Bobby Rahal may be going into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame under the International category, but he might actually be able to qualify as an honourary Canuck.
The three-time Championship Auto Racing Teams titlist spent much of his early career racing in Canada, most of it in the old Formula Atlantic Series, which featured future world champion Keke Rosberg and Canadian racing legends Gilles Villeneuve and Bill Brack.
And that history means going into this country's motorsport hall isn't something Rahal takes lightly.
"It means a lot when you look at how much of my career was spent racing in Canada, especially early on - those days are very important to me. I loved racing in Canada because I always felt the spectators were a little more sophisticated about road racing and especially formula car racing," he said.
"Canada was almost like a second home for me and I certainly got to know it quite well driving from Vancouver, B.C., to Halifax, Nova Scotia."
Going back even further, Rahal's first race start happened in Canada at the Harewood Acres circuit near Jarvis, Ont., in 1970. At the time the 17-year-old Rahal was travelling with his father, who would come to Canada from Ohio every summer to run at the Ontario track.
That first race began a career that would span three decades and see him compete against some of this country's top talent, from Brack and Villeneuve in Atlantics, to the late Greg Moore, Paul Tracy, and 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve in CART.
His best year in Atlantics was 1977 where he finished second overall to Villeneuve, who took three wins and a second in seven starts. Rahal started two Formula One races with Canadian Walter Wolf's team, taking a 12th in the U.S. Grand Prix and retiring in Canada on the day Villeneuve won his maiden F1 race. From there Rahal joined CART where he took three championships and 24 race victories in 264 starts over 17 seasons, including a win in the 1986 Indianapolis 500. Racing in CART also allowed him to return to Canada to run in its stops in Toronto and Vancouver.
"I never won Vancouver in CART but I finished second a number of times and the same thing at Toronto after I won it one once, I was on pole a couple of times and had a bunch of seconds," said Rahal who won the inaugural Toronto event in 1986.
"I liked Toronto better than Vancouver but what I loved about both was the crowds, the enthusiasm and excitement for the events. It was a typical Canadian response - everybody was so supportive. Those were great days and hopefully it will start to gain back some of the excitement it once had."
Following his retirement in 1998, he continued as an owner in CART before switching to the Indy Racing League (now IndyCar) in 2004. His partner in the team is late night talk show host David Letterman, who first bought into the outfit in 1996. Businessman Mike Lanigan joined the ownership group this year.
While he still gets some satisfaction from team wins when he's watching his drivers from atop the timing stand, "it's not as much fun, I can tell you that."
"When I won the Indy 500 versus when we won it with (2004 race winner) Buddy Rice, it was still a tremendous thrill and sense of accomplishment but it's just a very different one and you really can't compare the two," he said.
The team may be best known for bringing Danica Patrick to the IndyCar series in 2006. Rahal Letterman left the IndyCar Series after 2008 and has run drivers in the Indy 500 for the past two seasons. It now competes in the American Le Mans Series with BMW touring cars.
Rahal will likely run only the Indianapolis 500 this year, but the team hopes to make a return to full-time competition in 2012 when new engine and chassis rules designed to increase competition and reduce costs kick in.
Rahal has become a huge fan of IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard, who he thinks has made a huge impression in his first year at the helm. While many scoffed at the former bull riding boss taking the reins, Rahal thinks the series finally has a leader who understands how to promote a sport and has the connections to make it happen.
"I think it's poised to do great things and everything has to come together now," he said. "Randy is highly respected by people in the television world and the entertainment world and that's something we haven't had. It's all about promoting races and promoting the series, and we finally have a guy who gets that. I think it's all good right now."
Along with Rahal, former F1 chief medical officer Sid Watkins will also go in under the international category. The Canadians to be inducted at an April 23 gala in Toronto are power boat competitors Norm Woods, John Webster, and Jean Theoret, drag racers Bob Elliott and Herb Rodgers, road racer and journalist Jacques Duval, and two members of this country's motorsport governing body, ASN Canada FIA, vice-president of competition Paul Cooke and president Roger Peart.
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