The last 48 hours have been a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions for Graham Rahal.
After being bumped Sunday afternoon from the field of 33 for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge by his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Jack Harvey, Rahal finds himself back in the fight in the unlikeliest of ways as a replacement call-up after Stefan Wilson suffered a vertebrae fracture in a crash during Monday’s practice.
“I certainly feel for Stef,” Rahal said. “I know how much he puts into this, year in and year out, to get the opportunity to be here, and to see what happened to him is never good.
“I know emotionally the roller coaster he's on right now, unfortunately. I've just lived it, as well, and I know that he'll be back really strong and better than ever. That said, too, the Wilson family certainly in my life has had a very strong impact.”
Rahal was especially close with the late Justin Wilson, Stefan’s older brother, who tragically lost his life after a crash during the INDYCAR SERIES round in August 2015 at Pocono Raceway. Rahal credited Justin for making a significant impact on him personally and professionally.
That close bond is part of why, in this full-circle situation, Rahal felt it was necessary to pick up the phone when Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (DRR) owner Dennis Reinbold called.
“I think about Justin a lot,” Rahal said. “When the call came, right away it was an immediate connection. Justin helped, in more ways than one, kind of shape my career, not only as a man and who you should be, how you should act, all that stuff.
“I remember in 2006 I was in Formula Atlantic. Of course, I don't know why, but we had a joint autograph session with the Champ Car guys. We were in Portland (International Raceway). I was still dreaming that hey, maybe someday Formula One, and Justin Wilson was the guy who told me that it was way too political and I didn't have the right filter to enter Formula One. If it were not for him, I probably would have kept chasing a different dream.”
Rahal was also teammates with Justin Wilson during the 2008 season at the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. The two also were paired for one INDYCAR SERIES race in 2010 at Iowa Speedway, which marked the only other previous time Rahal drove for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Uniquely, it was the team’s No. 24 entry, the same one he will drive this Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“As I said, their entire family I have the utmost respect for, 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, it just felt right.”
This opportunity didn’t come without several challenges, though. The No. 24 DRR Cusick CareKeepers entry driven by Wilson is powered by Chevrolet, while Rahal’s full-time No. 15 United Rental entry at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) has a Honda engine.
There is also the distinction of each team having unique sponsor commitments. With racing politics in play, Rahal handed those responsibilities and various contractual clauses to his father, Bobby Rahal, co-owner of RLL. In the end, all parties were able to reach a swift resolution to make this endeavor possible.
Outside of driving for a different manufacturer for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Rahal’s partners Fifth Third Bank and United Rentals will join the effort alongside the partners at DRR.
“I can't thank Honda and Chevy and all the sponsors,” Graham Rahal said. “It's been a tough week for our sponsors, as well, and for everybody who's been able to make this possible to release me to come over here. I'm super grateful.”
Reinbold shared his team had “some flexibility” to make the deal happen, and with the aid of the elder Rahal, everything came together.
“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.
“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.”
There will also be some additional announcements coming for the car of Rahal’s one-off teammate and longtime friend, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who drives DRR’s No. 23 Chevrolet-powered entry.
Throughout his entire career, Rahal has never been propelled by Chevrolet. So, learning the powerband will present a steep learning curve. Additionally, the steering wheel, specifically where the buttons such as the pit lane speed limiter and push-to-talk, likely will be different.
“I do know that Hunter-Reay already texted me and said, ‘Hey, make sure later we need to talk about the yellow map and we need to talk about …’ because it's different,” Rahal said. “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.”
One possibility to help with a smoother transition is Rahal keeping his RLL spotter, Clay Filson, as eyes from the sky for Sunday’s race. That could be even more crucial as Ohio native Rahal will be forced to start from the 33rd and final spot, the same one Harvey bumped him from by .0044 of a second in PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying last weekend.
“Jack hasn't gotten rid of me yet,” Rahal said, with a cheeky smile. “But look, it's going to be very unique for me. This situation is super unique. I will go from here to sit in the car. You've got to think everything is different. I've been in the same place for 12 years now. …
“But to compete against them, look, I wouldn't come here if I didn't think we had a chance to win and go forward. I think these guys will tell you, they've had a very strong car all week, and Ryan is going to be a great partner.
“He's probably been my closest friend in the sport since I came into the sport. My first year here he was driving for my dad, and so Ryan and I have always been very close, so I'm excited by the opportunity. We've talked for years about eventually working together, and the situation is certainly unique, but I'm still excited to get to be with Ryan and see what we can do on Carb Day and make this thing go forward.
“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 (Cusick) and Dennis and Gary (Tennyson) and this entire organization. That's my job. So that's what we're going to try to go do.”