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The Story of Graham Rahal’s Rollercoaster Indy 500

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

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Graham Rahal will have earned a lot of fans across this year’s Month of May. And that isn’t necessarily through successes - more through the way he has dealt with adversity, and plenty of it during the Indy 500.

It is no secret that his Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) Racing team didn’t bring the best package to the 2023 Indianapolis 500. As soon as the engines were first turned up to the maximum on Fast Friday, it was clear that the RLL team would be confined towards the rear of the field, come qualifying.

It was quickly evident that, with one driver to be bumped, given there were 34 cars battling for 33 spots, it would be a serious battle for the RLL cars to avoid having to return for Last Chance Qualifying on Sunday. Ultimately, it transpired that the three full-time cars on the team would have to battle to avoid the bump, with one-off RLL entry Katherine Legge - the fastest woman in Indy 500 history - securing her place in the field on Saturday.

Come Bump Day, it was safe to say that Christian Lundgaard would make the field, and with relative ease, along with Dale Coyne Racing rookie Sting Ray Robb, meaning it would be an intra-team, Hunger Games-esque battle between good friends Rahal and Jack Harvey to try and make the field, and avoid being bumped out.

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After the first set of runs, Harvey was in a perilous position - 0.7 miles per hour behind Rahal. There was a lull within the hour while engines cooled, and Harvey’s team shrewdly opted to send him out on track to do some slower laps to achieve this. He came up short in his first attempt to leapfrog Rahal despite improving, and it seemed that was curtains.

But that wasn’t to be the case.

Despite the engine being warm, there was urgency to get straight back out on track. You would usually see a large waiting period between runs, but against the odds, and thanks in part to a change to the car during the run, which saw an inexplicable improvement from second to third lap, Harvey managed to edge his way ahead of Rahal.

The margins were as fine as could be - 0.007 miles per hour and 0.0044 seconds - as is often the case around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But that didn’t matter. The fact was that Rahal was out of the race. He was helpless, too, given Harvey ran at the eleventh hour and no time was left for a response.

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30 years on from Bobby Rahal, who is an Indy 500 winner no less, being bumped from the field for the Indy 500, it was another story of a Rahal not making the field - Bobby’s son Graham, for the team that he owns.

It looked like a rough ride whenever Rahal entered the track, such was the evil nature of his car. It was nerve-wracking to watch him on qualifying runs, with the car seeming to want to crash every time.

He was helpless in the regard of his car simply being slow, including in a straight line. He was over five miles per hour off the leading drivers, and that is not remotely a disparity induced by driving pedigree. Rahal’s woes were compounded by his weight jacker failing on the first lap of his sole run in Last Chance Qualifying, further compromising his pace, including through handling in the corners.

Even without that, it seemed almost destined to be a tale of woe for Rahal; he was on the floor searching for issues with his car at one point in practice. By the time it came to qualifying, however, it was too late for a chassis change, which was what the team would have favoured - an indication that there were inherent issues with the car.

A six-time race winner and 28-time podium-sitter in IndyCar, and also nearly an Indy 500 winner as recently as 2021, there should be no doubt that Rahal was out-driving his car.

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The Bump Day drama was an exemplification of how beautiful yet how crushing sport can be - often simultaneously. It was elation for Harvey, even if he clearly felt for his teammate, and dejection for Rahal. The bump adds to the spectacle and is wholly necessary, but the pain for the driver on the receiving end is unfathomable.

In that moment, it could be easy to allow despondency or anger to engulf you. But that wasn’t what Rahal allowed to happen to himself. His first response was to go up to every individual team member and embrace them. It was a sight that encapsulated Rahal’s graciousness as a sportsman, even during the lowest of low moments.

“This place, it doesn’t come easy, it doesn’t just happen,” Rahal told NBC Sports in the immediate aftermath. “We weren’t good enough. We were the slowest of our cars, just on pure pace, all week. And unfortunately that happens. But you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat.”

“I knew from the start we were in trouble…” was as far as Rahal got in his next response before the emotion became too much. Tears started to flow as Rahal perched on the side of his car.

It was one of the lowest moments of Rahal’s 16-year IndyCar career to date. But there was yet to be another twist…

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Rahal’s story in fact wasn’t over for the 2023 Month of May, after being bumped. The opening week of the event had been clean without any crashes or major incidents, but come Monday practice, that was to change.

Full focus was on race running, with only four hours of practice time before Sunday’s 107th running of the Indy 500, and during this, a check-up, even if not of abnormal proportion, was enough for Legge to run into the back of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Stefan Wilson at speed. Brake performance is not as good on a super speedway car, and Legge couldn’t slow even with downshifts.

There was a major impact with the safer barrier, and while the repair job was significant, and RLL’s wretched month continued. Legge climbed out of the car, unscathed, and did not require a chassis change. There was, however, an anxious wait, as Wilson remained in his car before being carried into an ambulance on a stretcher, albeit raising his thumb up to the crowd.

It would later be announced that Wilson fractured a vertebrae - not aided by the head-on impact and his slightly taller stature. This necessitated surgery, and he would miss the race, which was especially gutting given Wilson works tirelessly year-on-year to prepare one-off entries for the Indy 500.

In the shorter term, a replacement driver was needed. And lo and behold, it was Rahal sitting behind the microphone in the press conference room, as he was announced to be deputising for Wilson.

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There were other options, namely JR Hildebrand and Sage Karam, but Rahal made the most sense, given there would be no need for a refresher session. While it would be hard for any stand-in to drive a completely new chassis, Rahal at least had his eye in.

It was a strange, unprecedented situation to have been bumped, yet be able to race. And racing by virtue of a competitor’s injury, it will no doubt have been hard for Rahal to process his emotions. But, after being bumped, he said everything happens for a reason; that logic remained following the announcement he would be driving the No.24 car for Dreyer & Reinbold.

It was meaningful that he would be replacing Wilson. Stefan’s late brother Justin was a big part of Rahal’s career before his tragic passing, and Rahal has since continued to support the Wilson family. Back in 2015, Rahal arranged for the whole grid to donate helmets to Wilson’s Children’s Fund.

If it wasn’t Wilson who was to be replaced, would Rahal have stepped up?

That remains to be seen. He most likely would have taken the opportunity not to miss out on being part of racing’s greatest spectacle. But he did detail that he had resigned himself to a week of playing golf, and valuable family time.

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Upon taking up Wilson’s duty in his absence from this year’s race, Rahal always maintained that he wasn’t taking over at Dreyer & Reinbold - his mindset was that he was instead merely driving Wilson’s car. “Make no mistake, this is Stef’s ride,” he said.

Rahal also admitted in the press conference that his response when initially asked by Dennis Reinbold whether he could fill the vacancy was: “I don’t know if I want to waste your time.”

There was a logistical headache of Rahal only having driven Honda-powered cars, and Dreyer & Reinbold are supplied by Chevrolet. Yet, credit to the camaraderie within IndyCar - no matter rivalries on track - solidarity was shown, and an agreement was swiftly reached between the two engine manufacturers.

“This is just better for our amazing racing fans that love our sport as we do,” President and Technical Director of Honda Performance Development, David Salters, said in a statement.

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Unfortunately for Rahal, his rollercoaster month hit another low, as a battery issue prevented him from seeing the green flag come race day. He would have to start two laps down, which put him on the back foot from the outset, and led to an uphill climb all through the race.

Rahal ended up running a fairly nondescript race as a result, but he did a creditable job to jump into a completely new car and get up to speed to the extent he was competitive, even if laps down. It was certainly a car that seemed to be performing, so it was a shame that no immense story of redemption could really ensue.

Ultimately, Rahal’s day would end prematurely, having been an innocent party in the incident that brought out the final red flag of the race. It epitomised the tumult of a month Rahal was forced to endure.

But, regardless of the hardships, his conduct throughout will have earned the affinity of many motorsport fans.


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