National Guard to end sponsorship of Dale Jr., IndyCar’s Rahal (UPDATED)

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UPDATE (9:45 p.m. ET): Hendrick Motorsports and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal have issued responses to today’s news that the National Guard will not continue to sponsor their respective NASCAR and IndyCar teams.

In their short statement, HMS said that the team has a contract in place to “continue the National Guard program at its current level in 2015.”

“We have not been approached by the Guard about potential changes and plan to honor our current agreement,” the release ends.

As for Rahal’s statement, here it is in its entirety:

“We were informed this afternoon that the National Guard will end all sponsorship of motorsports, including both IndyCar and NASCAR at the conclusion of the 2014 seasons. This is obviously very disappointing news to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing given the significant incremental brand exposure we have worked to produce for the National Guard in our first season together, including various off-track marketing and advertising programs focused on supporting the mission set forth.

“We will continue to work hard to uphold the honor and integrity of the National Guard throughout the remainder of the season. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would like to thank the National Guard for allowing us the privilege of representing some of the finest men and women, those ‘citizen soldiers’ that protect our freedoms and safety each and every day… as we Focus Forward!”

The National Guard has been one of the most prominent sponsors of American motorsports in recent years. But as part of a planned redesign of its sports sponsorship program, it will sever ties with both NASCAR and IndyCar.

That means the end of their sponsorships with HMS driver and NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., and second-generation IndyCar pilot Graham Rahal.

Both contracts are set to expire at the end of this season according to the Army National Guard’s acting director, Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons.

“Significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business,” Lyons said in a statement released today.

Lyons added: “We believe industry and open competition can help us identify effective and efficient solutions to help us meet our marketing and recruiting objectives within budget constraints.”

This year alone, the Guard spent $32 million on its NASCAR sponsorship with Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports, plus another $12 million for its IndyCar sponsorship with Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Earnhardt has enjoyed the Guard’s backing since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, while Rahal and RLL took over the Guard’s IndyCar program this season after it had been with now-defunct Panther Racing from 2009-2013.

However, the Guard’s NASCAR program came under fire in May when USA Today released a report stating that the Guard had spent more than $26 million on that particular sponsorship but failed to sign up a single recruit.

The USA Today report also revealed that out of almost 25,000 recruit prospects that the Guard received through the program in 2012, only 20 of them met the Guard’s entry qualifications – and none of those 20 decided to join.

Despite those numbers, Lt. Col. Christian Johnson, the Guard’s marketing head, maintained in today’s announcement that the Guard racing programs played “an important role” in building brand awareness that “helped us achieve extraordinary recruiting and end-strength objectives over the past decade.”

This year, Hendrick Motorsports has appeared to be working hard to prepare for a post-Guard life. The team has recently brought brands like Nationwide Insurance and DC Comics into the fold, with Nationwide in particular coming on as a primary sponsor for Earnhardt over the next three seasons.

Since 2012, the Guard has drawn down its sports sponsorships to just those in NASCAR and IndyCar while eliminating programs in motorcycle racing and professional fishing.

Today’s announcement from the Guard noted that its marketing budget in the 2015 fiscal year is expected to be about half of what it was in the 2012 fiscal year.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

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Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.