INDIANAPOLIS – The initial approval from Honda Performance Development for Graham Rahal to race a Chevy in the 107th Indy 500 took less than a minute.
“I got asked and said it was OK,” HPD president and technical director David Salters told NBC Sports in a Thursday interview at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “So it was pretty easy.”
After being bumped from the Indy 500 by teammate Jack Harvey in a tense Last Chance Qualifying session Sunday, Rahal surprisingly re-entered the field two days later when he replaced Stefan Wilson (who was ruled out with a fractured vertebrae after a practice crash Monday with Katherine Legge, Rahal’s teammate).
When first contacted by Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Cusick Motorsports about driving the No. 24 Chevrolet, Rahal was skeptical as a Honda driver for all 249 starts during his 15 seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series. In a Tuesday news conference, he characterized crossing manufacturer lines as “massive” hurdles and initially told co-owner Dennis Reinbold, “I don’t want to waste your time.”
But Rahal was stunned by how quickly his father, Bobby, worked out a deal with Reinbold and the blessing of Honda and Chevy.
Salters said Honda considered the big picture when approving the unusual arrangement.
“This is still a sport, and you have athletes competing,” Salters said. “If we can help an athlete compete at the highest level and Graham has been part of the family. If we can help Graham, good. If we can help the sport, good. We want to see 33 cars on the grid.
“So after that, it was a pretty easy, grown-up decision. Let’s just look after the sport. When you watch the Indy 500, particularly if you come here, it’s incredibly special. There’s nothing quite like it. I’ve done a lot of racing, luckily. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend 15 years in F1, many years (in IndyCar) now, IMSA sports cars. They’re all different. I love the sports car stuff. I love the Formula One stuff. And coming to the Indy 500 is incredibly special. Everyone has to come once, don’t they? So to help contribute in a sporting way to that felt quite nice.”
“Honda is a racing company, so we appreciate going racing. We also are very proud of our racing heritage and what we do. Our brand all goes into that. But it was a nice way to be sporting.
“It’s a sport. Let’s be sporting where we can. You’re still trying to fight each other. We’re still doing all the things we normally do, which brings brilliant competition to the fans. But in this case, it was a little bit different, and it’s a sporting thing, so it wasn’t hard.”
After being contacted by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing about making the move, Chuck Schifsky, the manager for Honda & Acura Motorsports, called Salters for “literally a 45-second conversation.
“David said, ‘Yep, we should do this; it’s the right thing to do,’” Schifsky said. “I said, ‘All right, it’s done. Now what?’ That was literally it.”
In all major league racing series, manufacturers generally are leery about allowing drivers to align with a rival. Beyond the potential dissemination of competitive secrets, automakers also invest millions in branding their stars as spokespeople.
“You put a lot of effort into it,” Salters said. “You’re protective of your IP. But this transcended a bit of that, I think. Because it is the Indy 500 and it’s a sporting thing, and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, where you can, you’ve got to weigh it out. But this seemed the right thing to do in this particular case.”
Rahal will complete his first install laps today in the No. 24 Chevy ahead of Carb Day final practice Friday.
Wilson underwent successful surgery Wednesday night and shared a video update via social media.
Just want to say a massive thank you to the entire @IndyCar Safety Team, their response time was so fast and they followed the procedures to a tee, absolute hero’s! Also a massive thank you to all the nurses, doctors, surgeons and all the staff at @IU_Health Methodist Hospital 🙌 https://t.co/hIAOerOs7y
— Stefan Wilson (@stef_wilson) May 25, 2023