Danica Patrick owes much to Bobby Rahal
SEBRING, Fla. -- Bobby Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500, three CART championships and 25 races in one of the last sentimentally remembered periods in open-wheel racing.
He is a successful team owner -- a long-time partner with late-night television icon David Letterman -- in both open-wheel and sports car racing and is the father of a driver, Graham Rahal, widely considered a crucial facet of any renaissance IndyCar will produce in the United States.
But sitting outside his motor coach in the brown and silty innards of Sebring International Raceway during IndyCar preseason testing, Rahal considered his most widely recognized contribution to the national sporting culture: discovering, or at least financing, the early development of Danica Patrick and providing the IndyCar opportunity she drove to stardom.
"Yeah, I'm to blame," he said, laughing.
Patrick was an underemployed 19-year-old road racer when she met Rahal at Road America race course in Wisconsin in 2001. They became friends and kept in contact when each returned to Europe -- he to oversee the Jaguar Formula One program, she to continue finding her way through the European ladder system for the fourth year. Patrick, quoted in Rahal media materials, said of the time: "We were two Americans a long way from home who would get together and complain about British food and the weather. Bobby was a great friend and a source of support when I needed it most."
Patrick signed a multiyear deal with Rahal in 2002, running a limited schedule in the developmental Barber-Dodge Pro Series. Rahal used his influence with Ford to provide Patrick her first stock car opportunity in a June 2002 test session with the ppc Racing Nationwide Series team at Greensville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway. The 285-lap test was lauded as a success by Ford executives and the team, but Patrick was routed back toward open-wheel racing in 2003, undertaking the first of two seasons in the Toyota Atlantic series, a feeder system for the now-defunct Champ Car series.
Patrick calls that opportunity one of the most pressurized and crucial junctures of her career.
"When I raced Atlantics, it was my first real opportunity in the States to run, run up front with people and show them what I could do," she said. "I wanted to do a good enough job that Bobby would want to run me in IndyCar one day."
She did. Patrick learned she had earned that opportunity in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 -- and subsequently the full season -- during a Carb Day news conference in 2004. That race, in which she set gender marks in starting and finishing fourth and leading 19 laps, helped launch her cultural phenomenon.
The blur of time and Patrick's final five full-time IndyCar seasons at Andretti Autosport tend to obscure Rahal's part in the process, but he seems content with it. He said he feels "very good about what happened," although Patrick's decision to leave in 2007 preceded a marked decline in the fortunes of his IndyCar team. Rahal went from a three-car program in 2005 to one by 2008 and contested only the Indianapolis 500 the last three seasons. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing returns to the series full-time this year with driver Takuma Sato. Patrick, meanwhile, won her only career IndyCar race in 2008 at Motegi, Japan, and continued her ascent as the sport's most marketable driver before leaving for a full-time NASCAR career this season.
"Would we have stayed in IndyCar longer if we'd had her? Don't know. It's hard to say. Maybe, maybe not," Rahal said. " This is my passion, and the passion is rewarded on the racetrack by winning and bringing good people in and seeing them exercise their passions. I did what I said I would do. I think I gave her a great opportunity, and the rest is history, as they say."
When Patrick left in 2007, she said she "took this opportunity because I needed a team that was doing everything it could to win. I needed a team that knew how to win, that was going to get it done."
Rahal said he was "disappointed" when Patrick left his team and believed he offered roughly the same financial package as Andretti, "but they must have offered her something else." Andretti's teams had won 20 of 34 races and driver titles in 2004 and 2005 before struggling in 2006. Buddy Rice's three wins -- including the Indianapolis 500 -- in 2004 comprised Rahal's entire IndyCar total at the time, but the owner insists Patrick was surrounded by the resources she needed to win.
"We were giving her very competitive cars," Rahal said. "We had great cars. She had great teammates with Buddy Rice and Vitor [Meira]. As I've said to many people, Danica really has never had to deal with inferior equipment. She had good equipment with us in IndyCar, then to Andretti; now she's with Earnhardt and Stewart [in NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup, respectively]. It doesn't get much better than that. So she's had all the advantages, and it will just be interesting to see how it all plays out."
As the initial underwriter of Patrick's career, and one whose business relationship with her has come and gone, Rahal reserves the right to critique candidly. In 2009, when she decided to explore a part-time NASCAR career, he said, "she may not have the ultimate pace, but generally she can stay out of trouble and finish in the top six or seven," and "I have no question she'll be able to drive a stock car around."
Rahal doesn't regret his financial outlay in aiding Patrick's career, but said he "probably should have been a lot more mercenary" in their business dealings.
"But that's not why I did it. I did it to help her, thinking that maybe she could be successful," he said. "I don't think anybody quite understood because if you look at her from a racing record, she's not had much success. But she's gone beyond that and she's a personality. You can almost say it doesn't matter, but I think it will, eventually.
"I don't have any regrets how I approached it with her. I did it to help her. I didn't do it to help me. I guess I can say, like [some say], if it hadn't been for me, who knows where she would be today."