INDIANAPOLIS — Stefan Wilson was hired last November to drive the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Cusick Motorsports entry in the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Now, unfortunately it won’t happen due to an injury Wilson suffered in a practice crash on Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This timeline dates to 2008 in fact. That’s the year Graham Rahal and Stefan Wilson’s older brother, Justin, were teammates in the new unified open wheel series with Newman Haas Racing. Both were in Champ Car in 2007 but in ’08, Newman Haas signed Wilson as Sebastien Bourdais replacement. Rahal was already there.
The two despite just one year as teammates, hit it off.
Two years later, Rahal was part-time in the series and ran at Iowa for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. It went well. He finished ninth.
In the meantime, Rahal became closer with the Wilson family which included Justin’s younger brother Stefan. Unfortunately, in 2015, we lost Justin due to a freak accident in the closing laps in Pocono.
Rahal was there to support Stefan. They got closer.
Wilson made his Indy 500 debut a year later for KV Racing Technology in the 2016 (100th Running of the Indianapolis 500). He did so in his brothers No. 25 Chevrolet. He was supposed to be with Andretti Autosport a year later and even had a deal already signed. Then came the news that Fernando Alonso wanted to come over. With the rides filled, Wilson stepped up for the betterment of the team and series to let Alonso have his seat.
Andretti honored their agreement with Wilson and put it on pause for a year. He’d come back in 2018. That indirectly led him to where he was in November.
A Meeting For A NASCAR Role
See, Wilson had that relationship with Andretti. He finished 15th for them in 2018. His dream was to always win this race so he worked hard in the next few years to come back. The thing is, every avenue he exhausted didn’t pan out.
So, he felt like maybe he’d give NASCAR a try. Why not he felt. He found out a guy named Don Cusick had a track in California, a country club as you’d have it for car enthusiasts, and one of the cars there was a NASCAR.
“Yeah, essentially at the time I’ve been out of the Indy 500 for two years, and I was starting to look at other racing opportunities,” Wilson told me last Fall. “I was looking at potentially doing some NASCAR road races. I had asked around to see if anyone owned an old NASCAR that I could do some laps in and figure out a stock car. It just so happened that someone I know knew Don and knew that he owned a NASCAR and asked him if I could come out, and that’s basically what I did.
“I came out there. I drove Don’s NASCAR. We developed a friendship.”
When Wilson left, he felt like this was going to be his new path. Then, Don sent Wilson a text that brought him back to where he is today.
“About two or three weeks later, Don texted me. I got a text from Don that says, ‘hey do you know where I could get some good tickets?’” Wilson said.
The tickets? To the Indy 500.
So Wilson sent him a text back to a contact that could hook Cusick up with, “some sweet tickets.” Wilson felt like it would still help him get on the NASCAR path.
Cusick responded back.
“I’m going to buy extra. Would you like to go?” he said.
Wilson was hesitant to oblige. He said the last time he was at Indy, he was leading laps and it would be hard for him to come back and sit in the stands. He told Cuscick that.
Cusck said, “well let’s fix that.”
Cusick said let’s get you in a car. Wilson felt like he was joking. Cusick wasn’t.
“I can’t thank Don enough really for the support, the faith, and the trust in me that he has shown in me. It’s more than any other person in my career that’s believed in me,” Wilson remarked.
Wilson and Cusick reached a deal with Andretti to return in 2021. It paid off.
Cusick Caught The Indy Bug
Cusick just calls himself an old INDYCAR groupie that was stoked to just have Wilson wanting his time.
“You know, fortunately, I guess, or financially, probably, unfortunately, but fortunately for the friendship and all the fun, Stef and I just hit it off,” he says. “We had breakfast and talked through it. I was pretty star-struck to be sitting with an INDYCAR driver.
“He is just a great guy, I guess, is the best way to describe it. I sold my company. Indy was always a dream of mine when I was racing quarter midgets and beyond. Just kind of a cool deal. I thought, well, if he can get a ride, that’s going to be the full immersion experience for me.
“And I think at that time we both contemplated probably it being a one and done, but I just fell in love once I saw Indy for the first time and was hanging out there. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do on Memorial Day Weekend if we didn’t get back in the race last year.”
They’d get back.
A year later, they wanted back but had no partners. However, the entry list was stuck at 32. They needed one more ride. Cusick with support from DragonSpeed and a whole cast of teams in Gasoline Alley got the deal done for Wilson to be the 33rd and final entrant.
How The DRR Deal Came About
They knew that they needed to start early to look at 2023.
“We had always hoped we could get a relationship with someone like DRR,” Cusick says. “They were number one on our list of potential partners for 2023. Anders and Stefan did the majority of the legwork and put together proposal and sent it out and had the conversations that needed to be had.”
All parties got together and made it work. That’s where the announcement came last November. This was going to be Wilson’s best shot at Indy glory.
“I’ve been very impressed with how hard Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has worked at and focused on the Indy 500,” said Wilson last November when this announcement was made. “It’s such an honor for me to join them in partnership with Cusick Motorsports and work on our collective goal of trying to win the Indy 500. There’s a great opportunity here for us to all grow together. I hope this leads to more 500’s, and maybe even more races together.”
By being an Indy only operation, it allows them the luxury of preparing for just one race, on one discipline of tracks and can throw all their eggs in one basket. It clearly worked in 2022. It can work in 2023.
“We feel like we have as good a shot as anyone. We specialize in the 500,” says Reinbold. “We don’t specialize on those other tracks. We specialize at the Indy 500. We’re confident in our ability to get out there and prepare and do what it takes to be in the mix.
“We were in the mix last year, fortunately, with Santino and Sage as well running in the top five to six cars with Santino and around the 12th place car for much of the race last year.
“So we know what it takes and the preparation, dedication, offseason testing to get to that level, and it’s not inconsequential. There’s a lot that goes into it. You have to have the driver that can deliver on that once you get in that position. We feel good about it.”
While Wilson has appeared in the Indy 500 for a team like Andretti Autosport twice, this entry was shaping up to be his best shot at winning. DRR has been phenomenal at Indy lately. Sage Karam finished 7th in this car in 2021 while Santino Ferrucci was 10th a year ago in the 2nd entry.
“Yes, I do,” Wilson said on if this is his best shot of winning this race. “I can’t thank Andretti enough for what they did for me in the years that I ran with them, but this time it has a little different feeling to it. I can’t thank Team Chevy enough as well. I’m excited to work with team Chevrolet again.
“As we’ve all said, this effort, there is so much focus on the 24 car and from internally and the team that it feels like we’re all pulling in the same direction, and we’ve got a lot of runway to plan and get prepared for May.
“So, yeah, I’m really excited. What they showed last year, and the previous year, really, the race cars they have, the race setup, is really strong, and their qualifying form this year was really strong as well.
“So with all that stuff we’re working on in the offseason, we’re only going to make that better. Yeah, I think, like I said before, this team really needs to get a lot more credit for what they’ve achieved in the last couple of years.”
As a team tenured in the Indianapolis 500 and NTT INDYCAR SERIES, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been competing in the famed 500-mile event since 2000 and qualified 45 cars over its course of competition. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Stefan Wilson also have a family tie together as Wilson’s late brother, Justin, drove as a full-time entry for the team in the 2010 and 2011 seasons in the IndyCar Series.
The elder Wilson had 12 top 10 finishes in 28 starts with DRR including a pair of runner-up finishes at that. One of those 12 top 10’s was a 7th place run in the 2010 Indy 500.
“There’s history here with this team,” Stefan Wilson continued. Justin [Wilson, Stefan’s late older brother] spent two years with DRR back in 2010-2011 and secured podiums. I got to know Dennis (Reinbold), Brett De Bord and Chase Selman really well back then, so it just feels great to be rejoining them in a sense. I also have to say a big thank you to Don Cusick, who has put more faith in me than anybody else in my career. I’m honored to represent Cusick Motorsports and all our partners and will do my utmost to make the most of this fantastic opportunity.”
They have been strong ever since. Then came Monday’s crash.
What Led To Wilson Being Sidelined
At 2:11 p.m., Wilson, driving the No. 24 DRR/Cusick Motorsports/CareKeepers Chevrolet, was struck from behind by Legge’s IndyCar and forced into the outside safer barrier in turn one at the 2.5-mile oval.
Legge made front-to-rear contact with Stefan Wilson in Turn 1. It forced Legge to do a quarter-spin to the right and made right rear contact with the SAFER Barrier in the opening corner.
Wilson did a simultaneous three-quarter spin to the right and made front end contract with the same SAFER barrier. Legge would continue down the track and made secondary contact with the Turn 2 SAFER barrier. She would climb out of the No. 44 Dallara-Honda without assistance.
“The cars in front of me were checking up and I lifted as much as I could, downshifted, and hit the brakes, but that wasn’t enough,” she said.
Will Power notes that he’s not shocked either with the drivers checking up here as that’s always an issue. It’s the drivers needing to get used to the longer brake pedal instead.
“That’s always the case. You’ve got to be really on top of — because the brake pedal is super long,” he notes. “When a big pack checks up, it can surprise you, so I always — if I see a bunch of cars up front, I always leave a gap and are aware that you can come in and have nowhere to go.
“That’s just these days because people — it’s not like the race where you can never lift. There’s people lifting out of line, trying to get back in, people on different tire life and such. Yeah, it can all pack up for you really quickly if you’re not ready.”
Marco Andretti said that he felt like the incident likely occurred a lap earlier as everyone was checking up and going so slow out there.
“Literally a lap before that happened, we were in this string of cars, and I’m like, I can’t believe how slow the pack is going,” he said on the incident in Turn 1. “Like it caught me out in 3. I was way on the brakes, and I couldn’t believe how slow they were going.
“So I think from the looks of it, I only saw it from sitting in the race car, it looked like she just got caught out by how slow they were going.”
Wilson was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital for further tests. It was then that it was disclosed that Wilson suffered a fracture of the 12th thoracic vertebrae and will stay overnight at the hospital for further tests and observation.
Based on this type of injury, Wilson will not be allowed to compete in this Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
How Rahal Is In The Seat
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has struggled to find speed the last few years on superspeedway’s. They had 3 of their 4 cars in the Last Row Shootout on Sunday. Unfortunately for Graham Rahal, he was bumped in the final seconds. He remarkably was out. He felt like it just wasn’t meant to be.
Then came Monday’s crash.
Remember, Rahal and DRR have a history. Rahal is friends with the Wilson family. Rahal is also friends with the second driver in the DRR camp, Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay’s car still had no funding. Rahal and Wilson are similar in size. Rahal had an excess amount of sponsorship.
Plus, DRR/Cusick had to work fast and if they hired a driver not named Rahal, that driver would have to take part in an orientation between now and the start of Carb Day practice.
It made the perfect sense.
There’s just one tiny detail – Rahal has always been a Honda driver and Wilson’s car is a Chevrolet. Dennis Reinbold had to make the phone call to see if there was an interest first from Graham’s side before he explored that Honda vs. Chevrolet avenue.
“Well, Dennis will tell you, when he called, I had said to him, I don’t really want to waste your time; it’s probably best that you just speak to Dad (Bobby Rahal),” Graham said. “Because again, while I was very appreciative, I knew the hurdles were going to be massive. This wasn’t just as easy as saying yes.”
Bobby didn’t flinch. He gave Dennis Reinbold his blessing. Now, the task of seeing if Chevrolet was okay with a Honda driver and Honda okay with a Honda driver racing for Chevrolet. They made the call, Honda obliged. Chevrolet also obliged. By 10:30 last night, a plan was in place.
“I think we both, last night we were sitting there at about 10:30 and going, I can’t believe this actually happened, that both Honda and Chevy allowed this to happen. So we’re very, very appreciative of that,” said Rahal.
“I knew that the challenges were far greater than me, and I needed to step aside because contractually I don’t know what all is said between RLL and Honda, RLL and our partners. But I know that this guy here to my right is a high-class individual, and I know he and dad spoke and worked things out right away.
“I’m surprised, but it was certainly exciting for me to hear late last night that we were going to be able to make this happen.
“I must say, Dennis mentioned Chevy, and equally so Honda, for allowing me to do this.
“They really came together, two manufacturers, to allow this to take place, to allow us to go race on Sunday, and hopefully get this car moving towards the front and have a really, really strong run.
“Because again, while I was very appreciative, I knew the hurdles were going to be massive. This wasn’t just as easy as saying yes.”