After being bumped from the 107th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, Graham Rahal might have thought that his unscheduled week off would include lots of golf and time with his wife and two daughters, or helping his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates with their race preparation.
Instead, he will be making his 16th Indy 500 start.
In a surprising move, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing announced Tuesday morning (May 23) that Rahal will replace injured Stefan Wilson in the No. 24 DRR/Cusick Motorsports car for Sunday’s race.
Wilson, who qualified 25th, suffered a fractured vertebrae in practice on Monday after being involved in a Turn 1 crash with RLL driver Katherine Legge, and the Briton will be unable to compete. The team will be going to a backup chassis and Rahal will start the race from the 33rd position.
Rahal’s main sponsors, Fifth Third Bank and United Rentals, will also be coming along with him.
“Graham was the first choice,” DRR owner Dennis Reinbold said in a press conference. “It was so sudden, there wasn’t a lot of time to think, so [No. 24 co-entrant] Don [Cusick] and I sat down immediately when we found out Stefan couldn’t run. My whole goal is to win this race, and we agreed immediately that if we could somehow pull it off, we would go down the path of putting Graham in the car.”
On the surface, this was a surprising decision as a lot of hurdles had to be cleared. The biggest, of course, is that RLL and the Rahal family have a long history with engine manufacturer Honda, while DRR uses Chevrolet power.
Reinbold got things going on the Chevy side, and RLL team principal, 1986 Indy 500 champion, and Graham’s father Bobby Rahal jumped into the conversation with Honda. After what Reinbold called a “whirlwind” of negotiations, all the correct boxes were checked, and they were able to make a deal.
At first, external speculation pointed to former longtime DRR driver Sage Karam or Indy 500 veteran J.R. Hildebrand. Though neither attempted to qualify in 2023, both competed in last year’s 500, and Hildebrand had passed a driver physical this week, just in case.
But if either of those two had jumped into the car, it would have required a veteran’s refresher test, which doesn’t take long (only about an hour) but would cut into preparation time if it would have been done on Carb Day on Friday.
What DRR/Cusick gets is a current IndyCar driver who has three top five finishes in the Indy 500 on his resume and knows the ins and outs of the 2023 IndyCar configuration. Rahal has also driven for DRR once before (at Iowa Speedway in 2010, when Honda was IndyCar’s sole engine supplier) and has long-term relationships with many of the people working with the team.
It’s also a bit personal. Rahal was close friends with Justin Wilson, Stefan’s older brother who was killed in 2015 at Pocono Raceway when he was struck in the head by debris. In the aftermath, it was Rahal who spearheaded a drive to raise money to help Wilson’s family, and feels that jumping into his brother’s car is the right thing to do.
“It’s an interesting situation across the board,” Rahal said. “I don’t feel good for Stefan, I feel for him tremendously. I know how much work he puts in year in and year out to be here. Unfortunately in racing, things happen. In some other situations I don’t think it would’ve excited me as much, being that it is Stefan, I felt it was my calling to jump in to help. I want to go out and make everybody proud.
“It was an honor to get the call.”
Rahal’s new team appears to have even better speed. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who drives the No. 23 DRR entry and will be Rahal’s teammate Sunday, qualified a solid 18th and has had a car that has driven very well in traffic. On Monday, the 2014 Indy 500 champion was 11th-quickest in practice with a speed of 225.858 mph.
Rahal will take the green flag of the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge from the 33rd and final starting position. Coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET on Peacock, and at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.
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