“I knew from the start we were in trouble.” – Graham Rahal
Thirty years ago nearly to the day, Bobby Rahal sat helplessly in his race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Eddie Cheever dramatically bumped him from the Indianapolis 500’s field. Rahal got a last chance as the qualifying session ended, but his car simply wasn’t fast enough.
Sunday, Rahal felt similar anguish, this time as a co-owner of four NTT INDYCAR SERIES cars, including one driven by his son, Graham. None of them had performed well this week, with only Katherine Legge earning a position in the guaranteed top 30 on Saturday – and she was 30th.
In Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying session, Rahal had three drivers in danger of missing the 107th Running, and as the minutes ticked away, it was his son and Jack Harvey fighting for the last position, an emotional inner-team battle that didn’t seem fair.
Graham, with a four-lap average of 229.159 mph, appeared to be safe in the 33rd spot as Harvey’s second qualifying attempt of the day came up short. But Harvey’s crew made a slight adjustment to the No. 30 PeopleReady Honda, and the driver regrouped. He rolled off with 85 seconds left on the clock, leaving no time for Graham to respond, if necessary.
Graham remained strapped in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda as the tension soared to an unspeakable level. Regardless of what happened on Harvey’s final run, there would be a loser in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing camp.
Harvey’s first lap was quick enough, but the second lap was slower as the grip predictably slipped away and Harvey’s hope slipping away with it. But then came slight improvement on Lap 3, and there was just enough speed on the fourth lap to keep his month alive.
The separation between the drivers’ four-lap runs was .0044 of a second over 10 miles, an almost incalculable measurement. The difference was between relief in Harvey’s pit box and despair in Rahal’s, and the despair was painful to watch, as it was Bobby’s in 1993, Team Penske’s in 1995, James Hinchcliffe’s in 2018 and Fernando Alonso’s in 2019.
Before even removing his helmet, Rahal hugged each of his crew members. He answered a couple of questions on television before going to the sidepod of his car to bury his head in his hands. Wife Courtney tried to console, as the presence of his oldest daughter, Harlan, brought a momentary smile amid the tears that kept flowing, but there were few words for what happened.
“I told you, (the car) was just really slow,” he said. “It just sucks. It’s life. You’ve got to go through hurdles, bad ones of some sort. This is my turn.”
A mention of his father missing the 1993 race brought more moist eyes to the 34-year-old who has twice finished third in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and had not missed it in 15 previous attempts.
“It's hard to imagine it’s us in this position, but I could have told you at the (IMS) test in April that we’re in trouble,” Rahal said. “You (struggle at) that test and it’s too late, and it just came to a head today.”
A factor in Rahal’s run was a failed weight jacker, which the team thought it had corrected after similar trouble in the practice earlier in the day. Located in the cockpit, the weight jacker allows the driver to adjust the car’s ride height on the fly, and that tool wasn’t there for Rahal to adjust when he needed it most.
“It ruined the handling of the car … but you can’t do anything (while on the track),” he said. “You try to adjust the tools in the car, which I only have one – the front bar – and unfortunately everything that needed to happen didn’t happen, so, it’s not an excuse it’s what happened.
“(Was) that enough to make a difference? I think so, but at the end of the day it doesn’t make it (better). Whether it’s Jack in (the race) or me, it still sucks. One of our cars is going home.”
Harvey certainly wasn’t celebrating a berth in his seventh “500.” He considers Graham one of his best friends in the sport, they’ve become strong teammates, and he knows how much of a blow Rahal sitting this one out is for a team’s sponsors, including United Rentals, one of the longest-tenured in the series. Days like this hurt the finances as well as hearts.
“It’s not a good feeling, to be honest with you,” Harvey said. “It’s not a moment necessarily for celebration. As a team we’re going to be starting 30th, 31st and 33rd, and I hated it today. It felt like we were in the ‘Hunger Games’ with our own team.
“But of the four people driving, three of them are in. I know it’s not great odds, and it’s not a great feeling. To be honest, it’s unbelievable relief. I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s actually quite hard to process it. There’s a lot of emotions, like massively grateful to be in the race, massively sad that we bumped out a teammate because I know what that means for the entire team.”
Harvey found Rahal as quickly as he could.
“I said to Graham, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.’ What do you say to someone in that moment? I want to be in the race. I want to be in the 107th Running of the Indy 500. I want to do it for me, for my family, my friends. I want to do it for the mechanics on the team, for everybody on the team, for all of the sponsors that we have on the No. 30 car, especially for people (here) this weekend.
“I hate what it means for (Rahal’s) car and for Graham and all his crew because at the end of the day we are one united effort, and we know there’s a lot of work ahead, but I just said to him: ‘I just wanted to do the best four laps I could. I’m sorry it bumped you out.’”
There are examples through the years of teams swapping out one driver for another in the days leading up to the race, but Rahal, the driver, said he will not support a decision to do that with Legge, who will make her first start with the team and first since 2013.
“At this place, you earn (a starting position),” Rahal said. “It’s not a given. … This place, it doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t just happen. We came up short. You’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat.
“It's going to be strange next weekend, but we’ll be here to support the team and the sponsors and everybody else (and) see what happens.”