Bobby Rahal sees a future in racing vintage cars
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Bobby Rahal longs to be back in the day when races were shrouded in mystery before drivers started their engines and every car had a distinctive roar.
``Racing has really become homogenized, and I think it loses something,'' said the 57-year-old Rahal, a three-time CART champion and winner of the 1986 Indy 500. ``Regulations have become so restrictive that everything is just cookie-cutter. Everything looks the same, everything sounds the same. There's no variation, no variety, no nothing. It's just all the same.''
Now that NASCAR has given fans a sense of its rich history with the opening of a Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., Rahal and partners Peter Stoneberg and Zak Brown hope to boost interest in auto racing's past even more through Legends of Motorsports, a vintage racing series.
The inaugural four-race series began last month at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and attracted around 100 cars with Mario Andretti serving as grand marshal. The series is visiting Watkins Glen International this weekend, Circuit Mont-Tremblant outside Montreal in July, and Sebring International Raceway in Florida in December.
``I think the platform is beautiful - it's a mobile museum,'' Watkins Glen president Michael Printup said. ``Just like anything else that's brand new, it's going to take some years to grow it. We'll see what the week turns out in terms of crowd, but we've got a great platform to keep running forward.''
Watkins Glen will include nine of the 12 Legends of Motorsports classes, including 2.0 Liter Sports Racers, Trans-Am, Can-Am/USRRC and Formula 5000. Porsche is the feature marque.
``Our business plan is sort of iconic cars, iconic tracks, iconic drivers,'' Rahal said. ``If we kind of weave those things together, we'll get what we want. We'll get the kind of races and entries that are interesting and exciting.''
Marc Giroux, an executive at nearby Corning Inc., is among the hopeful.
``Vintage racing tends to be more about the cars than the people. I think it's something that can catch on,'' said Giroux, who will drive at The Glen. ``There are a lot of people who are into the old cars. It's kind of a gas for us to drive the cars that we watched our heroes drive.''
Vintage racing has been around for decades, and often is staged at storied venues. The Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, formed 31 years ago, fields 10 classes of cars and has 11 events on its schedule this year, including Watkins Glen in September.
In alternating years, Monaco hosts a historic race through the streets of Monte Carlo before its famed Formula One race. The Goodwood Festival of Speed in Great Britain tops them all, though - last year more than 130,000 people attended.
``When you come to a historic race, you see grandfathers taking their sons and their grandsons or granddaughters and talking to them about these cars. It becomes like a living museum in a lot of ways,'' Rahal said. ``And because you have such access to the cars it's pretty neat, kind of like revisiting an old friend.''
The Monterey Historic Automobile Races are the signature vintage event in the U.S., with the 37th edition scheduled for California's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in mid-August. Last year it attracted over 400 historic cars and around 40,000 people.
``It's a major overlooked area. Ad agencies don't really get it,'' Rahal said. ``The demographics of these guys are higher than if you sponsored a golf tournament. The growth right now has sort of flattened out because of the economy, but guys are still going.''
So far, Legends of Motorsports has attracted Rolex, Lotus and Road & Track magazine as chief sponsors. Rahal said he's also had talks with the Discovery Channel about broadcasting races.
``The idea is to produce an event that the participants want to come to,'' he said. ``That period of decades where there was experimentation, inventiveness and what have you, I think that's going to become more and more attractive to people.''
Rahal will serve as competition director at The Glen. but still plans to drive and is bringing a Chevron B16 built in 1970, a Brabham BT29 and a two-seat Lotus 23. Five years ago, he qualified second for the Zippo Vintage U.S. Grand Prix at WGI at 115.483 mph in a 1974 Brabham BT44 - just 21 mph off the open-wheel record set last year by IndyCar Series star Ryan Briscoe - and won the race.
Steve Earle founded the Monterey historic races in 1974. He understands the significance of not forgetting the past.
``Heritage and history are important in every business,'' said Earle, who had 375 entries last weekend for his inaugural Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival at Infineon Raceway in California's wine country. ``Somewhere, we've overlooked a generation or two, and they need to be brought into the fold. They'll begin to identify, and suddenly NASCAR has a little more interest and IndyCar racing has a little more interest.
``And besides, everybody has a car story. You're really reaching into everybody's level.''