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Bobby Rahal: “Our Intent Is To Be In Red Bull GRC For Years To Come”

March 8, 2017
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Three-time CART champion and International Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Rahal is a force to be reckoned with in the world of auto racing. From his 24 CART victories, including an Indianapolis 500 victory in 1986, to his extended success as a team owner in both open-wheel and sports car racing, there are few personalities in the world of racing that wouldn’t envy his trophy case.

In 2017, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will add Red Bull Global Rallycross to its racing portfolio with Austin Dyne behind the wheel. In an exclusive interview, Rahal explains his long-standing interest in the series, the strengths of both Dyne and the series, and his long-term plans for RLL’s rallycross program:

After decades of success in the Verizon IndyCar Series and in various forms of sports car racing, you’re taking the next step and making the move into Red Bull Global Rallycross for 2017. When did you first start looking into fielding a team in Red Bull GRC, and how did this move eventually come together?

We’ve really been looking at it for at least four years or so, maybe even five. I’ve been to several events, including Las Vegas at the SEMA Show and Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and I’ve had people that work with me go and check out some of the events. We’ve talked to some of the manufacturers about getting involved in the series years ago, but the opportunity really never quite presented itself to the extent that we had hoped.

But we kept our interest known, to Colin (Dyne) and Jeff Swoboda, who I’ve known for years and like a lot. We always made clear our interest—it just had to be in the right situation, and now, that situation has arisen. So we’re very excited about finally being able to participate in the series.

You’re going to be working with Austin Dyne and the capable M-Sport chassis platform for the 2017 season. How much have you had an opportunity to speak with Austin, or watch him drive? What makes this the right combination of team, car, and driver?

I met with Austin and spent a couple of days with him, and I personally liked him. He came across as a focused young man who wants to succeed. And of course, the M-Sport car is a great starting platform. I know Malcolm Wilson—I met him when I was with Jaguar Formula 1 in England and he was there as well with Ford. They’re the real deal.

We now have the car at our facility and are going through it. It looks quite good, but it’s going to be a learning curve for us. That’s where Austin can help us, I’m sure, but we still have a lot of capability at our organization, and we think we can make both him and the car more competitive.

Many of your top rivals from open-wheel racing, both as a driver and an owner, have preceded you into Red Bull GRC, including Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta. Have you spoken to any of the other IndyCar owners that run rallycross programs about what to expect in this series? What makes it a compelling prospect for open-wheel owners who are looking to diversify their racing programs?

I think there are a couple of things that GRC has in its corner that no other series really has. One is a fabulous television schedule. Maybe NASCAR has one that’s equally as good, but aside from that GRC has a really great television package. There’s a fabulous sponsor in Red Bull, with everything they do with the promotion and their presence in sports, especially extreme sports. Then, of course, you have to look at the demographics of the people who follow the sport. It’s extremely young compared to IndyCar and NASCAR, and even sports car, for that matter.

So for us, it’s a compelling marketing platform where we can bring new sponsors into our team, sponsors that are much more focused on a younger segment of the population. So we think of it as a real plus for our palate of our opportunities when we talk to new sponsors about coming on board.

RLL has done an exceptional job over the past few years selling sponsorship on the IndyCar side of its program, attracting numerous partners to the #15 car. But the Red Bull GRC platform can be very different from IndyCar. What are some of the new challenges you face this year, on all sides, and what makes this team uniquely attractive as you look to bring those new sponsors on board?

I think we face several challenges. One is obviously the technical challenge—this is a new part of the sport of us that presents new and different challenges. Obviously, you don’t put an IndyCar setup on a GRC car! There’s going to be a learning curve for us, although we’re going to have some experienced people that have worked on this program before, so that’s going to be a shortcut on that technical disadvantage, perhaps.

But when it comes to the marketing side of the equation, I’ll say that GRC has done a great job of providing its teams with demographic information, where we can go out and sell the program. We can speak knowledgeably about it, what makes it different, and what makes it better than other categories out there. And of course, there’s great TV! So we have, I think, something that’s pretty exciting to sell, and once again, it’s in a unique atmosphere that doesn’t really exist in motorsports outside of it.

To me, I think it presents opportunities that we would not normally have in talking about our existing programs. I think we feel pretty strongly that we can find new companies that want to come into the series. Our intent is not to be here one year and out—it’s to be here for years to come. I do think we have a unique selling proposition that strikes a bell with a lot of companies that wouldn’t be looking at motorsports otherwise.

As an owner, where are you most excited about racing in your first Red Bull GRC season? A handful of the series’ markets are shared with open-wheel and sports car racing—are you more looking forward to seeing new fans in those locations, or new venues entirely?

Of course, we’ll be in Indianapolis and Louisville, which are not so far away. Memphis is one of the circuits, and of course Los Angeles is the big one. But I think this is so unique in that you can take this series and put it into markets that don’t normally get racing. Consequently, the interest in it is great. We’ve seen it in IndyCar when we go to cities where they don’t get many big-time sports or big-time races, and they don’t get NASCAR, and IndyCar really benefits from that. I think the same can be held true for GRC. You can also tie that with the venues, you tie that with the television package and Red Bull, and I think that combination is pretty hard to beat.

2017 will be the first time that Red Bull GRC visits Indianapolis, one of America’s most iconic racing cities. As someone who has won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and whose team contends for wins there every year, what makes racing in the state of Indiana special? Considering how much racing Indianapolis hosts, where do you see rallycross fitting in?

Indy is a racing town, right? And Indiana is a racing state. You look at how many different types of racing are there—short track racing, sprint cars, midgets, IndyCars, stock cars. Indiana as a whole, and the whole Midwest really, is a racing hotbed. People get it, they understand motorsports and racing, and they’re avid followers of it.

Having a lot of races in the Midwest is probably a positive because you have a built-in audience, and I think being in Indianapolis, whether you’ve seen an event before or not, that built-in interest in the sport goes through generations. So people coming out to see something new isn’t a big deal; in fact, they want to see something new. They want to see variation. I think being in Indianapolis is a great plus. Memphis isn’t too far away, and Louisville isn’t too far away. It’s like California—there’s a built-in interest in motorsports that’s strong, and I think it’s a plus for the series to be there.

Looking around the rest of the field, outside your own team, which teams do you have your eye on to have a good year? Is there anyone in particular you’re watching out for?

Obviously the Volkswagen team is a good team that has had a lot of success. Subaru is heavily involved. There are a lot of great teams involved—you have Fords again, and Honda is in now. But our goal is just to do the best that we can and see where it all shakes out at the end of the year. Certainly, I think it helps with Austin having experience before with this car and the circuits, although some of them might be new.

Our goal is to give Austin the ability to just focus on driving and working with his engineers, and we’ll do everything else for him. That’s the way we do it with all of our other forms of racing: we give the drivers their best opportunity, and that’s our goal with Austin. I think if we do that, we can have some success. What that means, I don’t really want to say, because it’s a big project for us and we’re really not that far away from the start of the year. But we’ve got our heads down, we’re doing the work, and we’ll see where it all shakes out.

Finally, let’s talk expectations for this year. It’s your first season on the Red Bull GRC grid, but you have an experienced driver and a proven car—what’s a fair estimate for how you expect 2017 to go? And likewise, what are some of the longer-term aims for this project?

We don’t do anything without the intention of winning—we don’t go into IndyCar races with any other intention than wanting to win, and it’s the same thing in our program with BMW that is now 10 years old. The way we approach things is to do them very professionally and be the best, and we don’t approach our GRC effort in any other way than that.

But I think we also respect that, like any other series that you go into, there are manufacturers, teams, and people that have been involved for many years. They know the nuances, the little ins and outs of it all, and are able to take advantage of that. That may be part of our learning curve, but as I said, we don’t do anything without being committed to winning. I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that in 2017, but certainly the whole idea behind us getting involved in the series is to begin that process, so in 2018 and beyond, we can be a force to be reckoned with at every race.

Image via Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1)
Photo credit: Louis Yio (2-5)

Categories: Interviews | Supercars