Bobby Rahal: My greatest race

Indianapolis 500, 1986

With team owner Jim Trueman suffering from terminal cancer, Bobby Rahal knew this was the last chance he would have to win “The Big One” for his great friend

I’d have to nominate Indy in 1986, not just because of the race itself but for the circumstances surrounding it. The guy I was driving for, Jim Trueman — a very special friend who had backed me from early in my career — was literally on his last legs, dying of cancer. We’d never won Indy, the big one. So aside from all the usual pressure in the month of May, I knew this was it as far as he was concerned; there wasn’t going to be another race for him. You can imagine how badly I wanted it.

He was there in the pitlane, very emaciated, just looking on. It was his 51st birthday that weekend. But the damn rain wouldn’t stop. It rained hard all through Saturday and Sunday; they postponed the race until Monday but it rained then too. So they postponed it until the following weekend. This coming after the whole month of practice made it feel like the whole damn event just didn’t want to end. And all the while, Jim’s just there, hanging on. I believe he willed himself to live, to get to that next weekend.

We’d qualified in fourth place, which I was pretty pleased with. I’d just lost my engineer Adrian Newey. He’d gone to Kraco to work with Michael Andretti. I’d been pretty disappointed about that because we had built up a very good relationship and in the lead-up to Indy we hadn’t even finished a race. So to have the car working pretty well was a good boost for everyone.

There was beautiful weather for that second weekend, and most of the crowd had come back. I was confident about the car, so it all felt good. At the start I was straight up to third place, with Michael leading and Rick Mears second. The first part of the race was basically between the three of us. Then Michael hit a problem and the lead went back and forth between me and Rick, with Emerson Fittipaldi running quite strong too for a while.

It was uneventful until with about 20 laps to go I passed Rick for the lead and managed to stretch out from him just a little. But Kevin Cogan, by this time, was coming into the picture. From about quarter-distance he’d got it really hooked up. He was taking a very high line — I look at the film now and wonder how he didn’t hit the wall; he was driving on the edge but extremely well. He was on a different fuel strategy to Rick and me and was by now running with plenty of boost whereas we had cut the boost back because we knew we were going to be tight on fuel. As a result of the low boost, I was slow through the traffic and got myself stuck behind Randy Lanier, which gave Kevin the big run. Not only did he pass Rick but about a lap later he passed me. It took me another lap to pass Lanier and by that time Kevin was about two seconds in front, with about ten laps to go. I slowly started hauling him in but my race really got a new lease of life when Arie Luyendyk spun coming out of Turn 4 and brought out the yellows.

I’d always practised restarts — I figured there’s no easier way to overtake than on a restart — but it wasn’t going to be easy because as well as Kevin ahead of me I had Rick breathing down my neck. As we were about to take the greens, I got a little more momentum going through Turn 4 than Kevin — maybe his car was pushing a little bit by then — and halfway down the straight I was able to pull out and pass him. There were only a couple of laps to go so I’d turned the boost right up — what did I have to lose? The fuel lights were all flashing but they were pretty unreliable — you didn’t know exactly how much you had, you just knew you were low.

I thought if ever there was a time to drive two great laps, this was it. I set the lap record on the last lap. It was the closest three-way finish of all time. There was less than a second between me and Rick with Kevin in between us. To this day I still don’t remember seeing the chequered flag, I just knew it was over and we’d done it.

There’s a great shot of me, my wife Debbie and Jim in the pace car Corvette. He’s just savouring the lap of honour, his last moment of glory. It’s not often in life that you’re given the opportunity to achieve someone’s dream for them. We did that. Jim passed away ten days later. Another team owner Doug Shierson said afterwards, “There were 32 of us out there who didn’t realise we didn’t have a chance.” The Good Lord was going to make damn sure that Jim Trueman got his Indy 500 win. But I’m happy to share the credit.