Texaco Havoline 200 Notebook
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) _ The Texaco-Havoline 200 will be the final race at Road America for Bobby Rahal, the only racer to have competed in all 16 CART events at the track.
Rahal, who visited the course frequently while growing up Glen Ellyn, Ill., is melancholy about his last trip to the track that piqued his youthful desire to go racing.
``It’s my favorite track,″ he said. ``It’s the first track I remember as a kid. If I’m going to be this year, it’s going to be here. Before and after the race, I think I’ll feel somewhat of a loss, just because I won’t race here again.″
Rahal, 10th in qualifying Friday, said he grew up at Road America.
``I’ve been going to Road America since I was 4,″ he said. ``I started going up there with my dad (Michael) when he was racing. We’d walk around the entire track watching the 500-mile race. It seemed like every college kid within 500 miles would show up at Elkhart Lake. It was like Woodstock.
``I saw the greatest drivers in the world there: Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren, Jim Hall, Peter Revson, Mark Donahue, every name you can think of,″ Rahal recalled. ``When I think of myself as a little boy watching racing, I think of Road America.″
Rahal began competing on the road course in 1974 and on Sunday will get one final chance to conquer the track that winds through the lush, forested hills of Central Wisconsin in the Texaco-Havoline 200 event.
``If there’s one word to describe Road America, it’s fabulous,″ Rahal said. ``It’s four miles of the greatest track in North America, certainly one of the greatest in the world. I don’t know anybody who dislikes this place. It just gives a racing driver everything he wants in a race track.″
Rahal, who is retiring at the end of this season, has finished with PPG Cup points in 10 straight races, topped by a season-best third-place finish at Mid-Ohio last week in his final appearance at his home track.
He has 14 finishes in the top 10 at Road America, including three seconds and three thirds.
``Sounds like it’s time for a first finally,″ he said. ``That would be a fantastic memory to leave the driver’s seat with in my final season.″
UNSER TRAVAILS: Only four times in 20 CART seasons has a driver led only the final lap of a race en route to a victory, and two of those occurred at Road America.
Both times, an Unser was the victim.
On Sept. 19, 1982, Al Unser ran out of fuel on the final lap of the Road America 200, and Mexican Hector Rebaque earned the only victory of his Indy-car career.
On Aug. 18, 1996, Al Unser Jr.’s engine failed 100 yards from the final turn, allowing Michael Andretti to win a record-tying third Texaco-Havoline 200.
``I’ve had a few lucky wins in my career, but my luckiest win was at Road America,″ Andretti said.
Unser Jr. is second to Andretti in career CART victories with 31, but he hasn’t reached to top step of the podium since that heartbreak at Road America two years ago.
He owns nine top-10 finishes in 15 starts at Road America, but no victories.
``I love Road America,″ Unser Jr. said. ``It demands a lot of respect. Road America has broken my leg and broken my heart.″
Andretti, who has 37 career victories, shares Unser’s attachment to the course.
``What I like about the track is there is a little bit of everything,″ Andretti said. ``There are fast corners, slow corners, a fast straight _ everything a driver could want.″
TRACK FACE LIFT: Road America has undergone a $1.7 million face lift in preparation for Sunday’s race. Cement barriers and debris fencing have replaced guardrail in many areas of the 4.048-mile road course, the longest circuit in the CART Indy-car series.
New grandstands were constructed in four turns, adding seats for 5,000 fans, and a bridge was constructed between turns 8 and 9, allowing fans access to Road America’s carousel area for the first time.
``The character of the track has changed,″ said Jim Haynes, president and general manager of Road America.