Rahal makes his return

Bobby Rahal got his racing start in Edmonton. (QMI Agency files).

Bobby Rahal got his racing start in Edmonton. (QMI Agency files).

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:51 PM ET

EDMONTON - The last time the Rahal-Letterman transporter pulled into the paddock for an auto race in Edmonton, it stood out like Yogi Bear at a church picnic.

It was an Indy Racing League rig parked among the rigs at a ChampCar Series race.

Despite the fact the IRL and Bobby Rahal’s driver Danica Patrick was racing in Milwaukee that weekend, Rahal showed up here to watch son Graham driving in ChampCar’s Formula Atlantic support series race.

Patrick created headlines from Milwaukee, saying Rahal was more interested in his son than his team. And Bobby Rahal made headlines here when he told your correspondent that if there wasn’t a merger between the two series in short order, “Penske, Ganassi or ourselves are probably 50-50 to move to Champ-Car. It’s a great series. Owners like to race in great series They’re putting on great events like this one. It’s great racing.”

The Rahal-Letterman transporter is headed here again.

After the Indianapolis 500 legend and the late-night talk show host shut down series operations in 2008 due to the recession and loss of sponsorship, they’re here this year with an actual race car in the back of the transporter.

And Rahal is back where it all began for him.

“My very first professional race was in Edmonton,” said the Hall of Famer who, along with A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones, is one of only three men ever to win the Indianapolis 500 as both a driver and an owner.

“I came to Edmonton in 1975 to race the same Formula Atlantic Series as my son. It was called the Players Series back then.

“I would have been happy to be in the top 10 but I ended up on the front row for that race. Then I had an electrical failure on the first lap.

“That was fun in 1975. I drove the truck and hauled the race car up there myself. And that was a great race track. The layout was fantastic. To think back now and remember how exciting that was. It’s hard to believe it was almost 40 years ago. It was the start of a great adventure.”

There’s a lot of auto racing history here that got lost in time between the Can-Am and Trans-Am series days of the ’60s and ’70s and the IndyCar series of today.

Take Roger Penske, the owner who has won the Indy 500 a record 14 times and won a total of 358 races overall in his career, two being Can-Am and two more being Trans-Am races held in Edmonton.

When he invited your agent to an evening he hosted at an Indianapolis steak house on the Thursday before the 2008 race, Penske spoke of going to the Edmonton Can-Am with driver Mark Donohue in 1968.

“That was the very start of Penske Racing,” he said.

But try this for a connection involving Rahal and his return.

When the ChampCar Series first came to town, Paul Newman and Carl Haas had the top team — Newman-Haas Racing.

Newman, who I interviewed in his trailer at a Can-Am all those years ago, invited me into his much more elaborate digs at the 2005 race and reminisced about meeting his partner Carl Haas at that race here.

It was the beginning of Newman-Haas, the team that won the 2005 and 2007 races here with Sabastian Bourdais behind the wheel.

When Newman died, Newman-Haas became Newman-Haas-Lanigan. Haas is now very ill and decided to get out of the business this year.

The transporter pulling back into the Edmonton Indy paddock this week will actually be that of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan.

Mike Lanigan has joined up with Rahal-Letterman.

It’s small, this auto racing world.

Smaller still when you consider Graham Rahal drove for Newman-Haas.

“I got to know Paul well when Graham drove for them,” said Bobby. “Carl is not doing too good and Paul is gone. We got to know Mike Lanigan who, like Carl, is from Chicago.”

The partnership with Letterman goes back to the first time Rahal was invited on the TV show.

“That’s how we met. He’s very interested in Indy. It’s his event. He grew up in Indianapolis. It’s very important to him. We talk relatively often. He’s up to speed with everything going on.”

With the loss of sponsorship that hit the industry hard with the recession, Letterman still wanted to have a car in the Indy 500.

“Oriol Servia drove for us in 2009.

“And when McDonalds didn’t continue sponsorship with Newman-Haas-Lanigan in 2010, Graham drove for us.”

It’s the only time Graham ever drove for his dad.

“It was great. It’s a lot easier when your son is driving for you. It’s the only time I wasn’t watching my car and his car. That definitely complicates things.

“He qualified that Indy 500 extremely well but was black-flagged in the race for blocking,” he said of the controversial call.

“It was fun having him on the team.”

Rahal said he didn’t set up Graham to race for him prior to that because he thought it would hurt him.

“I thought it would be better for him on another team. I didn’t think it would be good for him with people saying he was there because of me.

“Besides, I thought it would make him more professional. And I think he’d tell you it was probably better for him.

“And when he was asked to drive for Newman-Haas, that’s one of the great teams of all time.”

Graham comes to the Edmonton Indy for his fifth race — sixth if you count the year he ran the Formula Atlantic support series — racing for Chip Ganassi and sitting 11th in the series standings.

“In 2011 we had Bertrand Baguette. He was leading with two laps to go, but he had to stop for fuel with two laps to go.”

This year was perfect to get back to a full-time team in the series, said Bobby.

“With the new cars and new everything and everybody starting with an even playing field again, the time was right.

“Takuma Sato and his agent came to us last year,” he said of the Japanese driver who has had a long relationship with Honda, the driver who won the pole here last year.

“He’s a very quick driver and almost won the 500 this year,” said Rahal.

“We’re really looking forward to Edmonton. He won the pole last year and we’re looking forward to doing it again and this time win the race.”

And Bobby Rahal is definitely looking forward to coming back to Edmonton to climb into the pit box and call his first ever race here.

“I enjoy it. I like the strategy. I like the involvement. And I’m still competitive.

“I’ve quietly shown up and watched Graham in a couple races here since that first one, although this will be the first one with the new layout, and frankly sitting in the stands not being involved I find very frustrating.
“I can’t wait.”


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