By Keeping Cool and Calm, Racer Bobby Rahal Aims to Win the Indy

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Indy drivers are a hard-eyed, hairy-chested lot. Even today, with a treacherous 40 mph wind, they're out on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway practicing for Sunday's Indy 500. All the big-name studs are running laps in their screaming 700-horsepower race cars. There's A.J. Foyt. Mario Andretti. Emerson Fittipaldi. And what of Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner and a favorite this year? He's back at the garage, out of the wind, taking a nap.

"It's scary out there," says Rahal, 35, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Why take the chance and crash? It can ruin your life."

That's typical. The balding, bespectacled Rahal exudes as much machismo as your average accountant. But don't be fooled. This boy can flat out run with the best of them. Just look at his record: He's won 17 Indy Car (which is heavier and more powerful than a Formula One car) races over the last six years, more than any other driver, and has earned $4.5 million along the way. Last year he led all drivers in top-10 finishes(though electrical problems led to only a 21st place finish in the 1987 Indy 500), and this season he's going for a third consecutive Indy Car championship and his second Indy 500 win. He relies on catlike reflexes, steely nerves and, most of all, an innate conservatism. "Basically I'm a chicken," he has said. "I don't do crazy things. I like my ass too much."

"Bobby's a smart driver," says Steve Home, part-owner and manager of Rahal's True Sports racing team. "He never gets emotional. To him, it's all business."

Risky business, of course. Especially at the Indy 500. The flimsy but super-powered racers hurtle around the track at more than 200 mph, barely inches from each other and from the concrete walls that have claimed 37 lives. "You can't get scared," says Rahal. "You make mistakes if your emotions run away. You do that, you're in the wall—a very bad place to be."

Rahal's sangfroid has won him more than just races. It has also gained him the respect of his peers. "It's a war out there at 200 miles an hour," says Al Unser Jr., one of Rahal's closest friends and toughest competitors. "Bobby and I fight hard, but we fight fair. You don't want to be near a guy who can't control himself. Bobby's careful."

Which is why Rahal is spending his afternoon sleeping while the other Indy drivers battle the wind. "Why risk it?" he shrugs. "I've got nothing to prove." Stripping off his zippered flameproof driving suit, he changes into his street clothes: a red pullover, tan slacks and a pair of expensive-looking, butter-soft loafers. Suddenly, the man stands revealed—he's a yuppie.

Indeed, Rahal's life-style would be the envy of most yupward strivers. A 10-handicap golfer, he lives with his wife, Debi, and their two adopted children—Michaela, 2½, and Jarrad, 1½—in a swank, seven-bedroom home in Dublin, Ohio, right next to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village course. The oldest son of Mike Rahal, a second-generation Lebanese-American businessman, and his British-born wife, Barbara, Rahal grew up in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, III. Mike, the owner of a Chicago-based food importing company, once raced cars himself just for kicks, and Bobby started his career in the pits at 4. "By the time he was 9, he was a reservoir of information about engines, cars and the entire history of auto racing," says Mike.

The way Mike has it figured, Bobby's temperament has a lot to do with his gene pool. From his Lebanese father, Bobby got the burning need to succeed. "We Arabs tend to overcompensate," says Mike. "We're a nation of manic-depressives." From his stoical mother, he inherited the ability to channel his drives.

To please his father, Rahal graduated in 1975 from Denison University with a degree in history. To please himself, he continued to race. After graduation he enjoyed moderate success on the European and American race circuits, while his father helped support him. But his career didn't really take off until 1982, when Jim Trueman, a wealthy Cleveland building contractor and an old racing crony of Mike's, made him part of his True Sports racing team. For the first time, Rahal had first-class equipment and backing, and he responded by winning the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) rookie-of-the-year award. When the '86 Indianapolis 500 rolled around, Trueman was running, and losing, his own race with cancer. "If Hollywood had written the script, people would say it was bullshit," says Rahal. "I told Jim, who was there, I'd win the race for him."

It was one of the most dramatic Indy victories in history. Rahal was barely leading the pack with two laps to go when his fuel light blinked on. "I was thinking, 'It's now or never,' " says Bobby. " 'They're hot on my ass.' " Rahal ran the next lap at 209 mph, the fastest in Indy 500 history, and coasted across the finish line the winner, with nothing in his tank but fumes. "I had every emotion in the world," says the man, "including sadness because of Jim. Afterward I said, 'Come on Jim, let's celebrate.' He looked up and said, 'Bobby, I'm dying.' " Eleven days later Trueman was dead.

Winning the 500, one of the few auto races most Americans can name, has changed Rahal's life. "It brought me fame. It brought me wealth. It will allow me to retire when I'm 40," says Bobby. Although he plans to open an auto dealership after he retires in five years, he is in no hurry to stop racing. "Some other drivers and I were talking the other day about the good old days, and I said these are the good old days right now. I wouldn't trade this for anything. This is the best time of my life."

—By Jack Friedman, with Bill Shaw in Indianapolis

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