One would think that after 69 Indianapolis 500s, a unique one would be hard to come up with. But this year's race will be long remembered for more than its record pace and the closest one-two-three finish in Brickyard history. It will also be remembered for the rain that postponed it twice, for the finish that almost wasn't, for the winning driver who doesn't look like one and, not least, for the winning car owner, a popular and private man who is desperately ill.
A new name was added to the giant silver Borg-Warner trophy listing every winner of the 500—a deserving name, if hardly a household one: Bobby Rahal. One of the brightest of all Indy drivers, he holds a history degree from Denison University and would have liked to be a doctor if he had not become a driver. He's 6'1", balding, wears big wire-rimmed glasses with thickish lenses, has a good-sized gap between his top front teeth and has a dark mustache that hangs in twin eaves over the corners of his mouth. The mustache bristles a bit when he says, as he often must, "What's a race driver supposed to look like?"
That's a moot point, anyway, because Rahal sure performs like a race driver. That he did for two hours, 55 minutes and 43.48 seconds last Saturday, averaging a record 170.722 mph. But it was an electrifying move he made with 90 seconds to go that counted most, when he drove his blood red—or Bud red, as its sponsor would have it—March-Cosworth like a stock car as he executed a classic slingshot pass on hapless Kevin Cogan. That is, if you can call any man hapless who led the Indy 500 after 495 miles, having driven brilliantly and boldly to get to that position.
It was a marvelous finish to a race that took seemingly forever to begin. Six days earlier, on the Sunday on which the race had been originally scheduled, more than 350,000 fans had waited in vain for the ugly oozing clouds to pass. A few returned to sit through even more persistent precipitation the next day. The race was rescheduled for Saturday, which broke blessedly bright and sunny. Another huge throng, estimated at over 300,000, appeared at the Speedway—to be dealt another postponement. This time it lasted only 40 minutes. First, some feckless spectator lobbed a smoke bomb onto the backstraight during a pace lap; seconds later 1983 Indy winner Tom Sneva smacked the wall inside Turn 2 after a suspension component broke on his car. But finally the gentlemen restarted their engines, and it was superb racing from that moment on.
June 8, 1986
Michael Andretti pounced from his front-row starting spot into the lead ahead of pole sitter Rick Mears, who had set a four-lap qualifying record of 216.828 mph. Andretti had looked lean and hungry all month. Mears would have fought him off had he been able to, but Mears's yellow March—perfect when it was buttoned up after final practice—became hard to handle when in the turbulent wake of any car close ahead. Said Mears, who uses the collective we when he does well but reverts to the singular when things turn bad, "I did not have the car balanced right for traffic and never got it right. I blew it."
As if to show that money, organization, talent and hard work aren't enough, car owner Roger Penske's other front-row entry, that of defending 500 champ Danny Sullivan, handled considerably worse than Mears's. "We changed everything we possibly could on the car during the race and never found anything that worked," said Sullivan, who would finish ninth after one of his longer days.
Mears was by no means out of the hunt, however; when his car was in clean air, it was usually the fastest on the track. So he kept his distance behind Andretti and awaited developments. After 100 miles he was a solid second, with Rahal and Cogan third and fourth.
Andretti lost the lead and then some by pitting twice with the race going full tilt under the green flag. Worse, one of those stops lasted nearly 30 seconds, about twice the time it takes a good pit crew to change three tires and top up the fuel tanks. Meanwhile, other front-runners lucked into less costly stops when the yellow caution flag was flying and the cars were held to speeds of 120 mph with no passing allowed. Racing now in relatively quiet air, Mears was turning laps as fast as 205 mph up front. And his crew was doing everything it could to keep him there; it would be fastest of the day with a total of one minute, 45 seconds pit time for 6 refuelings and 17 tire changes, 26 seconds quicker than Cogan's crew, which was next-best. But Rahal and Cogan were always pushing, making the afternoon's racing something special. At 60 laps (150 miles) it was Mears, Rahal, Cogan. At 90 it was Rahal, Mears, Cogan. At 150 Mears, Cogan, Rahal. At 180 Mears, Rahal, Cogan.
Then Rahal's show hit high gear. With Rahal and Cogan breathing down his neck, Mears came up behind rookie Randy Lanier. Mears made a move to pass high coming out of Turn 2, but Lanier went high, too. Rahal dived low, past Mears. Then Cogan simply powered past as Mears wrestled his buffeting car. "Kevin came right by me on the outside like I was tied to a post," Mears said.
And there was more. "I just saw it was time to take my move," Cogan would say. He angled across the track beneath both Rahal and Lanier, and as Rahal pulled out to go high past Lanier, they headed toward the first turn three abreast at 200 mph, with Cogan having momentum, position and daring on his side. The lead was now his.
Cogan had been waiting four years for this. Redemption day. His 1982 Indy 500 could not be forgotten. That was the year of the contretemps just before the start, triggered when Cogan's car swerved from its front-row spot and hit A.J. Foyt's. Mario Andretti then rammed into Cogan. Both Foyt and Andretti berated the younger driver publicly on the spot. Millions saw the confrontation on TV. Things suddenly got chilly for a hot young driver. He was dropped by the Penske team at the end of that season.
Cogan steadfastly claims that something broke on the car. A universal joint was in fact found broken on Cogan's car, but doubt as to whether it was the cause or an effect of the crash remained. In any case, Cogan took the rap. "Until you've been booed by 90,000 people, you can't appreciate what it feels like," Cogan says.
After he grabbed the lead from Rahal, Cogan began to speed away. With only 12 laps remaining, it was as if he were running from 90,000 booing ghosts. It was the most spectacular driving of the day; one time he slid out of Turn 2 so close to the wall you couldn't have fit a razor blade between wheel and concrete. "As long as I don't touch it, I don't care how close I come," Cogan says. Running close is his style. "But some day he's going to run up next to somebody to intimidate them, and they're not going to move for him," Rahal says. Adds Al Unser Jr., who finished fifth, "I ran two laps next to Cogan with him on the outside, and he stayed right there. I couldn't believe it!"
"I was really having fun," said Cogan.
And he appeared to have victory sewed up. But motor racing isn't that cut and dried. With six laps remaining, Dutch-born driver Arie Luyendyk cut a tire in the fourth turn and spun toward the pit entrance, bringing out the yellow flag for the sixth and final time and allowing Rahal to close back up on Cogan. At first it appeared that the race would end under yellow. As the track crew hustled to remove Luyendyk's car, the crowd shouted, "Green! Green! Green!"
"I was hoping to see trash all over the place," said Cogan later, which would have meant a parade to Victory Lane for him. "The course workers should be congratulated for cleaning it up so quickly," said Rahal with a grin.
But Rahal hadn't been grinning in his car, because his red low-fuel warning light had been blazing at him. "Christ, not now," he said to himself. When word came over the radio from his crew, "We're going for it," it was more a confirmation than an instruction.
The Corvette pace car preceding the leaders speeded up and pulled into the pit entrance as they neared the end of the third-from-last lap. That was an indication that the green flag would come out a the start-finish line. Then it would be a two-lap, five-mile, high-stakes sprint to the finish.
Cogan, Rahal and Mears were tail to nose, but Mears looked like an also-ran having already been passed convincingly by the other two. "I was just setting bad there watching them," he said, more resigned than disgusted.
Rahal knew he was in a good position "On a restart, if the guy who's second has got his wits about him, he's got an advantage," Rahal said. Sure enough. He had kept back a bit as they entered Turn 3 behind the pace car, afraid of being buffeted in Cogan's turbulence and of Cogan possibly mashing the brakes and then jamming the throttle to throw him off. But after the pace car pulled off, Rahal anticipated the green perfectly, flooring the accelerator when instinct told him it was time and building up an unanswerable head of steam.
"He got the jump on me on the throttle," admitted Cogan. "We got caught with our pants down at the end."
Rahal shot up the front straight in Cogan's draft, feinted to his right against the wall, then swerved back down to the inside and beat Cogan cleanly into the first turn. For the rest of those final two laps, Rahal never let up. "Coming down the backstraight I was yelling, 'Don't leave me, baby! Don't leave me, baby!' "
Rahal ran the last lap at 209.152 mph, the fastest race lap ever recorded at the Brickyard. "With one lap left in the Indy 500, you just don't back off, do you?" he said.
Mears knocked on Cogan's door but couldn't come in. They finished with Rahal 1.4 seconds ahead of Cogan, Mears .4 back. Debi Rahal dropped her timing equipment and danced uncontrollably in the team's pit. Her husband had just won $581,062.50 for his Truesports team.
Jim Trueman, that team's owner, was being grasped in a group hug by three or four strong crew members. Trueman is the founder of the Red Roof Inns motel chain and the owner of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, but in racing he's mostly respected and appreciated for his generous patronage of deserving and struggling drivers over the years. He has been helping support Rahal for 13 years, since Bobby was 20, and for the last 5, has been his backer on the Indy car circuit. Two years ago Trueman, a handsome, athletic man who frequently drove in endurance races, underwent surgery for cancer of the colon. He responded well to chemotherapy but three months ago took a turn for the worse. At Indy there was no concealing the fact that he was a gravely ill man. But he was there, to experience firsthand the greatest day of his distinguished career in racing.
Rahal pulled into Victory Lane, climbed out of the car, kissed Debi and, choked up, said, "This one's for Jim Trueman. The one thing I can give him is this."
"We both know that it was meant to be," he said later. "I think everybody knows I love the guy."
And it was also one for Rahal's new daughter, Michaela. The Rahals succeeded in adopting Michaela last January when she was two weeks old. Bobby raised his baby high in Victory Lane—another first for the Brickyard.
Later, in his sponsor's hospitality tent, Rahal cuddled and cooed at the happy and curious Michaela. He goo-gooed into her pink belly and tickled her neck with his mustache. Her gurgling chuckle indicated it was all just fine with her, even if, at that moment, Dad didn't look much like a race driver.