After his victory in this year's Indy 500, Bobby Rahal joyously made eyes at his 4½-month-old baby daughter, Michaela, while his wife, Debi, stood nearby, enjoying the pandemonium of the moment. Well, Michaela is 10 months old now and fully capable of making eyes back at her dad. She's also a seasoned veteran of victory ceremonies, because Rahal won 6 of the 17 races on the CART Indy Car trail this year. He didn't finish first in the Nissan Indy Challenge, Sunday's season finale on the 1.8-mile-road circuit through Tamiami Park in Miami, but he came out of the race with the PPG Cup as Indy Car point champion, a title worth $300,000.
This was the second straight year the Indy Car traveling road show had come into Miami with the title on the line. Last season three-time Indy 500 champ Al Unser Sr. edged his son by one point. This year the challenger was another racing son, 24-year-old Michael Andretti, who, after his own excellent season—three wins and five other top 5 finishes—was trailing Rahal by just three points, 174-171. Andretti's strategy would be, as usual, to go for broke, drive flat out for all 200 miles. Rahal's only defense was to adopt the same strategy. "I'm not here just to cruise around and earn points," he said. "I'm here to win the race."
Even without his first Indy Car points title, this would have been the most eventful year in Rahal's life. First, there was his and Debi's adoption of Michaela. "Having a child sort of completes your fife," the 33-year-old veteran of 71 Indy Car races says. His Indianapolis 500 victory was an especially emotional one, because his TrueSports team had known that its owner, Jim Trueman, a man who had supported Rahal's career almost from day one, was in the pits for the last time. Eleven days after the race. True-man died of cancer. Rahal went on to become the first Indy Car driver in history to win more than $1 million in a single season—nearly $1.5 million after Sunday—and his six wins match the CART record shared by Rick Mears and Michael Andretti's father, Mario.
There wasn't much discussion of it, but the spirit of Jim Trueman was always felt around his team. "He might be physically gone, but Jim left a strong legacy for us," Rahal said in the team's motor home the day before the race. Michaela was sitting on his lap, yanking at his black steel-rimmed glasses, "in some ways it's been difficult for me to come to grips with his passing away, because his presence was so strong. Right now, I can see his facial expressions, hear his voice. It's like he's still around but just couldn't make it here this weekend."
November 17, 1986
Trueman wasn't the only team member missing. Also gone was designer Adrian Newey, who created the March 86C car, of which there were 16 on the 27-car Tamiami grid. But at least Newey hadn't gone far—just down pit road—to Michael Andretti's Kraco team, in fact. Such switches, mostly unnoticed by the world on the far side of the pit wall, are among the reasons a driver can have a rotten time one season ('85 for Andretti) and a super one the next. Newey's shoes at TrueSports had been filled by his ex-assistant, Grant Newbury.
"We had a lot of good reasons to fall apart this year," says Rahal, "but we never did. It's been especially fun to watch Grant's development. He didn't have much confidence in his decisions at the beginning, but he's taken the ball and run with it."
Neither Rahal nor Andretti got near the pole position in Saturday's qualifying because the skies that had been threatening finally collapsed under the weight of humidity just as they were about to take to the track. Both drivers were stuck with their times from Friday, which put Rahal 4th on the grid and Andretti 10th.
The come-and-go, here-and-there sprinkles continued on Sunday, so CART officials delayed the start of the 112-lap race for 45 minutes to allow the teams to change and rechange tires with the passing of each cloud. For a while, Andretti's car sat on the grid with no tires at all, his crew waiting until the last instant to decide whether to mount slicks or the slower grooved rain tires. Finally the sun chased the showers away and the race was on.
From his pole position, Colombia's Roberto Guerrero, a former Formula One driver who now lives in Southern California, took off like gangbusters, cheered robustly by the Latin-flavored crowd. For both Rahal and Andretti—especially Andretti—it was a race against traffic. Passing is difficult on a short and curvy circuit like Tamiami, and both drivers shook their fists in frustration at stubborn slower drivers. But Andretti's overtaking was more daring because it was more desperate, and on Lap 28 of the 112-lap race, he moved into fourth behind Rahal. The stage seemed set for wheel-to-wheel drama—with points awarded on a 20-16-14-12-10 basis for places one to five, Andretti could have won the title by finishing first—but, in fact, it was only set to collapse for young Andretti. On the 60th lap, with the order now Guerrero, Rahal and Andretti, Michael swerved his bright blue and yellow March-Cosworth behind a concrete barrier, its gearbox offering him nothing but neutral, the result of a broken seal. His bold season was ended. The $200,000 from the PPG point fund for second place in the series was consolation, but his disappointment was clearly expressed in his doleful eyes. "We weren't going to catch Bobby, anyhow, unless he was going to have some problems," said Andretti. "My throttle was sticking, the engine was misfiring and the clutch was slipping. It was just an uphill battle all weekend. I've said it all along, 'If it was meant to be, it was meant to be'...and obviously it wasn't."
Out on the track, Rahal, now closing in on Guerrero, was radioed by his crew that Andretti was out of the race. "Does that mean we're the champions? I love you guys!"
Then he promptly got sick. "I think it was just the release of all the pressure and tension," he explained later. "I got stomach cramps. At one point it was really bad, and I couldn't concentrate. I wanted to come in, but my crew wanted me to stay out so they could win the pit-crew championship for the season. These guys worked really hard all year long, and I wasn't about to spoil it for them."
So Rahal stayed out and cruised around at a reduced pace, dropping all the way to eighth by the finish but preserving both championships.
The electric part was about to come. Al Unser Jr. had come to Miami instructed to "run the car into the ground," since this would be its final race and his team had nothing to lose. He had started 19th and had driven with no restraint into 2nd—still a long, long way behind Guerrero. But two laps from the finish Guerrero's car sputtered, low on gas, and on the final lap Unser sailed past and went on to win with a record 106.322-mph average, as Guerrero struggled home second after having led 111 of the 112 laps.
While Unser was down at one end of pit lane celebrating his victory in the battle, Bobby, Debi and Michaela were basking in the relief of winning the war. Through it all, the bright and beautiful Michaela—"my greatest euphoria," Bobby calls her—never took her eyes off her daddy, the champ.