Of course Bobby Rahal signed reigning Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot to drive in select IndyCar races next year. Among IndyCar’s current ownership group, the three-time CART IndyCar title winner has become one of the most distinguished supporters of American talent, and with the acquisition of the 22-year-old Californian, Rahal and team co-owners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan are adding another chapter to their growing legacy.
“I think a lot of it comes from following the example Jim Trueman set for me,” Rahal (RIGHT) said of his former friend and sponsor who lost his fight with cancer shortly after they won the 1986 Indy 500. “A lot of people only think of Jim being associated with me, but he supported a lot of young Americans like Willy T. Ribbs and Ed Pimm before we got together. Making sure you’re giving Americans a shot was always really important to Jim. The kick he got out of it was seeing a driver run with the opportunity, and it’s the same for me.”
With Trueman in his corner, Rahal’s legend began to build in the 1980s, and when he added team ownership to his plate in the early 1990s, honoring Trueman’s tradition of backing homegrown talent became a priority.
“We’ve worked with a lot of American drivers since we started in CART like Mike Groff; we signed Bryan Herta and we won together after he left Ganassi, and then we had Jimmy Vasser later in his career and won,” Rahal added.
“And if you look to the younger Americans, we really got started with Mike Borkowski, we had Buddy Rice and won Indy together (LEFT), then I signed Danica Patrick out of Formula Atlantic, and we signed RHR (Ryan Hunter-Reay) after his Champ Car career fell apart and had good success there.”
Working with a rookie like Pigot comes with a few inherent risks that many team owners intentionally avoid. Rahal understands why, but doesn’t necessarily agree with the lack of pro-American efforts demonstrated in some corners of the IndyCar paddock.
“It’s a higher risk to take kids right out of Indy Lights, and if they’re American and haven’t spent time in Europe, sometimes there’s even less interest. You don’t see Roger [Penske] looking into the junior categories for talent to sign in IndyCar, at least, although maybe he has before, but he and a lot of the others only want drivers with a certain track record,” he said.
“You’re rolling the dice a little bit, and Chip has done it recently with Sage Karam, but you don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get with a guy coming out of Lights. I wish we had more team owners looking at American drivers, and if you aren’t willing to at least give someone like Spencer a chance, how are you going to find out if there’s someone ready to become a future champion?”
Joining an all-American team like RLL is a perfect fit for Pigot, who recognizes his role as the most recent member of Rahal’s red-white-and-blue initiative.
“When I got the call from Bobby, I was really excited,” he said. “It’s great being in an American team, and I can learn a lot from Graham who really showed how good this team is last season. And I know IndyCar is excited about having young Americans who can take it to the European drivers coming in. There’s a lot of American pride, and Bobby was one of the greatest drivers in his era, so there’s a lot coming together here for fans to support.”
The financial backing for Pigot’s Mazda Road to Indy graduation is part of the package he earned for winning the Indy Lights title. Although he’s only confirmed for a handful of races with RLL at the moment, the team is searching for more sponsorship to keep Pigot alongside Graham Rahal.
“We’re hopeful for Spencer; he has the skills, I like the way he goes about his craft and he lets his driving do the talking,” Rahal said. “Having him next to Graham for the entire year is our goal, so we’re chasing down leads to hopefully make that happen. He’s a fine young man, and I’ve known his father for quite a while. It’s like a quest for the two of them, and it’s satisfying for me to see a father smiling about his son making the grade.”
If Pigot can reach his potential with RLL in IndyCar, Rahal is confident it will send another message to those who are more inclined to look elsewhere in the world for up-and-coming talent.
“For me, there’s always been an opinion in Europe that Americans can’t drive, and we’ve proven that isn’t the case at all,” he declared. “I think it’s fun to show the world Americans can drive. In Formula 1 in the 1960s, no one could make that claim with Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, or Bob Bondurant.
“And in IndyCar, you could say that signing American drivers fell out of fashion a while ago. It’s like a lot of people bought into that idea about Europeans being better than Americans, and I just don’t believe it has any merit. We see a lot of potential in Spencer, and yeah, we’re proud to add another American to our team.”