INDIANAPOLIS – Bobby Rahal thought he never would experience the same nightmare twice in his life of getting bumped out of the Indy 500 starting lineup.
It happened to Rahal as a driver in 1993, just one year after he had won the 1992 CART championship.
Thirty years later as a team owner, the nightmare scenario developed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All four of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars were slow – so slow, in fact, they were in a class by themselves in the back of the pack.
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The saving grace for Rahal, the team owner, was with 34 cars entered for the 33-car starting lineup, three of his four drivers would make the race.
Unfortunately, that driver turned out to be Rahal’s son, Graham.
The 34-year-old Rahal has enjoyed a special relationship with his father. He was precocious as a youngster, extremely self-confident – almost cocky – as a young adult and driven as a man.
As a team owner, Rahal has to be impartial to all four of his drivers, including Christian Lundgaard, a talented 21-year-old from Denmark, Jack Harvey, a likable but underperforming 30-year-old from England, Graham Rahal and for this year’s Indianapolis 500, 42-year-old Katherine Legge of England.
Legge had not driven an Indy car in 10 years but was able to earn the last starting position – the outside of Row 10 – in Saturday’s first day of qualifications for the 107th Indianapolis 500. Legge’s four-lap average in the No. 44 Honda was 231.070 miles per hour.
The four drivers that had to fight for the final three positions in last chance qualifying included Dale Coyne Racing’s Sting Ray Robb, and all three of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s drivers.
“Today, felt like we were in the ‘Hunger Games’ with our own team,” Harvey said.
It was another example of how cruel the Indianapolis 500 can be to a racing team, a race driver, or the Rahal family.
Lundgaard was the first driver to make a four-lap run Sunday afternoon and was the fastest of the slow, with a four-lap average of 229.649 miles per hour. Robb was next and ran a four-lap average of 229.549 mph in the No. 51 Honda.
Harvey went out third and his time was the slowest yet – just 228.477 mph which put him tentatively in 33rd position and on the Bubble.
It was Graham Rahal’s turn.
His father once coined the term “It’s Great to Be Graham” when he was a 17-year-old driver in the Champ Car Series driving for the famed Newman Haas Lanigan team in 2007.
When the Champ Car Series folded and was absorbed by the old Indy Racing League to become today’s NTT IndyCar Series, Rahal drove to victory in his first race in the combined series, becoming the youngest winner in IndyCar history when he won the 2008 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Rahal’s team had scrambled in Gasoline Alley making changes to the No. 15 United Auto Rentals Honda to ensure that Rahal made the Indy 500 starting lineup.
To do that, however, he would have to bump out his teammate, Harvey.
Rahal hit the 2.5-mile oval in his Honda and put down two decent laps at 229.614 mph and 229.298 mph.
But there was trouble brewing in Rahal’s Honda on the first lap.
The weight jacker broke and the driver was having to hang on to the race car to make sure it remained in control while still running a speed fast enough to make the race.
“That ruins the handle of the car and the aerodynamics, but you can’t do anything,” Graham said. “You try to adjust the tools on the car with the front bar, but everything that need to happen, it didn’t happen.
“It also failed on us on practice, too, but we thought we had fixed it. Then it happened again.”
Sitting on a golf cart on pit lane, 70-year-old Bobby Rahal as he tried to remain calm but was obviously concerned.
Graham’s third lap was 228.975 mph, an expected drop-off from the Firestone Firehawk Tires that begin to lose grip when Indy cars are running on the aged edge.
Rahal’s final lap was 228.751 mph, and that gave him a four-lap average of 229.159 mph.
There were 38 minutes remaining in the Last Chance Qualifying session and teams are not allowed to work on the race cars, other than put air coolers on the car in an attempt to cool it off.
The idle time on track only added to the drama.
Even Bobby Rahal wondered what Harvey’s crew might do. They sent Harvey out at 4:41 p.m. to run two laps in the 172-mph range, simply to cool off the car.
“You can’t touch the car,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports on pit lane. “It took half an hour to run four cars through and there were 21 minutes left. If we don’t send Jack out, then Graham would be in.
“But we can’t consider that.
“It really doesn’t pay for Sting Ray to go out because he is in. I would doubt seriously we would see a big move in speed from the time we did earlier. They also have to cool the engines off, which takes a long time. They may not get the engine cooled off in time to go out.
“In Graham’s case, the weight jacker broke and that is a problem. He still turned in a pretty good time, but it would have been a lot better if it hadn’t failed.
“I haven’t spoken to them (Harvey’s crew) to see what their strategy might be. But if I were them, I’d wait until the end to go back out.”
Been trying to find the words to describe yesterday. Heartbroken to not make the #INDY500. We gave it everything we had and came up short. I hate it for the team, our crew and our partners. I’m thankful for the opportunity to continue to compete in this series, the kind words… pic.twitter.com/5Ux7pkDfVS
— Graham Rahal (@GrahamRahal) May 22, 2023
Meantime, Rahal remained in the cockpit of his car, ready to run if he had to make a last chance run.
Harvey went out for another run at 4:55 p.m. and turned in a 228.929 mph average for four laps. It wasn’t enough to bump Rahal from the field.
He quickly came back down pit road; the team slapped on a fresh set of Firestones and immediately sent him back onto the track.
It was make-or-break time for Harvey.
By the time his four-lap run was completed at 229.166 mph, he made the field and broke Graham Rahal’s heart.
“We weren’t good enough.”
Graham Rahal was overcome with emotion after being bumped by Jack Harvey. #INDY500 pic.twitter.com/FJeeTjcOUx
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 21, 2023
Graham climbed out the car, realizing he could do nothing as his teammate knocked him out of the race.
A nice-sized crowd that came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday erupted in a loud roar when Harvey made the race and Graham Rahal was crushed.
“That’s the difficult part, you can’t run again, you are stuck there,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Everybody puts a lot into this. We just came up short.
“I’m surprised with the heat soak and everything that Jack was able to do it.
“This place, it doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t just happen. We weren’t good enough. We were the slowest of our cars on pure pace all week.
“You have to be positive. You have to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat.
“This sucks here.”
Rahal began to feel the emotion of the moment as he tried to reflect on when he knew earlier this week that there were problems with the car and the lack of speed.
“I knew from the start we were in trouble,” Rahal told NBC Sports before he broke down in tears and had to walk away.
He cried hard from the pain of missing the Indianapolis 500. His wife, Courtney, and his two young daughters, Harlan Anne, and Tinley, came to console the crestfallen man.
In a moment of absolute heartbreak, @GrahamRahal was there for his daughter. 💙 #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/Xk23WnaE3j
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 21, 2023
Graham Rahal is tall, strong and can sometimes have an upfront personality.
But he’s just a man who feels pain and heartbreak like everyone else.
On Sunday, it hurt, and it hurt him bad.
He cried into his wife’s arms. Then one of his little girls came over to make sure Daddy was OK.
Graham hugged her tight to his tear-drenched face.
It was a private, personal moment that was on full public display and a place that creates bigger than life heroes but has a cruel side that is dark and grim.
“To see them, definitely makes this better,” Graham admitted before breaking down a second time in tears.
On the 30th anniversary of when Bobby Rahal was the first defending IndyCar series champion to get bumped from the Indianapolis 500, the “Rahal Nightmare” returned.
It’s a nightmare that will haunt the Rahals, but like all dreams, they eventually will be able to move past it.
That’s what Bobby Rahal did when he had to return to the 1993 Indianapolis 500 and watch the race from the Miller Suite to help his sponsor entertain guests after he missed the biggest show in racing.
“I was up in the suite, and I wasn’t in tears, but I knew I didn’t belong there,” Bobby recalled.
This was certainly a nightmare Bobby Rahal never thought he would revisit, but here he was 30 years later reliving the pain.
“This is my team and I have to be as neutral as I can,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “Are you conflicted? Sure. But I’m glad for Jack and for his guys. Kudos to Sting Ray’s guys for putting it together. I’m happy for Christian Lundgaard.
“For Jack, I’m really happy for him.
“Having been there before, hey, we weren’t fast enough and that is what racing is all about, being fast enough.
“But we will be back.”
As a father, how does Bobby Rahal console his son when it was a teammate that had to deliver the crushing blow.
“I feel bad for him, but I feel worse for the cars we gave our drivers,” Rahal said. “We have to get our act in order.
“Jack hasn’t had many things to cheer about this year or last. I’m happy for Jack. I really am. This might be the one thing that gets him going again mentally. Naturally, I’m really disappointed for Graham.
“It hurts. Believe me, it hurts. But we’ll get better by this. That is the only thing you can do. It’s unfortunate he had the weight jacker break, but ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda.’
“When we come back here and win next year, I’ll totally forget about this year.
“But this place can be cruel. It can be cruel.”
It was back in 2020 when Bobby Rahal was with co-team owners David Letterman and Michael Lanigan celebrating Takuma Sato’s victory in the Indianapolis 500.
“That is what is so odd,” Bobby said. “Three years ago, we had two great race cars. Now, we have four race cars that can’t get out of their own way.
“We have to figure out what the hell is going on and we have a couple days to do that.”
The team owner explained the issues with his cars are drag related. They changed gearboxes overnight, and that did not correct the problem.
After Graham Rahal regained his composure, he talked about the problems the team has had this year, especially on oval tracks.
He recalled the struggles at Texas Motor Speedway the last couple years, another oval on the schedule. Last year, there were two cars that started on the last row of the Indianapolis 500.
“We have to make sure we are doing the right things and fixing the inherent speed issue of the cars,” Graham said. “It’s hard to imagine it’s us in this position, but I could have told you at the test in April that we were in trouble.
“When you get to the test and feel that way, it’s too late. It just came to a head here.”
Rahal, who openly has talked about leaving RLL after this season, talked to Harvey on Saturday night, and the two friends realized it would be one or the other that would make it or fail.
RETWEET to congratulate Jack Harvey!
He makes the #Indy500 field! pic.twitter.com/HI4hbwvdzE
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 21, 2023
“Whether it’s Jack in or me, we have one RLL car going home and that sucks,” Graham said. “We shouldn’t be in this position.
“Our cars build some of the nicest cars in the whole place. We have to make sure we are doing the right thing. What we have focused our time and energy on, clearly wasn’t needed what we should be focusing on.”
Down pit lane, Harvey was the hero of the day, but he didn’t feel like a super hero.
It was a tremendous attempt by the driver from Britain who made a brave run.
In a moment when he should be most proud of his effort, he felt hollow.
“It was an amazing, awful moment,” Harvey said. “I’m so happy we made the race. Why do you lay it all on the line? You lay it on the line because it’s the Indianapolis 500.
“This means the world to everybody. That emotion is pure, it’s real and it’s raw.
“The stress of Bump Day, I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
“Graham is one of my really close friends. Not only are we teammates, but we also give each other advice.
“It’s not a good feeling knocking him out. The flip side is I’m really happy to get the No. 30 PeopleReady car into the race.
“It’s awful. I hate it. I really don’t like it, but I respect it.
“But this is terrible. To knock out a teammate is (expletive) awful.”