Monday, June 5, 2023

The Thrill of Victory for Jack Harvey and the Agony of Defeat for Graham Rahal

Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal share a moment on pit road after Harvey bumped Rahal from the 2023 Indianapolis 500 field.
Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal share a moment on pit road after Harvey bumped Rahal from the 2023 Indianapolis 500 field. Photo courtesy of Christopher DeHarde/

The sound of silence rang throughout the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Jack Harvey’s final qualifying run for the 2023 Indianapolis 500 ended.

For what seemed like an eternity, the crowd gathered on pit road and in the grandstands waited with anticipation as Dave Calabro’s voice rang out over the public address system to announce Harvey’s fate.

Nobody heard Calabro speak. When Harvey’s fourth lap of 228.971 mph flashed on the video screens accompanied by a four-lap qualifying average of 229.166 mph, the crowd roared in approval after the crew of the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda threw up a Hail Mary of a qualifying run to try and make the Indianapolis 500.

Less than 10 minutes earlier, Harvey pulled onto pit road after his second qualifying attempt Sunday afternoon was not fast enough to bump teammate Graham Rahal from the 33-car field. With 34 cars entered, one driver was going home. For the majority of the one hour Last Row Shootout, that driver was Harvey.

The crew put new tires on the car and added enough fuel for one more qualification attempt. Air pressure adjustments were made quickly as there was little time to spare. The car had to be presented in the qualifying line before rolling out for one final shot at making the field.

Harvey left pit road with one minute and 24 seconds left in the session. The session clock expired as the British racer exited Turn 3 on his warmup lap. This was the final qualifying attempt to determine who would remain in the starting field and who would go home.

The first lap was a respectable 229.435 mph. However, the tire grip falloff over the next three laps would determine whether or not Harvey would be fast enough to make the show.

Were the tire pressure adjustments enough? Would Harvey have a weight jacker adjuster fail on him like it did on Rahal’s car? Did the shadows manage to lower the track temperature by just one more degree to help Harvey out?

Lap two was 229.082 mph. After two laps, Harvey was tracking 34th fastest. Harvey made an adjustment to the car’s handling and then the third lap speed surprised everybody: 229.176 mph.

Almost nobody improves from lap to lap at Indianapolis with the way grip falls off after each lap. This was a shock to the everyone in the grandstands and on pit road.

Could Rahal actually be bumped? Could Bobby Rahal’s son go home just two days shy of the 30th anniversary of the elder Rahal being bumped from that year’s 500 field?

The assembled crowd found out just 39.3063 seconds later and roared their approval. Harvey found out halfway around the track on his cooldown lap.

The margin between Harvey and Rahal? Just 0.0044 seconds.

After pulling into the pits, Harvey received congratulations from all around his crew, including race engineer Allen McDonald.

“I’m just so impressed by all of the work he’s doing in the cockpit to keep this thing underneath him for four laps because it was not an easy car to drive. He did a fantastic job,” McDonald said.

Harvey was mentally and physically drained as he stepped from the car.

“In terms of professionally this is without a doubt the most draining, difficult day,” Harvey said on pit road. “And even now, I mean, I’m so grateful to be in the 107th Indy 500, but at the expense of what it came as, it’s a bitter moment.”

There were no butterflies for Harvey in the car. There was no reason to check any superfluous information as there was only one job for him to do: drive 10 miles as fast as he could. The speed readout on the steering wheel wouldn’t matter if Harvey wasn’t fast enough.

“I wasn’t even looking at the speed, man, I was just trying to go as quick as I could,” Harvey said on pit road. “But I wouldn’t have even guessed at what lap time we did. I was just focused on getting the tools going where I needed them to be and just trying to drive the best line that I could for four times.”

For Rahal, there was nothing he could do. Sitting in the No. 15 Honda on pit road, there was no more time to go out in the session. Climbing from his car, the second-generation racer hugged his crew and then took off his helmet, showing a face wrought with the pain of missing the Indianapolis 500.

“Everybody puts a lot into this, we just came up short,” Rahal said. “I’m surprised, I felt with the heat soak and stuff I’m really surprised. This place, it doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t just happen, and we weren’t good enough. We were the slowest of our cars just on pure pace all week and unfortunately that happens, but you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat. There’s next year.”

After Rahal said that he knew from the start of practice that the team was in trouble, he moved away from the NBC microphone on pit road. Walking around his car, the Ohio native sat on his car’s right sidepod, his head in his hands as his wife and two daughters soon joined him on pit road.

How could this happen? Three years ago, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing won the Indianapolis 500 with Takuma Sato, who qualified third! Two years ago, Rahal had perhaps the car to win the race before crashing after the left rear tire came off the car following a mid-race pit stop.

In 2022, Rahal started 21st while Christian Lundgaard started 31st and Harvey started 32nd. Now, Katherine Legge is the fastest car on the team in 30th, Lundgaard starts 31st and Harvey in 33rd.

The younger Rahal drew some parallels to his father being bumped in 1993, but there are significant changes in how things progress in 2023.

“In that era things were evolving so fast, engines, cars, what’s evolving today is all the massaging,” Rahal said. “And that’s why I said a minute ago, I think our guys built some of the nicest cars in the whole place and I really believe that we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing and I think what we’ve focused a lot of our energy and time on the last year clearly wasn’t.

“And this isn’t pointing the finger, because I would’ve said that was it too. But it clearly wasn’t what we needed to be focused on.”

Harvey’s effort garnered him the respect of the crowd for putting everything on the line for one final shot at making the Indianapolis 500. Rahal’s effort garnered him the respect of the crowd for handling the situation with as much class and dignity as one could expect from a racing driver trying to compete at Indianapolis.

In the end the fans were also winners because they got the drama they paid to see.

That’s Indianapolis. Nobody ever said this was easy.

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