Graham Rahal, an established IndyCar series driver, was the height of professional despair Sunday when he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
Two days later, while Rahal can hardly be described as elated at the turn of events that put him unexpectedly back in the Indianapolis 500, he is thankful for the chance.
Rahal was announced as injured driver Stefan Wilson’s replacement in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Rahal will drive for Dreyer & Reinbold, a one-off opportunity that takes him away from his usual Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.
“I don’t feel good about filling in for an injured driver. I feel for Stefan. I’ve said that numerous times here. I feel for him tremendously because I do know how much this means to him and how much work he puts in year in and year out to be here,” Rahal said. “Unfortunately in racing, things happen. Look at the last 48 hours in my life even. It’s been all over the board.
“In some other situations, I don’t think that it would have excited me as much, but being that it was Stef and being that it was a Wilson, and in the situation that it was in, I just felt like it was my calling to jump in and help.”
Rahal cited his relationship with Stefan Wilson’s older brother, the late Justin Wilson, a good friend of Rahal’s. The elder Wilson was killed at Pocono Raceway in 2015 in a freak accident when a nose cone from another car in an accident ahead of Wilson on track struck his helmet.
“I have the utmost respect for (the Wilson family), and in a scenario like this, I felt very – had it been something different, I don’t know how compelled I would have been, particularly with the storylines of the last couple days,” Rahal said. “Trust me, for me it was a little bit of a bittersweet moment. Do I do it? Do I not? Is it appropriate? Is it not? But in this circumstance with (team owner) Dennis (Reinbold), with (Dreyer & Reinbold partner) Don (Cusick), with (Wilson’s sponsor) Gary (Tennyson), with Stef, it just felt right.”
Rahal will be obliged to start in the back of the field in the No. 24 car. Wilson, who injured the 12th throacic vertabrae in a two-car accident with Katherine Legge on Monday, qualified 25th but was ruled out of the Indy 500 due to his injuries.
All of the drivers who qualified behind Wilson move up one spot.
Putting Rahal in the Dreyer & Reinbold machine wasn’t just as simple as Rahal not being in the race and the Dreyer & Reinbold team needing a qualified driver.
For one, Dreyer & Reinbold is a Chevrolet-powered team and RLL is Honda. That alone might have been a deal breaker without significant cooperation on the part of both teams and manufacturers.
“We just kind of went off on our separate paths with this goal in mind to explore and to see if it was possible,” said Reinbold, who worked with RLL owner Bobby Rahal in the manufacturer negotiation. “They came back, and a couple hurdles later that we crossed, it started looking good. We kept crossing off things on our checklist that had to happen for this to be a possibility.”
It was also not as simple for Rahal. He has raced for Honda for the entirety of his IndyCar career. There are racing complications for him to overcome running a different engine.
“For me, steering wheel — I literally I haven’t changed my steering wheel in 12 years. I still run the same base wheel that I’ve run since the Newman/Haas days, took it from Newman-Haas to Ganassi to RLL,” Rahal said. “It’s different. It just is, the way that people operate. I’ve been so programmed and tuned into the Honda side for so long that this is going to be a unique scenario.”
The only practice session Rahal will get is Friday’s two-hour Carb Day practice. Rahal hadn’t even been fitted for a seat when he met the media Tuesday morning.
There were sponsorship concerns, too. Rahal’s primary sponsor is United Rentals on his RLL car. Wilson’s sponsor is CareKeepers.
“It’s just been a group effort to try to figure out what we can do. So, yeah, our car will look a little bit different to accommodate some of those things in order for us all to work together and just get to the end goal,” Reinbold said.
Rahal will compete against his regular team, an unusual circumstance, though one born out of RLL’s inability to find speed in qualifying. Ironically, Legge is a RLL driver and her Monday Turn 1 collision with Wilson set this scenario into motion.
“I wish my team at RLL the best for sure. I certainly want to see them succeed. But I also wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t want to go win with Don and Dennis and Gary and this entire organization. That’s my job. So that’s what we’re going to try to go do,” Rahal said.
Reinbold boiled the entire situation down to its essence.
“This was a dire situation for us. Graham had his situation Sunday. We’re trying to turn it into a win-win situation, hopefully win-win-win, being Sunday with the final win. That’s what we did. We just rolled up our sleeves and went to work,” Reinbold said.
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