Honda team owner Bobby Rahal has seen a lot during his lengthy career as an IndyCar Series driver and team owner. But he never has experienced anything like the current COVID-19 situation that has shut down nearly every sport around the world.
Rahal is one of the principal owners of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan. That team features drivers Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato.
“We have kept our team on full salary,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “Also, we have not reduced salaries, laid people off or furloughed people. We are still fully employed. That’s a big commitment on Mike and Dave and my part. Our sponsors have been tremendous. I hope for everybody’s sake we are able to get our hands around this thing, slow it down, stop it and get it to recede so we can all get back to what we do.
“The engineers are working from home. The mechanics can’t be doing that. We are trying to be as prepared as can be, so whenever the first race is, we will be prepared as well as we can be prepared.
“For the engineers, there is no shortage of work from that regard. Now, we have more time. The crunch will be deep in the season. No on-track testing will be allowed.
“Just because we aren’t going to races right now doesn’t mean we aren’t doing things to help us be more competitive when the races do start.
“From that standpoint, it’s full speed ahead.”
Rahal and his family live in densely populated Chicago in the well-to-do northside. Under normal circumstances, Rahal would be walking with his family to Wrigley Field to watch his Chicago Cubs open another baseball season. Rahal is a season-ticket holder with four choice seats behind the Cubs dugout on the third-base side.
But Wrigley Field is locked up these days. Chicago and the State of Illinois are in a “Stay at Home” order. Rahal and his family spent the time staying at their second home in Florida, where they have practiced their own lockdown.
When Rahal speaks about the current shutdown in IndyCar, he speaks with authority. Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and was a three-time CART champion as driver. The 25-time race winner went on to become a very successful team owner in CART and later, the Indy Racing League. Buddy Rice gave Rahal’s team a victory in the 2004 Indianapolis 500.
NBCSports.com had a chance to talk to Rahal after IndyCar announced its revised schedule this past Monday. That schedule includes the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix cancellation, but additional races at Iowa Speedway, Laguna Seca and a third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October.
“Everybody is doing what they can to make sure we have as close to a full season as possible,” Rahal said. “Thankfully, we have some dates. Previously, we’ve ended very early in the year in September. Now, we are going to end relatively late in the year in October and maybe later.
“The fall months are great months for racing. I don’t look at it as a huge loss by any means. It could well be better. Missing the fact, we won’t be at Long Beach and COTA and Barber, but I’m glad we are adding races. The double weekend at Laguna will be fabulous. The double weekend at Iowa will be challenging as all get out. Then, going back to the Indy GP, that’s a great road course.
“In our past, we’ve had multiple races at the same places in the season. That’s not really new. I’m glad we are going back, and we’ll just have to wait a little bit.
“Compared to previous years, it won’t be much of an offseason. We will end in October and be back testing in January. It will be tight, and it will be a grueling schedule, but that’s all good.”
Rahal believes a normal IndyCar Series season can end later in the year than September. During the Hulman-George ownership of IndyCar, CEO Mark Miles believed the series needed to be concluded in September to avoid NFL and college football.
This year, by necessity, the season will extend into October. Rahal believes it could be a great opportunity to prove the series can have October races in future seasons.
“Back in the heyday of CART in the 1980s and into the 2000s, we raced at Laguna in October, and we drew huge crowds,” Rahal said. “I don’t think it is a negative at all coming to these great events. I don’t care what sport you are in; you are trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“I think we are doing that.
“With Roger Penske (IndyCar owner) and Jay Frye (IndyCar president), they are committed to that. There is a lot of support from the owners for these two people and the staffs. There is no question, having as close to a full as possible is a critical step. They are making things happen and that is great.”
The revised schedule includes doubleheader races at Iowa Speedway and WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. That means twice as many points are available in one racing weekend than normal.
Also, there are two fewer races (15) than the original 17-race schedule.
“Those races aren’t double points races, but it will feel like it,” Rahal said. “That West Coast swing, will be big in September. On two weekends, you have three IndyCar races. You can harvest a lot of points in those three races. Teams will have to have your act together in those three events. You have to make sure you are going to be able to run hard and fast at these races because of the value of points and what they carry.”
At Laguna Seca, the back-to-back races will see the drivers and car flying down the challenging “Corkscrew” section of the famed road course. That will be quite a physical endeavor.
“When we had the Marlboro Challenge (an IndyCar All-Star Race in the late 1980s and early 1990s) we had that race on Saturday and then the regular IndyCar race on Sunday,” Rahal recalled. “The Marlboro Challenge wasn’t a 200-mile race, but it gave you a lot of direction of what you needed for the next day.
“Having those two races, the track will get faster and faster as the week goes on. It should make for a lot of interest.”
The addition of doubleheader races became important when Penske and his staff had to cancel the May 30-31 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.
“I feel for Roger because Detroit is a big commitment on his part,” Rahal said. “It’s unfortunate it couldn’t have been slotted in for later in the season. I’m sure they explored all options. It’s a shame because it’s a big race, and it’s important to be in Detroit.
“We’re just going to have to wait a year.”
Rahal also is excited about the addition of a third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Harvest Grand Prix scheduled for Oct. 3.
“Why not? I really like that road course,” Rahal said. “Will we have a third race there next year in 2021? Who knows. I’m all for going to great racetracks, and that is a great one.”
The bold actions made by Penske, IndyCar President Jay Frye and Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles underscore the gravity of the situation caused by the COVID-19 shutdown.
The latest revision could change, but for now, it indicates how seriously the IndyCar team is working on a solution.
“There is still availability of dates if that has to happen,” Rahal said. “It’s clear everybody is going to do whatever it takes to make sure we have a full schedule of racing as before and give our fans the kind of schedule they want to see.
“I don’t care what sport – football, baseball, basketball, social events and concerts – everybody is trying to figure out how to make the most of this situation.
“I appreciate the leadership of Roger and Jay because we aren’t waiting on things to happen. This is the third iteration of our schedule. They are working behind the scenes to make sure they are not caught out in terms of dates. If you look at the calendar, there are still some open dates in the summer. There are some open dates in August. Who knows? This may not be the last reschedule.
“Whatever it ends up being, it will be as close to a full schedule as possible.”
From a broader picture, Rahal also has hope the world will be able to move beyond the current pandemic, sooner rather than later.
“I have faith in the medical community in this country and around the world,” Rahal said. “I think we will quickly find some sort of vaccine or protocol to stop this thing in its tracks. More people are surviving this than dying from it.
“While it seems dark out there in many ways, there is also a lot of light out there.
“You hope the light comes to the fore more than anything else.”