In 2008, 19-year-old Graham Rahal partnered for his sophomore season of American open-wheel racing with 30-year-old former F1 driver Justin Wilson at the Newman-Haas IndyCar team. Rahal spent a year learning about racing and life from the gentle giant, and the two formed a special bond. Years later, when Wilson was tragically killed at Pocono Raceway in 2015, Rahal showed his gratitude to his mentor Wilson, by helping provide for Wilson’s widow Julia and two daughters. Rahal called upon IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers to donate memorabilia for a charity auction that raised $637,067 for Justin Wilson’s family in their hour of need.
Fast-forward 15 years to this past Sunday, when Graham Rahal was bumped from the Indy 500 when he failed to qualify his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda for the big race. Emotionally gutted, Rahal resigned himself to being a spectator rather than a competitor in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing‘.
But, during the Monday practice session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a collision occurred between Stefan Wilson (brother of the late Justin Wilson) in No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet and Katherine Legge in the No. 44 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda. Wilson was hit from behind and launched into the Turn 1 wall at over 200 mph, suffering a fracture to his thoracic vertebra. The injury has ruled Wilson out of competition for this Sunday’s Indy 500. The race car was also destroyed, putting the Dreyer & Reinbold team’s entry in jeopardy.
On Tuesday it was announced that the team would prepare their backup car to race, with none other than Graham Rahal substituting for the injured Stefan Wilson.
The co-incidence of crossed paths is furthered by the fact that Graham Rahal is coming back to a team he raced for once. Back in 2010, Graham Rahal drove the No. 24 Dad’s Root Beer IndyCar for D&R Racing, substituting for injured Mike Conway at the Iowa Corn 250.
Indy is an odd race. It has it’s own special qualifying rules, and allows a team that failed to qualify to ‘buy’ a ride from a team that did. The car qualifies, not the driver, making substitutions possible but unpopular with fans. Sponsorship is critical in modern racing, and not having a sponsor’s ‘rolling billboard’ at the biggest race of the year could spell disaster for a team. Graham Rahal refused to entertain discussions of buying a qualified entry, insisting that if the No. 15 didn’t qualify on pace, it didn’t deserve to be in the Indy 500. His decision not to buy a ride earned the respect of the paddock and race fans.
This co-incidence of circumstances has lead to the inclusion of Graham Rahal as the driver of the No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet with sponsorship from 5/3 Bank and United Rentals (Rahal’s RLL sponsors are coming with him) in this Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500.