Bobby Rahal

Racing life
The IRL plays away

This month I’d like to look ahead to the new Indycar season which starts in mid-March with a new race in São Paulo, at least that’s the plan – I hear there’s still a lot of work to do. But those races in Brazil are always a little different.

We’re coming off the back of a great season in 2009 but I think 2010 will be more difficult, financially anyway. Surprisingly, in the recession, we didn’t see any fewer cars last year and even NASCAR, strong as it is, was worse affected. This may be because some of the IRL contracts didn’t come up for renewal last year but they will this year. From a competition standpoint it was a great season, with more teams challenging Ganassi and Penske – like Newman Haas/Lanigan, who were competitive just about everywhere, and Dale Coyne who won with Justin Wilson. There’s a bit of a changing of the guard in the pecking order and we have enjoyed some good racing. We (Rahal-Letterman Racing) lost our sponsor at the end of 2008 so the team is in mothballs. But we had a good race at Indianapolis last year, running in the top 10 until a mechanical failure, and the equipment is all here… but it’s a very conservative environment out there right now.

Both David Letterman and I have put our own money into the team in the past but the quickest way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a big fortune. Indycar racing costs about $10 million a season, laughable by Formula 1 standards, but still expensive – and to fund it personally is just not realistic however wealthy you may be.

Looking at 2010, a huge plus is the new Izod agreement. Indycar has never had a serious, consumer-based series sponsor, so this is a huge step forward. Izod is a clothing company that was part of La Coste and is now owned by Philips Van Heusen, and they’ll be spending money promoting Indycar. The TV ratings were down a bit last year but there’s a new deal with NBC Universal Sports, the biggest sports entertainment network in the States, taking over from ABC/ESPN. That will take time to get established but eventually Indycar racing will be seen in more homes than sports that aligned with ABC/ESPN, like NASCAR, so that’s a big deal for the series. But I think we will see more of the effects of the recession this year, on all types of racing.

I’m hugely disappointed by the lack of American drivers in Indycar. These days, apparently, whoever has the money gets the ride, and that usually means South Americans. There are some really good young Americans – there’s Jonathan Summerton, J R Hildebrand and my son Graham, who has done well at the top level. There’s been talk of some NASCAR guys like Kyle Busch going to Indycar or F1, but that would be a tough job for him. I’m disappointed that yet again there are no American drivers in F1, too. Once more, it’s down to money. Even if USF1 had not hit the rocks, as was slowly becoming clear at the time of writing, finance had prevented them from sticking with the original concept of promoting US talent. There’s talent out there, and the usual excuse that they don’t know the European circuits is fairly weak when you consider the computer simulations available these days. If you’re that good a driver, you should figure it out pretty quickly. It’s time someone made a commitment to a young US driver.

The first three IRL races are run on road courses, so the road racers will be strong, and Penske and Ganassi will be the teams to beat. Newman Haas/Lanigan and Andretti Autosport will be up there, having had the winter to sort out last year’s problems. So pretty much the same cast of characters, but you have to say that Penske and Ganassi are by far the best-funded teams and they have some of the best drivers, so you can expect them to be up front.

Brazilian races are never without their drama, and this one is on a new street circuit at São Paulo, so I can imagine there may be some surprises.