For Graham Rahal, the next couple of days are going to look very different to how he’d been planning his week out 24 hours ago.
“I thought they were filled with golf and kids,” said Rahal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday as he sat beside Dennis Reinbold and Don Cusick and contemplated the chain of events that will lead to him driving Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s No. 24 Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.
Rahal’s own entry — Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s No.15 Honda –was bumped out of the race by teammate Jack Harvey in the final moments of Last Chance Qualifying over the weekend. As the field of 33 returned to the track for practice on Monday, Rahal was still coming to terms with his unhappy status as a spectator when Stefan Wilson’s No. 24 car was hit by Katherine Legge and pitched into the wall. Wilson suffered a fractured vertebra that ruled him out of taking his spot on the grid for the race. Not long after the Briton’s injury had been confirmed, Rahal’s phone rang.
There were a few hoops that needed to be jumped through to get Rahal into the car, not least of which was that a Chevrolet team was tapping a long-time Honda driver to fill its seat.
“I told Dennis when he called me, I said, ‘I’m not really sure I want to waste your time,’” Rahal said. “’I’ve spent my entire career in a Honda. I’ve never driven anything other than that. I’m not really sure that we’ll be able to get the releases in place to be able to make this happen.’
“The two manufacturers really came together to allow us to go race on Sunday, and hopefully get this car moving towards the front and have a really, really strong run.
“It’s also special for me to come back (to DRR). I drove for Dennis 13 years ago at Iowa. We had a really strong run there. Always admired what he’s been able to do with his team, and I think the entire organization does a great job, as proven this month. Trust me, I’m excited at the opportunities ahead. Make no mistake, this is certainly Stef’s ride, and I’m fortunate to be able to be in the position to be able to help and fill in, and like I said, hopefully we can have a really, really great Sunday.”
But even for a driver with 249 IndyCar starts under his belt, Rahal will need to make some adjustments. He plans to spend a large chunk of the time between now and Friday picking the brains of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in an effort to streamline the transition away from processes that, in some cases, have become second nature in his regular equipment.
“Everything is a little bit different team to team, the way the weight jackers work or the fuel mixers or trim switches and all these other things, where the radio button is, do they use a drink bottle or do they use a pump,” he said. “There’s a variety of different scenarios there.
“I know a lot of my stuff, seat-wise, belts even potentially, all that stuff from RLL will be able to carry over. The chassis are all pretty much built the same, so should be able to jump in and get going.
“The steering wheel is not one you can switch easily, because the programming and the wiring and everything is pretty specific to the team. So we’ll sit in there and study as best we can, probably take a photo so that I can go home and look at the wheel and get the buttons memorized. All those things are going to be critical.
“But in this situation as a veteran, you’ve got to be a professional, and that’s what you’ve trained to do for years and years, and you’ve got to be able to jump in and do it.
“Hunter-Reay already texted me and said, ‘Hey, make sure later we need to talk about the yellow map and we need to talk about…’ because it’s different. It just is. The way that people operate. I’ve been so tuned into the Honda side for so long that this is going to be a unique scenario.
“Clearly when it comes to feeling the car out for the first time, that’s going to be Carb Day, and there’s not a lot of time to do that. But luckily on Sunday, there’s 500 miles for us to… if the car is not in the window, get the car closer. But Stef and Ryan have been very, very strong all week, so I don’t anticipate any major challenges there.”
There’s also a mental reset in play: From his visible despair at being bumped out of the field on Sunday, to concern for Wilson in the aftermath of Monday’s crash — Rahal is close to the entire Wilson family — to having a path back into the race open up for him at the expense of his friend, the last 48 hours have been a rollercoaster.
“I felt every emotion over the last couple of days,” Rahal said. “But that’s Indy. It can put you through a vicious cycle, and you never know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to take place. We don’t know how it’s going to end up in five, six days’ time.
“But when an opportunity like this comes, you certainly are honored to get the call. I won’t lie, I really did feel excited to have the sense that another team had the respect for me to call. It was a great opportunity to come out here and try to perform and be able to race this Sunday.
“You go through it all, the highs, the lows, and as I said, I don’t want to step in and take over here. This is Stef’s ride. It’s his seat. He’s done a great job to get it to the point that it is.”