Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Now what for Dale Jr., Rahal after National Guard withdrawal?

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It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know this was coming, but it still doesn’t soften the blow.

The loss of the National Guard sponsorship for both Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in NASCAR, and Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in IndyCar is both troubling and a sign of the times in terms of how fragile racing sponsorships can be.

We’ll start with the 88 car. Consider you have NASCAR’s most popular driver, riding the wave of momentum this year with what’s been by far his best ever season at Hendrick Motorsports and best overall since 2004 – when he won six races and contended for the title down to the wire.

Hendrick now has to sell the 20 races the Guard sponsored, which sounds easy in theory but not necessarily execution. There have been a handful of unsold races along the way for the 88 this year and last; while they’ve eventually been filled, it is still an exercise in pounding the pavement and convincing companies the car needs to be sponsored.

For 2015, Junior has Nationwide Insurance (12 races), PepsiCo (5) and Kelley Blue Book (1) locked in. So as of August 2014 – the time when many Fortune 500 companies are beginning or finalizing their marketing and sponsorship budgets for the following season – it’s likely going to take finding several other companies to fill the remaining 19 points races.

The catch, of course, is that the Hendrick Motorsports statement said the Guard plans to continue in 2015 – so figuring out whether that holds true or the “Guard draws down after 2014” prospect becomes the reality is a question mark on that side.

While filling the void on the 88 might take time, Earnhardt Jr. is still a more sellable asset than Rahal, who at 25 should be one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers but hasn’t quite had it all click.

Rahal, the driver, has failed to recapture the heights he achieved as a then 20-year-old in 2009 with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, when he often troubled the Ganassi and Penske squads at the front of the field. A year of taking part-time opportunities, two midlevel years with Ganassi of his own and a homecoming to his dad’s team a year ago have yielded little – he’s only had six podium finishes in the last five seasons (three in 2011, one apiece in 2012, 2013 and 2014).

source: Getty Images
Second at Detroit only podium for GR this year. Photo: Getty Images

The National Guard sponsorship only got awarded to RLL after a legal battle with John Barnes of Panther Racing, who submitted a higher bid that was ultimately rejected. Panther, unfortunately for its crew, was unable to make the grid in 2014, and thus the series lost another car.

I can’t imagine when RLL worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to capture the Guard support that they thought it would have only been for one year. That’s a royal kick in the pants for a team that added a sponsor and added depth in engineering (Bill Pappas) to support Rahal’s 2014 season.

My hope for RLL is that they weren’t blindsided with this news, and that they have another backup plan ready to replace the $12 million in overall funding brought both to the team and to the at-track activation.

And if there is an upside for RLL, it’s that Bobby Rahal has been in this position before, of needing to find sponsors to replace ones that have left him and his team in the lurch.

Consider just in the last six years, Ethanol, Service Central/Midas/Big O Tires and Acorn Stairlifts have all adorned but now left RLL. Others such as Shell, Miller, Argent, Pioneer and Gigante/Office Depot have all passed through the RLL sponsor arena and have since left IndyCar entirely.

After 2008, RLL had to withdraw from IndyCar full-time once Ethanol pulled out, and Takuma Sato’s 2012 effort was run on a relative shoestring budget without a major sponsor. Still, Sato damn near won the Indianapolis 500 that year.

Perhaps there was a perception issue of the Guard’s presence in motorsports; perhaps the Guard did more than what was reported and that the government never really “got it.” Consider this insight from Kurt Busch’s girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, founder of the Armed Forces Foundation:

Alas, what this withdrawal means is twofold: BIG money in American racing is an endangered species, and no sponsorship is safe.

When you combine the fact the Guard spent more than $40 million this year on its two racing sponsorships and activation/marketing, you have to realize that’s an unsustainable number for any company to support in modern day motorsports. The fact this is a government sponsorship only adds to the perception that it’s a wasted, sunk cost.

Second, when a driver as popular as Dale Jr. is set to lose one of his biggest sponsors, it’s a troublesome sign. The business model in NASCAR is at the point where it almost has to change to make sense. You can guarantee the Race Team Alliance is taking notice of this fact.

Where both the 88 and the 15 go from here is anyone’s guess, but they both have been put on notice by this drawdown.

Sauber cancels Barcelona test appearance

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Felipe Nasr of Brazil driving the (12) Sauber F1 Teamo Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sauber F1 Team won’t be running at the May 17-18 test at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona for a couple reasons, the team confirming its absence today.

Sauber said it doesn’t have any car updates coming for the next round of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, and additionally doesn’t have a suitable young or reserve driver it could use for the test.

It’s the latest less than ideal bit of news for the venerable Swiss outfit, which per Autosport also lost its head of track engineering, Tim Maylon, left the team after three months.

Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson are yet to score this season. Nasr debuted a new chassis in Sochi.

With McLaren’s pair of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, plus Renault’s Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez also getting on the board in Russia, Sauber and Manor MRT are now the only two teams yet to score points this year.

The second in-season test is scheduled for July 12-13 in Silverstone, after the British Grand Prix.

What replacement venues could work for Boston?

FONTANA, CA - AUGUST 30:   Scott Dixon of New Zealand driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Chevrolet leads a pack of cars during the Verizon IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 IndyCar World Championship Race at the Auto Club Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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With the Grand Prix of Boston not happening, there’s a lot of replacement options that have been discussed.

Right now it appears there’s more talk about potential replacement options than there are movement on actual ones, although you figure if a replacement event gets finalized, it would need to get finalized sooner rather than later to allow for a somewhat ample amount of promotional time and to slot into whatever TV window.

It’d be easier to go through the possible tracks one-by-one as based on reports:

  • Providence: A Rhode Island street race has been rumored for years, even going back to when Tony Cotman discussed the idea back in 2012 (I remember writing on it for another outlet at the time). The realism of a second first-year street race coming together in an even shorter time frame, given all the permits needed, seems unlikely. And while the Boston Herald reported the Boston race could be in line to move to Providence, the Providence Journal reported Tuesday that the Providence mayor hasn’t been in touch with INDYCAR.
  • Fontana/Auto Club Speedway: Auto Club Speedway president Dave Allen likes INDYCAR but wanted a more amenable time and date for his race rather than the Saturday, mid-afternoon race in June last year, and so ACS was an unfortunate casualty for 2016. Could it return? Veteran Inland Valley Dailey Bulletin reporter Louis Brewster pondered the possibility thusly: “It’s good bet, under the right agreement, the Fontana track could host such a race and attract a decent crowd. Of course the series will point to the June 2015 race that didn’t attract much more than 20,000 fans. However, that was the direct result of IndyCar not wanting to compete after Labor Day and moving the race for the fourth time in four years. IndyCar should give serious consideration to ending its season in Fontana.” Ah, but ending its season in Fontana would likely go against the wishes and desires of the other California track that is promoting and likely has in its contract the rights to the 2016 season finale: Sonoma Raceway up the coast. Theoretically Fontana could work on the Labor Day weekend; it hosted NASCAR races that weekend from 2004 to 2008 and has an open gap in its schedule; the track has events scheduled August 26-28 and Sept. 10-11, per its website.
  • Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca: Don’t bet on this happening. The full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series and Mazda Prototype Lites are at the track Sept. 8-11 for a singular Mazda branded weekend at Mazda Raceway in Monterey, and there’s little to no chance that Sonoma or INDYCAR would be cool with two races in the same market on back-to-back weeks. Same story applies with Pirelli World Challenge, a usual INDYCAR dance partner, running here separately Oct. 7-9. Sonoma’s got the INDYCAR finale and if there’s one thing that won’t be changing, it’s that.
  • Gateway: Here’s one that could make sense. One of a handful of tracks identified in Robin Miller’s “what next” report late Friday night for RACER.com, Gateway Motorsports Park is known to have an interest in returning and has had Ed Carpenter test at the track for evaluation. Gateway hosted seven total open-wheel races from 1997 through 2003.
  • Milwaukee: Like Gateway in Madison, Ill., Milwaukee could be a cost-effective, quick short-term solution for teams to fill in and replace the Boston round. The problem, however, is finding a suitable promoter. With Andretti Sports Marketing having gone away, the remnants now fused into the new LST Marketing organization (separate from Andretti), and the eternal dilemma in Milwaukee where you also have to factor the State Fair Park board into play, it’d be hard to find a shotgun promoter last-minute without INDYCAR doing it itself. The difference between Phoenix and Milwaukee in terms of promoting a one-mile race is INDYCAR was able to co-promote Phoenix with the track, a track which hosts other successful events during a year. Milwaukee, with no other major events, stands alone. The last time a first-year promoter did Milwaukee, the AB Promotions mash-up of Avocado, LLC and BMG Event Productions in 2011, it didn’t go well.
  • Watkins Glen: An SVRA weekend at the track runs Sept. 9-11, the weekend after Labor Day. With the Phoenix connection, another ISC track, re-established on an IndyCar schedule you wonder if Jay Frye and company could work some magic to put another ISC track on the venue. The track’s just been repaved though, so any race here might require an exploratory test. IndyCar last raced “the Glen” in 2010.
  • New Hampshire: Miller rules this one out because of NASCAR races there on July 17 and Sept. 25, and with Labor Day so close to the Sept. 25 date (week two in the Chase), having two races in four weeks isn’t a likely option.
  • No replacement or A.N. Other replacement: The least favorable of the options: either no replacement or another one that hasn’t already been publicly discussed. Big question here is whether 16 races is the magic number for INDYCAR to fulfill its contractual requirements or if 15 is the standby option. In 2012, when IZOD was the title sponsor, the series ran 15 races following the cancellation of the China round. Last year’s Brasilia cancellation dropped the number from 17 to 16. Now with Verizon as series title sponsor, it will be interesting to see whether it prefers to have a Northeast presence and/or if it stipulates that 16 races are required, or if 15 can work.

Where would you like to see IndyCar race to replace Boston? Check the poll below:

SH Rallycross confirms Jeff Ward, MET-Rx for Red Bull GRC season

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Photo: SH Rallycross
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Jeff Ward, who ran a part-time Red Bull Global Rallycross campaign in 2015 with Chip Ganassi Racing, will step up to a full-season effort in 2016 with the SH Rallycross team in the No. 07 MET-Rx Ford Fiesta ST.

Ward replaces Nelson Piquet Jr. in the team’s No. 07 car for the James “Sulli” Sullivan led team.

The full release is below:

SH Rallycross/DRR announced today that Motorcycle and Motorsports Hall of Fame driver Jeff Ward will pilot the SH Rallycross-DRR Ford Fiesta ST entry in its bid for the 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship.

The team is also excited to announce that MET-Rx will be primary partner for its No. 07 Ford Fiesta ST for eight races, beginning with the season opener in Phoenix on May 21.

“We’re stoked to have MET-Rx on board as title partner for the 2016 Red Bull GRC Championship. These guys have incredible dedication to producing sports nutrition products that no doubt will resonate with the millennial audience of GRC,” said SH Rallycross/DRR owner James “Sulli” Sullivan.

Commenting on Ward, Sulli said, “Being able to secure Jeff Ward to pilot the MET-Rx machine for us in 2016 is really exciting. Simply put, Wardy is an animal, this guy is lit up. When I watched him in his GRC debut in 2015, I wanted him racing for us. Our whole team will benefit from the amount of multi-discipline experience he has and I expect we will compete for wins with him driving.”

Ward is a member of both the Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He is a three-time X Games medalist (two gold), has four top-five Indianapolis 500 finishes, two Super Moto championships and seven AMA Motocross championships. The 2016 season will be his first full-time Red Bull Global Rallycross season, after making his series debut in 2015 with three starts.

“I’m super excited to be able to race for SH Rallycross/DRR and have the support of MET-Rx during the 2016 Red Bull GRC season. The team has proven it can win and compete for the championship and I look forward to helping bring them even more success,” said Ward.

In addition to the season opener at Phoenix Race I, MET-Rx will be the primary partner at Phoenix Race II on May 22; Dallas on June 4; Daytona Race I, June 18; The Base I and II on July 2 and 3; New Jersey on August 28; and the season finale in Los Angeles, Race II, on October 2.

Mike Messersmith, Vice President of Marketing for MET-Rx, said, “MET-Rx recognizes the preparation and dedication that goes into winning in the Red Bull Global Rallycross Series. Championing this preparation is what MET-Rx is all about – our portfolio is designed to help the modern athlete nourish and love their inner monster and to provide them with the necessary tools to get to the next level of their sport and go out onto the track ready to dominate.”

SH Rallycross/DRR is entering its fourth season of Red Bull Global Rallycross competition and third full season (ran one race, the X Games Los Angeles in 2013). The team has finished fourth in the championship standings the last two seasons. In 2015, the team had its best season with four podium performances, including a win in Washington D.C. It was the only Red Bull Global Rallycross SuperCar team to make every main (final) event.

Boston GP cancellation fallout continues; refunds due to begin for fans

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 09:  Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh addresses the media during a press conference to announce Boston as the U.S. applicant city to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on January 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images for the USOC)
Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh. Photo: Getty Images
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It was perfectly imperfect timing on Friday night when the dreaded “Friday night news dump 101” tsunami hit  and the race that many thought never really had a chance, the inaugural Grand Prix of Boston, got wiped from the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

With the cancellation the first step in the process, the last few days have seen the fun part: the fallout, finger-pointing and frustration that comes afterwards.

A column from the Boston Globe, which had supported the race more than not, had the headline of “Boston, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”

The column adds the IndyCar false start to other failed attempts at sporting events, including a rejected New England Patriots stadium bid and the withdrawn 2024 Olympics bid.

Columnist Mike Ross wrote, “The pattern is now familiar: An idea gets floated. A group forms against the idea. A website is created, in this case www.noindycarboston.org. And the idea dies.”

Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh (pictured above) held a press conference, as well. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions on INDYCAR to us,” he said as part of it, but he also said Boston had the infrastructure in place to pull the event off, contrary to the withdrawn Olympics bid. The full quick video of that is linked here.

Event organizers have announced refunds for those who have already bought tickets. A post was released on the event’s social media pages on Saturday (see below for that), and an example of an email sent to fans is below that (thanks to @RickWeber for bringing this to my attention)

Event spokeswoman Jana Watt told the Globe about the refund process, “The ticket refunds will be processed in the order received, and it is a manual process and could take some time to complete as each individual order must be processed.” A number of fan comments were included within that post.

What replacement options for Boston could work? We’ll have that in a separate post later today.