, I don't. So I hope I keep this feeling."

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