The 1998 Reynard 98i driven by Bobby Rahal in his last Champ Car race. Photos courtesy The Petersen Museum.
After an open-wheel racing career that spanned nearly two decades, Bobby Rahal drove his last Champ Car race on November 1, 1998, at California Speedway in Fontana. Recently, Rahal donated the Reynard 98i driven in his last race to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, giving visitors a chance to see a piece of American racing history up close.
In 1998, Champ Car – technically the Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART – was the pinnacle of the racing ladder in the United States. Though an upstart series – the Indy Racing League – began competition in 1996, the biggest-name drivers, in the fastest cars, still called Champ Car home. The Indy Racing League’s biggest draw was the Indy 500, and while Champ Car teams weren’t excluded from competition, running at Indy required building – and testing – a completely different open-wheel racing car. With big-name sponsors content to remain in Champ Car, the two series would remain divided for several more years.
Rahal’s car carries the signatures of all 1998 Team Rahal members.
During Rahal’s final season in Champ Car, five constructors – Reynard, Swift, Penske, Lola, and Eagle – manufactured chassis for the series, and four companies – Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota provided engines. The most popular chassis was the Reynard 98i, run by 13 of the 18 teams in the series that season, while the Ford XB and Mercedes-Benz V-8 engines proved the most popular, run by six teams each. Though only four teams ran the Honda V-8, one of those squads was Chip Ganassi Racing, and at the end of the season the Ganassi team had amassed 10 victories in 19 races, handing Honda the Engine Manufacturer’s Cup. The Reynard chassis, meanwhile, carried the winners to victory in 18 of 19 races, easily earning the company the Chassis Constructor’s Cup.
The Reynard 98i was an evolution of the previous season’s 97i, incorporating slight changes in aerodynamics and construction meant to benefit both drivers and mechanics. In pre-season testing at Sebring, Motorsport.com reported that the 98i chassis consistently lapped the circuit around one second quicker than other Champ Car chassis, the clearest possible sign that gains had been made in its development.
When powered by the turbocharged, 2.65-liter Ford XB V-8 used by Team Rahal in 1998, a Champ Car produced roughly 875 horsepower. Though acceleration and top speed were dependent upon gearing and aero configuration, Car and Driver’s published data showed a Reynard 98i accelerating from 0-60 MPH in 2.9 seconds, running the quarter-mile in 9.5 seconds at 167 MPH and loading to 1.64g in a corner. That made the Reynard 98i quicker than a Renault F1 car of the day, though the Renault was able to corner at a significantly higher limit of 2.7g.
The oval course aero package is setup with top speed, not maximum downforce, in mind.
As Champ Car races were contested on ovals, road courses and street circuits, the aero package and setup differed from track to track. As donated to the Petersen Museum, Rahal’s Reynard 98i wears a low-drag, low downforce setup common with oval tracks, chosen for higher top speed at the expense of aerodynamic grip. Had the car been set up in road course trim, both front and rear wings would have been more prominent.
Today, Rahal owns a string of successful automobile dealerships and remains active in motorsports as co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which competes in the IndyCar, United SportsCar Championship and Global Rallycross Championship series. No stranger to the Petersen Museum, Rahal sits on the museum’s board of directors.