It was the kind of professional nightmare that sports documentary filmmakers can only dream about: Graham Rahal, the veteran IndyCar driver and six-time race winner, was slowest in qualifying for the Indy 500 on Sunday – a day that ended in tears and baffled defeat for the 34-year-old still seeking his first win at Indianapolis.
With 34 cars trying to qualify for 33 spots, the son of open-wheel legend Bobby Rahal suddenly found himself out of the world’s biggest race, holding his head in his hands and sobbing. For an extra storytelling flourish, Rahal’s dad and team co-owner Bobby Rahal – whose team partners include David Letterman – had the exact same thing happen to him exactly 30 years ago.
Then, one day later, all the melodrama that went down on the track would be turned completely upside-down. And it was all on camera for the documentary crew shooting the CW’s “100 Days to Indy” series, IndyCar’s answer to “F1: Drive to Survive.”
Rahal was in tears just minutes after Jack Harvey, his longtime Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate and close friend, took a hail-mary lap in the waning minutes of the day-long qualifying session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. By some miracle, Harvey successfully bumped Rahal from starting grid by a tiny fraction of a second as time expired, and not a single person at RLL Racing was celebrating – not even Harvey.
But this jackpot of IndyCar drama wasn’t even close to done paying out for the crew filming “100 Days to Indy.”
On Monday, during a multi-car practice session, another one of Rahal’s RLL teammates, sports-car ace Katherine Legge, accidentally slammed into the rear of Dreyer & Reinbold driver Stefan Wilson – a longtime close family friend of Rahal’s. Wilson was hospitalized with fractured vertebra, and was ruled out for this coming Sunday’s race.
That left an open seat at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, a small-budget, independent team set up only to run a few marquee races like the 500. Wilson had qualified the team’s car, but now a new driver would need to be pulled in at the last minute to run the #24 backup Chevrolet, which by rule would be starting at the very rear of the field because of the driver change.
Later that day, Dreyer & Reinbold called a press conference and brought forth their choice for wheelman: Graham Rahal.
Just like that, Rahal was back in the race, but not without a whole bunch of unusual caveats, awkward twists and intertwined history. For one thing, Rahal has been driving for his dad’s team – a shop that uses Honda motors exclusively – almost his entire career. Leadership at highest levels of both Honda and Chevy would have to agree to accept a very special, highly unusual exception. And in the spirit of the 500, they did.
What’s more, Rahal will now be stalking up Sunday behind RLL teammates Christian Lundgaard, Harvey and Legge, all three of whom had slower qualifying cars than Wilson’s. And Wilson’s older brother Justin, an F1 driver who was killed in an IndyCar wreck in 2015, was Rahal’s mentor as a young driver, so the family connection – and the motivation to make the most of this opportunity – runs deep.
The only thing that could possibly top all of this, from the “100 Days to Indy” crew’s perspective, would be a win or a podium for Rahal, whose last victory came in 2017. If winning for the first time in six years from last place in a backup car for a local, mom-and-pop race team in place of your mentor’s injured little brother while the world is watching sounds impossible, yeah. It pretty much is. But crazy things happen every year at the Brickyard – and they don’t call it the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for nothing.
“100 Days to Indy” episodes are edited and released as close to real-time as possible, and have been airing Thursday nights on the CW, then for free on the network’s app a day later.