Graham Rahal, who had failed to qualify two days earlier, will replace the injured Stefan Wilson in the 107th Indy 500.
Wilson suffered a fractured vertebrae in a Monday practice crash after colliding with Katherine Legge, Graham’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Cusick Motorsports’s first choice to fill the No. 24 Dallara-Chevrolet was Rahal, who had been bumped from the field on the final attempt of the Last Chance Qualifying session Sunday by Jack Harvey (who drives for the RLL team that was founded and co-owned by Graham’s father, Bobby).
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“It’s been a whirlwind,” team owner Dennis Reinbold said in a Tuesday morning news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We’re excited to put Graham in the car. Stefan will have a further evaluation today and is going in for X-rays to determine the best path for him.
“We had to do a lot of work yesterday to get things put together with Graham. There were a lot of hurdles involved. So many conflicts and things to work through to put this together.”
As a replacement driver, Rahal will start from the rear of the field in his 16th consecutive Indianapolis 500. It also will mark his first time racing a Chevrolet in the NTT IndyCar Series after a career of driving Hondas since 2008.
We are happy to announce that @GrahamRahal will will pilot the No. 24 in the 107th Running of Indianapolis 500!
Rahal replaces Stefan Wilson who suffered an injury in yesterday’s practice session. #DrivenByDRR | #Indy500 | #ThisIsMay pic.twitter.com/VqQgLrNHHo
— Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (@DreyerReinbold) May 23, 2023
“I told Dennis I’m not really sure I want to waste your time,” Rahal said about the manufacturer conflict. “I’ve spent my entire career in a Honda, and I’m not sure they could get the releases in place. Sometimes weird things happen in this world, and I’m fortunate to be here.
“I knew the hurdles were going to be massive. It wasn’t just as easy as saying yes. Last night at 10:30, we were going, ‘I can’t believe this actually happened that Honda and Chevy allowed this to happen.’ We’re very appreciative. I knew the challenges were far greater than me, and I needed to step aside because contractually I don’t know what all is said between RLL and Honda, RLL and our partners. But I know that (Reinbold) is a high-class individual, and I know he and Dad spoke and worked things out right away. I’m surprised, but it was certainly exciting for me to hear late last night that we were going to be able to make this happen.”
Reinbold said he spearheaded the discussions with Chevy while Bobby Rahal took the point on handling Honda, and the parties kept paring down a checklist of what both sides wanted until it became a reality.
Honda Performance Development released a statement Tuesday afternoon that the company was “happy to help. As a major partner of IndyCar, we want the Indy 500 to be as good as it can possibly be.”
HPD statement about @GrahamRahal racing in the 2023 #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/kWYPAjmeOD
— HPD-North American Motorsport (@HondaRacing_HPD) May 23, 2023
Though the details still are being finalized, some of Rahal’s sponsors will move from his No. 15 Honda to the No. 24 Chevy for this race.
Though former DR&R driver J.R. Hildebrand had been hanging around Indy the past two weeks, Reinbold and co-car owner Don Cusick settled immediately on Rahal after Wilson was ruled out early Monday evening when diagnosed with his injury at the hospital a few hours after his crash.
“Graham was the first choice,” Reinbold said. “A lot of it was it just was so sudden that there wasn’t a lot of time to think. For Don and I, we sat down pretty much immediately and started thinking once we found out Stefan couldn’t be cleared to run.
“There’s a short list (of replacements) because not a lot of guys are approved. And to be able to come out and just run without refreshers and things like that. Graham obviously doesn’t need a refresher. But my whole goal is to win this race, and Don and I talked about it, and we both agreed immediately that if we could somehow pull it off … I don’t know that we were optimistic we could, but we thought we would go down the path and explore the possibility of putting Graham in the car, so that’s how that evolved.”
First, my thoughts are with @stef_wilson. This isn’t how we wanted to get into the race and I’m honored that @DreyerReinbold and @CusickMSports have given me this opportunity. I can’t thank @hondaracing_hpd and @teamchevy enough for working together to allow this to happen.… pic.twitter.com/2EC8m4w5Zw
— Graham Rahal (@GrahamRahal) May 23, 2023
Rahal has two third-place finishes in 15 starts at the Indy 500.
“We replace one really class act with another one,” Cusick said about swapping Wilson (adding the Brit was “fairly crushed emotionally”) for Rahal. “That makes a difference, too.”
With the team going to a backup car after Wilson’s crash, Rahal will drive a 2-year-old chassis in Sunday’s race. Reinbold said using Rahal’s No. 15 RLL chassis for the race wasn’t an option.
“It has to come from our stable,” Reinbold said. “We’ve prepared our cars equally across the board, and so to go to the backup car is something that it was pretty much ready to go. The guys are in there working on it now, and as soon as we’re done here, we’ll go get Graham fitted and things like that. We’re really not going to miss too much of a beat in that sense.”
The dramatic turn of events will help Rahal avoid missing the Indy 500 just as his father, Bobby, did 30 years ago as a defending series champion.
“First, I feel bad for Stefan that he is hurt,” Bobby Rahal said in a release. “I’m sure he was very excited after qualifying for the race and had done a great job all month. It’s a real shame that this happened. I wish him the best and hope he has a speedy recovery. I’m sure we will see him again.
“I have to say this came out of the blue. I’ve known Dennis for years personally. I have always liked and respected him as a fellow racer and also a car dealer. When Dennis called, we went to work to make this happen. The most amazing thing is how all these different groups, out of respect for the sport and the Indy 500, agreed to agree and go forward even though it may have been somewhat of a difficult decision.
“The fact that everyone pulled together to make this happen for Dennis, and also for Graham, makes us very thankful. I am also thankful that Dennis asked Graham to join him and his team and appreciate the commitment and excitement from Mike, Dave, United Rentals and Fifth Third Bank to see this happen. We wish them the best in the race.”
Graham Rahal is no stranger to Dreyer & Reinbold, having finished ninth in the June 20, 2010 race at Iowa Speedway with the team.
“It’s also special for me to come back,” Rahal said. “I had a really strong run (at Iowa), and I’ve always admired what Dennis has been able to do, and the entire organization does a great job.”
Rahal said he texted Ryan Hunter-Reay, who now becomes his teammate at the Brickyard, after practice last Wednesday about how fast his car was.
“I was like, ‘Damn, dude, you’re going to win this thing,” Rahal said. “It was the best car I saw all day.
“I’m excited for the opportunities, but make no mistake, this is certainly Stef’s ride, and I’m fortunate to be in the position to help and fill in and hopefully have a really, really great Sunday.”
During the Peacock broadcast of Monday’s practice, Rahal had told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch that he intended to help RLL as much as possible this week, but he said Tuesday that his loyalties now lie fully with Dreyer & Reinbold/Cusick Motorsports this week.
“Look, I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t think we had a chance to win and go forward,” said Rahal, who also is in a contract year and has been exploring a departure from RLL. “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 and Dennis and Gary and this entire organization. That’s my job. So that’s what we’re going to try to go do. … Our focus and attention is completely dedicated to Dreyer & Reinbold and Cusick Motorsports to do the best that we can in the 24 car, and at the end of the day we’re competing now (with RLL0. That’s the reality of this situation.
“I tell people all the time, motorsports is one of the few sports where there just are no guarantees ever. Things can change immediately. That’s the situation that we’re in, and we’re going to go out there and do the absolute best we can to get in victory lane. It’s been a dream of mine my entire life. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to do so with Dreyer & Reinbold and with Don, and I’m excited by that.”
Rahal also was a close friend of Justin Wilson, Stefan’s older brother who died after being struck by debris from a crash involving Sage Karam in an Aug. 23, 2015 race at Pocono Raceway.
“I feel for Stef,” Rahal said.”I know how much he puts into this year in and out to get the opportunity to be here. To see what happened to him is never good. I know the roller coaster he’s on, and I know he’ll be back really strong and better than ever.
“The Wilson family in my life has had a very strong impact. Everything in life happens for a reason. Sometimes it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. When I got the call from Dennis, I felt compelled that for some reason my calling was to be here and be able to help as best I could to fill in. It was an honor for me to receive the call. I’m very grateful.”
The team announced Tuesday night that Wilson would undergo surgery Wednesday at IU Health Methodist Hospital to stabilize his fractured 12th thoracic vertebrae.
Wilson posted a video message Tuesday afternoon from his hospital bed, expressing gratitude for the overwhelming fan support and satisfaction of the deal between Rahal and the team.
“Now it’s just focus on recovery,” Wilson said. “I’m already looking forward to 2024 and trying to get back to this race. That journey for 2024 starts now.”
An update from Stefan following yesterday’s crash. pic.twitter.com/kPlgY1aZy1
— Stefan Wilson (@stef_wilson) May 23, 2023