Chicagoan and Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal is out raising money for two very different kinds of racing teams.
The priority is his Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) team, which Thursday won a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal from the Army National Guard that may allow the team to field a second car in this year's IndyCar series.
Then there's the U.S. bobsled team.
Rahal, 61, is chairman of the USA Bobsled & Skeleton Foundation, the sport's newly created fundraising arm.
Engineers from his Ohio-based RLL team helped BMW North America also design the new steering mechanism on the two-man sled, which "turned out to be pretty good," Rahal said.
Bo-Dyn Bobsled Co., co-owned by former Daytona 500 champion and NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, built the four-man sled, known as the "Night Train 2." The original "Night Train" ended a 62-year gold medal drought at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. But, in the two-man race, the U.S. Olympic team has not won a gold medal since 1936, and expectations are high for this redesign.
"What we did was change a few things that would alter how (the sled) would change direction," Rahal said. "The speed of it. To make it more intuitive. More about making it comfortable for the driver of the sled."
Executives at BMW North America introduced Rahal to bobsled officials, who asked for help with fundraising "so they weren't always going hand-to-mouth every year," he said. "So I thought about it, and I thought, why not? It's a great cause. It's something special to be around these young people. And none of them are going to get rich off the bobsled."
Rahal, who lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, will not be in Sochi, Russia, because it's too close to the March start of the IndyCar Series.
On the eve of the Chicago Auto Show, the Tribune caught up with Rahal, who grew up in Glen Ellyn and graduated from Glenbard West High School, to discuss the business of auto racing. Included are excerpts from that interview and a November 2012 presentation he gave at David Cooper's vintage auto restoration shop, Cooper Technica, on Chicago's West Side.
"My father raced in the late '50s and '60s, even up through the early '70s," he said. "When I started racing, I mean, you never thought you were going to make a living on it. That just seemed so far-fetched. My dad was in the food business. If you wanted to race, you went to college, which I did, and you got a job and hoped that it was a good enough job that it allowed you to race."
That's a far cry from the business he runs today. Rahal said it requires about $10 million per year to field an IndyCar in the annual series, which features 18 races this year. In 2009, for instance, the team was unable to find enough sponsorship money to run an IndyCar the full season.
"It's a constant search for money … and ($10 million) sounds like a lot of money," Rahal said. "But when I tell people that's like the salary of one starting pitcher for the Cubs, it puts it in perspective."
Rahal retired as a driver in 1998 after 484 races by his count.
During the 2012 presentation, he spent a few seconds highlighting the victories while recalling in detail a 1982 Phoenix race in which his car caught fire during his first pit stop. And there was a 1980 "heartbreaker." He was in the lead with 10 miles to go when the car "mysteriously" stopped running. And there was the Apple-sponsored Porsche 935 whose "engine blew up" three laps into a race.
"Racing, it takes you forever to get to the top, and it takes you nothing to get to the bottom," Rahal said.
Rahal founded his team with Carl Hogan in the early 1990s while he was racing. The two split in 1996, the same year David Letterman joined as an owner. Mike Lanigan joined in 2010. Lanigan is a Dolton native and co-owner of Hazel Crest-based crane manufacturer Mi-Jack Products.
Rahal's team races two types of cars. The first is a traditional IndyCar. Those operations are based in Indianapolis. The second are BMWs, which run in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship series. (Tudor, a Swiss watch company, is the sponsor.) RLL's BMW team is based in Hilliard, Ohio, outside Columbus. Also, Rahal owns 16 car dealerships in Pennsylvania.
"Everybody said you can't drive and own at the same time because the owner will always come out," Rahal said. "The driver won't take the risk because the owner (in him) says, 'Hey, that's going to cost money.' Fortunately, my wife says I can't multitask. So I was always a driver."
He later took a risk on Danica Patrick, a near-unknown, in 2002.