A collection of IZOD IndyCar Series stars of tomorrow learned from 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal during the Mazda Road to Indy Oval Clinic on May 4 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The clinic provided drivers from Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear and Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship instruction on the basics of oval racing, how to prepare physically for an oval race, best practices of oval testing, working with spotters, tips on safety, and ideas on how best to approach oval event practice, qualifying and race day.
Rahal, who drove in 13 Indianapolis 500s, emphasized the importance of knowledge while climbing to the upper echelons of IZOD IndyCar Series oval racing.
“The biggest thing you want to impart with these guys is when they come here, they have to respect this place and be intelligent, patient and smart,” Rahal said. “It looks easy, but I think it’s the most difficult race because you spend so much time preparing for it.”
Rahal believes the clinic is a natural extension of the education he received as a rookie during his first Indianapolis 500 start, in 1982.
“When I came here, it might’ve been the first year of what they called rookie orientation at the time,” he said. “We had people like Roger McCluskey, who was really good with me, and Johnny Rutherford, and guys who went out of their way to kind of help you. Of course, in those days you did your rookie test while everybody else was practicing, so you’re trying to stay out of everybody’s way and still pass the test. It was definitely helpful at the time to have that kind of assistance, and I think this (clinic) probably takes it a step further, frankly, which is all good in my mind.”
The tradition of experienced and retired drivers advising their younger counterparts at the Indianapolis 500 has continued since Rahal was a rookie, and he thinks that’s a positive for everyone.
“It’s to everybody’s benefit,” he said. “It’s to the older guys benefit to have young guys on the track that are kind of aware of what’s going on and that they understand how to approach it. And, of course, for the younger guys, it’s great to have that kind of advice because I don’t care who you are or where you come from, when you come here there’s nothing like this in the world, and so there’s nothing to prepare you for it, so you really need to listen to the advice that you do get.”
Although he learned a great deal from experienced drivers as an Indy rookie, Rahal knows young drivers he spoke with at the clinic will have much more knowledge when they take their first laps around the famed 2.5-mile oval.
“When I first got here, it was turn left and go fast,” Rahal said. “Again, I think it gets back to respect. Respect for your fellow drivers out here, respect for the institution that’s the Indianapolis 500, respect for the speeds you’re doing and for the risk.
“Ovals, in general, are the riskiest kinds of circuits we race on, and this one is maybe even the riskiest just because of the speed and the pressure, and all the things that come with it. When you come here, you want to do well, and you know what this race can mean for your career. This month of May throws so many things at you that it’s easy to really get lost. One day the world can be perfect, and the next day it’s horrible. You’ve just got to respect it, which is the biggest thing that I would impart with these guys.”
Joining Rahal in working with the Mazda Road to Indy drivers were 2011 Kentucky Indy 300 winner and seven-time Indy 500 starter Ed Carpenter, and former Indianapolis 500 drivers Steve Knapp and Johnny Unser. Beaux Barfield, IZOD IndyCar Series race director, also participated in the program.