The race took place in 1982, so most of the details are at least a little hazy for everyone involved.
But the first words Bobby Rahal uses to describe Indy cars’ first visit to Road America leave no doubt that what he remembers still frustrates him a bit:
“The one that got away.”
He is now a three-time champion and winner of the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and team owner. He was then 29 years old and eager to put on a good performance at the Elkhart Lake track which he fell in love with as a child.
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Forty years after CART first took its breakaway streak to Road America – and the unsung Hector Rebaque claimed his only victory in a stunner – Indy cars are back to race around the 4-mile layout for the 33rd time. The NTT IndyCar Series Sonsio Grand Prix is scheduled for 11:45 am on Sunday and Rahal is still fighting for that first win.
“I loved Elkhart, so racing an Indy car there was really special,” said Rahal, who grew up in the Chicago area and made the trip to Wisconsin a number of times with his racing dad, Mike. sport.
“I had driven IMSA there, I had driven Can-Am. That’s when CART was turning more and more to road courses.
Like Rahal, some riders had raced at Road America in other divisions—Mario Andretti, Al Unser, John Paul Jr.—but many hadn’t.
Count defending series champion and points leader Rick Mears among that second group. Although he may have tested with Penske Racing before the September race weekend – probably, although he’s not sure – Mears had never raced Road America.
“But I immediately fell in love with the track, just because it had everything,” Mears said recently. “There were elevation changes, blind corners, fast corners, slow corners, long straights. I loved the carousel and the fast, wide-open dogleg to the back straight, one straight lines.
“The track and the setting and the way the fans could sit on the hills and camp and all that…the whole atmosphere of the place was great. It’s always been one of my favorite bits of the first day.
Mears also arrived with a substantial lead in the standings after winning three weeks earlier at Riverside International Raceway, as well as confidence in a team that had helped him win championships two of the previous three years.
“The Penske team, they always gave me the right tools to get the job done,” said Mears, who still works with the team as an advisor. “I always felt like I was going to a new place, I had an advantage in that regard.
“I always thought if we could just get them out of the trailer and run, we’d have an advantage through the team.”
Sure enough, Penske-Cosworth of Mears quickly left the trailer and he edged out Rahal for pole with an average lap of 122.335mph. Unser and Andretti shared the second row. Rebaque – a Formula 1 journeyman from Mexico City who was new to Indy cars – would line up ninth.
They all had a lot to learn.
Mears only led the first round, but his team was more concerned with the conclusion of the championship. Finish sixth or better and he would have it with two races to spare.
Rahal and Andretti traded the lead, but Andretti’s drivetrain failed shortly after the halfway point and then Unser took a few turns in front to the delight of a crowd estimated at 40,000 in today’s dispatches. The peloton quickly spread out as the race unfolded without warning.
“We were struggling to get the fuel mileage, being the long track that it is,” Mears recalled.
“Back then you couldn’t really set it from the car or from the pit. So we ended up having to pull over…and change the jet in the injection to get better fuel mileage to make sure we went all the way.
Imagine that today.
CART limited fuel, so teams needed to average 1.8 miles per gallon to cover the distance. Mears said that day he averaged around 1.4, and Roger Penske said if his driver had raced hard he would have missed 10 laps. The pit stop on lap 32 took Mears’ crew about a minute and a half.
Rebaque raced in the top five for much of the day as Andretti and 16 other riders retired.
Clouds gathered as the laps counted towards 50. Gerry Forsythe’s team brought Rebaque into the pits on lap 43 for what would be his fourth pit stop.
Rahal led Unser by 48 seconds and was approaching his final stop, but the rain had started to fall. Team owner Jim Trueman noticed the chief starter staring at his red flag and an early end seemed imminent, so Trueman bet and saved his driver for another lap.
Rahal only reached turn 12 before stopping. By the time he was towed to the pits to refuel, he was one lap down.
“At that time nobody knew how much fuel you had in a car,” Rahal said. “You guessed how much fuel you had.
“It was one of those races where whoever kept running won. And of course, as you know, Elkhart is my favorite track, so to be in a position to win the race and not be able to do it was disappointing.
The rain quickly stopped. Unser held what should have been an insurmountable lead when he took the white flag, but that was also around the time his Longhorn-Cosworth started sputtering. He stopped, blocking Unser in turn 5, where earlier he and Rebaque had argued.
Rebaque could hardly believe what was happening. He had fallen in his previous four races, and here he was, in the right place to capitalize as a victory fell in his lap. Rebaque became the first Mexican driver to win an Indy-car race.
“Although we lost time on the last pit stop for tires, it turned out to be the right thing to do,” Rebaque said in the Milwaukee Sentinel story.
“Also the rain helped because I cut the boost to run slower because it was slippery and we pulled more fuel.”
Unser finished second, one lap behind Rahal in third and Josele Garza in fourth. Mears’ long stop left him two laps behind, but finishing fifth gave him the championship.
Rebaque was injured in a crash soon after at Michigan International Speedway and never raced an Indy car again. He returned to Mexico, where he followed his father’s path in architecture and business. Rebaque largely stayed away from the Indy-car scene, although he returned to Road America for the 20th anniversary of his win.
“I knew Hector because I raced against him in Formula Atlantic in 1975, my first year,” Rahal said. “I knew him then. … Hector was a good driver.
“But it was disappointing for sure.”