Bobby Rahal was at the podium in a banquet room at the Plaza hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, wearing a three-piece gray suit and addressing a roomful of lawyers. As one of the town's better-known citizens, he had been invited to speak at the monthly luncheon of the Columbus Bar Association and was delivering an ad-lib speech up to the most stringent lawyerly standards of articulation and elocution. Quite naturally, the subject was Indy car racing: its growth, his life on the circuit, and what it's like to win the Indy 500 and the CART championship and be named Driver of the Year. It was a most satisfying and edifying luncheon for the assembled barristers.
Rahal's addressing a bunch of lawyers was fitting. Race car drivers have always had a healthy dose of the outlaw in them; the very nature of their activity stretches society's rules. They have also been individualistic to the point of being anarchistic; they don't worry very much about the rules they don't like. So when Bobby Rahal implies he's different from others in his calling, as he sometimes does with a wary desperation, he's right. That makes him, interestingly, an individual among individuals.
Rahal is the race driver who doesn't look like one, and he doesn't like being told that. What's a race driver supposed to look like, he asks. Why can't a balding, bespectacled, nail-biting, chainsmoking, gunfighter-mustached college grad of Lebanese descent who wears tailored three-piece suits and reads history books be a race driver?
He's also the race driver who lives in a country club village and aspires to be a successful car dealer. Maybe the latter is not so unusual; some of racing's hardcore individualists, including A.J. Foyt, have parlayed careers behind the wheel into fat dealerships. It helped make them powerful, a worthy ambition for an outlaw. And it made them rich, which is more Rahal's speed.
The inner office of Bobby Rahal, Inc. in nearby Dublin, Ohio, sports a classy gray carpet on the floor, stylish racing portraits on the walls, a chrome waste-basket against the drapes and a glass desk by the big window. On the desk is a stack of periodicals, including The Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian. "Do you think Larry Bird's got an issue of Smithsonian on his desk?" Rahal asks.
What makes Bobby run? "The first time I came in here it scared the hell out of me," he admits. "But you know what really scares me? Turning 40 and not having enough money, not having things taken care of. To me, that would be failing. I've got to start now; I can't wait until I retire."
"It's in the genes," says Bobby's father, Michael. "The Arab people, the Lebanese especially, always run scared. That's what drives us. We're more afraid of failure than anything. It's an ego thing. We hate the flavor of failure, and we revel in success."
One thing about Rahal is not different from the new breed of race drivers: He made it with the support of a father who had made his fortune—in Michael's case, as an international food merchant—but who was also involved in racing, and who loved his son to the point of indulgence.
"In the beginning I didn't understand it, and thought it was a little overbearing," says Bobby's wife, Debi. "Mike is very emotional and very dramatic. But he's just so worried that his sons won't always be fine, he wants them to know that he loves them, sometimes to an extreme. But it's really a wonderful thing. Mike is a self-made man, and Bobby is fiercely proud of him because of it. And Bobby has the same sort of mentality and drive. He could have just fallen into the family business and been very comfortable and not struggled at racing, but he wants to do things for himself."
Michael Rahal has offices in New York, Chicago and Buenos Aires but considers himself only "above average" in means. That's his own high expectations speaking; people with "average" means consider him wealthy. He began racing sports cars in 1956 and still likes to drive in vintage-car events. In fact, when Bobby and codriver Jochen Mass won the Sebring 12-hour race for sports-prototype cars in March, Michael was entered in a vintage-car race earlier in the day. It was a poignant weekend for them; one of the first races Bobby had ever attended was Sebring, in 1957, when he was just four.