INDIANAPOLIS — Graham Rahal will get a chance to keep his Indianapolis 500 start streak intact after all, replacing the injured Stefan Wilson on Tuesday in the Dreyer & Reinbold entry after failing to qualify for the race with his own team.
Wilson was hospitalized with a fractured vertebra following a crash in practice Monday. He was ruled out of the race, and that left car owners Dennis Reinbold and Don Cusick scrambling for a replacement less than a week before Sunday's green flag.
Rahal was their first choice, but he'd spent his career tied to Honda, which powers the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. Dreyer & Reinbold runs engines from rival Chevrolet, and Rahal initially told DRR that any discussions were a waste of time because of his Honda relationship. He told the team to call his dad, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, and see if there was a path forward.
Sunday's race will mark the first time in Rahal's 17 seasons as a professional he will compete in a Chevrolet.
“I spent my entire career in a Honda. I've never driven anything other than that,” Rahal said. “I wasn't sure we would get the releases in place to make this happen. They really came together, two manufacturers, to allow this to take place, to allow us to race Sunday, and hopefully allow us to move his car to the front and have a really strong run.”
Wilson qualified 25th in the 33-car field, ahead of all three Rahal Letterman Lanigan entries. But the driver change means Rahal will start last, alongside his usual teammate Jack Harvey, who had bumped him in the final seconds of qualifying.
“Jack hasn't got rid of me yet,” Rahal said with a smile.
Wilson was about an hour into a two-hour practice Monday when he was hit from behind by Katherine Legge, one of the other RLL entries. Their two cars careened into the outer wall, and while Legge was able to climb from her wreckage without any injuries, Wilson remained in the hospital Tuesday undergoing additional testing.
“He's fairly crushed emotionally," Cusick said, “but supportive of what we're doing out here.”
The team announced late Tuesday that Wilson will undergo surgery on Wednesday at IU Health Methodist Hospital to stabilize the fractured area.
Less than 48 hours earlier, it appeared Rahal's 15-year streak in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” would end. His team struggled all week to get up to speed, and that continued into qualifying, when he sat on the bubble with Harvey heading to the track for a third, desperate try at bumping his way into the field.
Harvey eclipsed him by the slimmest of margins, and Rahal suddenly knew how his father and team owner Bobby Rahal felt in 1993, when the reigning series champion was famously bumped from the Indianapolis 500 field.
“The situation is super unique,” the younger Rahal admitted. "There was a part of me that thought, when you look at RLL and where we were as a team, can I have more of an impact to try to help Jack and Christian (Lundgaard) and Kat perform better on the weekend?
“Now it's a little bit of a different situation,” he added. “At the end of the day, we're competing now. I tell people all the time, motorsports is one of the few sports where there are no guarantees ever. Things can change immediately. That's the situation we are in. Now we're going to go do the best we can to get to victory lane. That's been a dream of mine my entire life.”
Bobby Rahal said in a statement that he supported his son driving for another team.
“When Dennis called, we went to work to make this happen,” he said. “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.”
Reinbold said the No. 24 car would look slightly different Sunday, after the teams worked out compromises to keep all of their sponsors happy. Rahal will bring some of his sponsors to the car.
Reinbold also thanked Bobby Rahal for taking his call for what could have been an awkward conversation.
“It's just been a group effort to figure out what we could do,” Reinbold said. “This was a dire situation for us. Graham had his situation Sunday. So we're trying to turn it into a win-win situation, and hopefully a win-win-win with Sunday being the final win.”
The team has a backup car that Reinbold said was “pretty much ready to go.” Rahal planned to get fitted for it later Tuesday. Because both Wilson and Rahal are over 6-feet tall, the fitting won't require as much changeover as a typical driver swap.
The Dreyer & Reinbold team has been a part of the Indy 500 for more than 20 years, and at one point fielded as many as four cars. But the team scaled back its operations from a full-time IndyCar team a decade ago, when it struggled to get enough sponsorship, and the last few years has fielded only entries for the Indy 500.
Rahal will have a Dreyer & Reinbold teammate Sunday, though, with former Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay in the field.
“Ryan is going to be a great partner. He's probably been my closest friend in my sport since he came into it,” Rahal said. "Ryan and I have always been very close. I'm excited about the opportunity. We've talked for years about working together. The situation is unique but I'm excited about seeing what we can do with Ryan and getting this car going forward."