By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – The 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be a venture into the unknown for Graham Rahal.
Since his first Indy 500 start back in 2008, the 34-year-old has only driven for one manufacturer – Honda. But when the green flag waves on Sunday, he’ll be piloting a Chevrolet for the first time.
Last Sunday, it seemed Rahal would be destined to watch this year’s running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing from the sidelines after getting bumped from the field as the lone driver not to make the field of 33.
A whirlwind 48 hours later, Rahal was back in action after a landmark agreement between Honda and Chevrolet to allow him to fill-in for the injured Stefan Wilson in the No. 24 Dreyer and Reinbold/Cusick Motorsports Chevrolet. Wilson was set to drive the car from the 25th starting position before a practice crash on Monday left him with a fractured vertebra.
Once the agreement was made to allow Rahal to drive for the team, there has been a flurry of activity in getting Rahal up to speed and the team’s back-up car prepared in time for on-track action to begin.
Rahal has continued to make it clear that the car he is running on Sunday belongs to Wilson and he is here just to put his best foot forward for the DRR/Cusick team he temporarily drives for this weekend.
The team already had plenty of motivation to run well at Indianapolis, but Wilson provided them a little extra on Sunday morning as he was seen in the paddock at IMS less than a week after his injury and a few days removed from back surgery.
“I’m here to fill a big void for the weekend, and ultimately next week, we return right back home and go race to Detroit. So, you know, my job is to do Stef and Care Keepers and all the partners on this car to do them proud and try to put together a great run and to go forward in the race.
“These guys have done a great job. I mean, you remember Santino last year and this car was upfront with 50 to go. So, I’m excited. Like, I do think it’ll be pretty strong.”
Rahal took his first laps in the car in a short warm-up session on Thursday, followed by the two-hour Carb Day practice on Friday, when he got to really turn his first laps in anger to get a feel for the differences between the Honda he is accustomed to and his Bowtie for the weekend.
He noted that there are some things that aren’t able to be changed, but the team has been open to suggestions to get him more comfortable for Race Day. Rahal added that both his normal Rahal Letterman Lanigan team have been working together this week to get some parts and pieces (seat, pedals, etc.) moved over to his car for Sunday to help ease the learning curve.
“Everybody at Dreyer and Reinbold, and their partnership with Cusick Motorsports, everything so far has been really good. Actually, it is very weird. And they will tell you that. I certainly know as little about my car and the engine as I’ve ever known about anything I’ve driven in my entire life. But it’s a race car and ultimately, you know, you’re gonna go out there and try to get it better and try to go perform on Sunday.
“I think they did a great job. I mean, you know, the steering wheel had a couple of suggestions. The wheel was never gonna be identical to mine, but hey, let’s put this button over here. Let’s do this just to try to stop me from making an error.
“For instance, their pit lane speed button was where my radio button is roughly. Well, I certainly don’t want to hit those inadvertently. So, you know, we did a few things like that, but the seat fit went really well. And I’ll thank the guys at RLL too. Like Josh and I know how hard this time is for them. Um, but Josh and Sean Ford and those guys brought over my pedal faces, brought over my seat, gave measurements for my steering wheel spacer. Did a lot to make the transition a heck of a lot easier.”
Rahal added that being in an unfamiliar place with a new manufacturer where he only has to worry about driving and not the other external factors that comes with running in a family-owned team is somewhat comforting for Sunday.
“In some ways, it is nice that my job is to go out there and perform. I don’t have a whole lot else to do than that. You know, just focus on when I get in, is it comfortable for me? Is it not? Where’s the car? How’s it feel and go race.”
Regardless of what happens from here, the story of Graham Rahal and the 2023 Indianapolis 500 will be one to tell. Even Rahal himself remains surprised it has worked out the way it has all these days later.
“It’s a crazy story and let’s see where it goes.”