The Home to the Acura Sports Car Challenge Has Hosted Sports Cars for Nearly 60 Years
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In its current form, the Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by the TLX Type S at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course has only taken place for the last three years. But true to the track’s name, Mid-Ohio has hosted top-level sports car races since Ken Miles (of Ford vs. Ferrari movie fame) drove a Shelby Cobra to victory in a 270-kilometer United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) event in 1963.
Local businessman Les Griebling and a few friends created a road course on a tract of undulating land outside of Lexington, Ohio, as a private venue where they could test out their sports cars. Over the last 58 years, the list of Mid-Ohio race winners is a who’s-who of legendary sports car drivers and iconic cars.
Like Miles. Hap Sharp in Jim Hall’s Chaparral. Mark Donohue in a Team Penske McLaren. The Brumos Porsche duo of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood. Al Holbert, who is the all-time Mid-Ohio record holder with six wins, including three consecutive from 1984-86, teamed with Derek Bell in the memorable Lowenbrau Porsche 962. Geoff Brabham and the Electramotive Nissan followed that up with another three-peat. And we’re not even up to 1990.
In the 21st Century, prototypes from Audi, Porsche and Acura all earned the winner’s champagne. Acura has claimed overall victory five times at its home track since 2009 when Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud combined to win. Acura currently boasts a three-year Mid-Ohio win streak, achieved in conjunction with Team Penske in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class from 2018-20.
One of the most successful drivers at Mid-Ohio is Bobby Rahal, who won three times each in IMSA sports cars and Indy cars at a track he became synonymous with. Rahal’s mentor, Red Roof Inn founder Jim Trueman, purchased Mid-Ohio in 1982 and upgraded the facility.
Rahal won the Lumbermen’s six-hour race at Mid-Ohio along with Brian Redman in 1979, scored another triumph in a March prototype in 1983, and added his final Mid-Ohio sports car trophy in a Porsche 962 with Jochen Mass in 1987.
The 13-turn road course midway between Columbus and Cleveland remains close to Rahal’s heart. The Chicago native lived in Columbus for some 30 years; the team known today as BMW Team RLL in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship started out as the Truesports Indy car team, based in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard. Rahal ventured into IndyCar team ownership in 1992, and he added sports car racing to the slate in 2009, in partnership with BMW.
“My father was at Mid-Ohio for the first-ever race in 1962, and I came as a little kid,” Rahal recalled. “I don’t know if I’ve been there every year since then, but it has to be close. My experiences at Mid-Ohio, for sure, are part of what inspired me to be a professional race car driver. I would come to the track to watch Can-Am races while in college because Denison University is only about 30 miles south. I saw a lot of great racing at Mid-Ohio – Can-Am, USRRC, Formula 5000 – you name it. It’s certainly one of the better circuits in North America.”
Rahal’s victory in the 1979 Lumbermen’s race was one of the most memorable of his long and successful career. He and Redman drove a modified Ralt Can-Am car that was developed and engineered by renowned designer Tony Cicale.
“That was a ‘you bring it, you run it’ sort of race that was open to all kinds of cars,” Rahal said. “I think I won more prize money in that than I did in most IndyCar races until I won the Indy 500 in 1986.”
Rahal particularly enjoyed IMSA’s GTP era in the 1980s and ’90s as prototypes got faster and more technically sophisticated.
“The GTP days had a great mix of drivers and manufacturers,” he said. “In those days, you didn’t have Balance of Performance, and if you weren’t fast enough, you had to figure out how to get fast enough. Speeds were going up every year, and by the late ’80s they were very fast, purpose-built racing cars. The Porsche 962 was a car you could drive very hard, but it was a forgiving car. It was a car that could do almost anything.”
Rahal cited the 962 as perhaps his favorite all-time racing car. “From an endurance standpoint, there’s really no question that the 962 was the ultimate,” he said. “It was a comfortable car, and it was fast. It may not have been the ultimate single-lap car, but over a 24-hour race or a 12-hour race, it took all the abuse that a car takes, and it was the ultimate car from my generation that I drove.”
It’s clear that sports car racing holds a special place in Rahal’s heart, even though he is most famous for his three IndyCar championships and victory in the 1986 Indianapolis 500.
“Sports car racing was something I always wanted to do, and I was fortunate to be able to drive in the era of the Porsche 935, 956 and 962,” he said. “I won some races in those cars and got to run at some great places. Winning at Mid-Ohio was a career highlight, in IndyCars and sports cars.”
The WeatherTech Championship takes to Mid-Ohio for this year’s Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by the TLX Type S from May 14-16. The race airs live at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, May 16 on NBCSN and IMSA Radio (XM 392, SiriusXM Online 992). Tickets are available at midohio.com.