“You just don’t know what Indy means” is the prevailing and heartfelt emotions guiding this weekend’s upcoming race, which will be a testament to collaboration.
The events that followed qualifying for this Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway should reassure fans of the sport that it’s healthy, that people in this sport care about one another, and that competition will always trump racing politics.
The necessity to replace one stellar driver with another, due to a debilitating accident, meant that two engine manufacturers had to agree to allow a driver with one relationship, Stefan Wilson’s Chevrolet entry for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Cusick Racing and another’s diametrically opposed relationship, Graham Rahal’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing longtime Honda agreement, to combine for the 200 laps scheduled to be contested in what truly is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
That Rahal will be racing a Chevy-powered car on Sunday, after he’s permitted to run 15 minutes of install laps late Thursday afternoon – Katherine Legge will also have the ability to run install laps after colliding with Wilson’s machine – shows the world that yes, we can all get along. It’s not a pretty situation, but necessity is the bellwether for these sorts of things.
During Monday’s day-after-qualifying two-hour practice session, when boost is back to normal race settings and cars aren’t trimmed out for the 10 miles of massive stress on machine and man, the first incident of this month occurred, when Legge didn’t realize the pack in front of her had checked up as they exited the first turn. She collided with Wilson, whose Dallara was thrown nose-first into the wall. The lanky Briton sustained a fracture of the 12th thoracic vertebrae and was scheduled for surgery on May 24th.
Discussions between Chevrolet, Honda and the two teams involved began almost immediately. There were other drivers on-site who might have been able to take over Stef Wilson ’s seat, had they performed their refresher courses, but after qualifying was complete, and the two-hour practice was done, that wasn’t a real option. Placing Rahal, who’d been practicing and qualifying throughout the race meeting yet was unable to get his Honda machine up to speed, in the Chevy-powered car seemed to be a non-starter, but that’s when the manufacturers acted strictly for the good of the sport.
Strictly for the good of the sport, Honda Performance Development president and technical director David Salters stated, “Honda has racing in its DNA and we deeply value the sporting side of racing. We are happy to help Graham Rahal, a longtime member of the Honda racing family to participate,” in this year’s Indy 500. “As a major partner of INDYCAR, we want the Indy 500 to be as good as it can possibly be, and we think the race is better with Graham in one of the 33 machines. Most importantly,” Salters stressed, “this is just better for our amazing racing fans that love our sport as we do.”
Dennis Reinbold, in his 24th year as an Indy 500 entrant underscored the cooperation that occurred to make this happen. “There’s just so many conflicts and things that we had to work through to put this together that – it’s the Indy 500 – and people come together to make this event special and make it great like it is. It’s really been a moving experience, a lot of emotions through the last 24 hours, and just really touched by all the support that we’ve had.”
Rahal was mentored by his former Newman/Haas teammate Justin Wilson, the true “badass” driver who lost his life at Pocono in August of 2015. “When I got the call from Dennis [Reinbold] yesterday afternoon, right away I felt compelled that this was, for some reason, my calling was to be here, to be able to help as best I could and to fill in,” he said of taking over Justin’s brother’s seat. “Clearly this is Stef’s ride. It’s his seat. he’s done a great job to get it to the point that it is. It was an honor for me to receive the call.”
Graciousness under pressure? Would we see something like this in Formula One, where Salters once worked? Highly doubtful. We’ve seen drivers substitute for others in NASCAR from time to time, but never at a race with the intensity and meaning of Indy. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr.’s words ring clearer and with more intent than ever before: “You just don’t know what Indy means.”