Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts - Qualifying

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


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.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.