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.

McCormack confirms Davey Hamilton Jr. for Indy Lights

Photo: McCormack Racing
Photo: McCormack Racing
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New team, new driver in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series. It’s not full-time – yet – but this is good.

The full release from McCormack Racing is below:

18 year-old King of the Wing Sprint Car Series champion Davey Hamilton, Jr. has come to terms to compete for Jack McCormack & McCormack Racing in the 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.  The third generation driver originally from Boise, ID will be making his debut campaign in a single seater.

Hamilton hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as the latest American racer to translate asphalt Open Wheel & Sprint Car success into an INDYCAR career.  Hamilton, Jr.’s 2015 concluded with his fifth Sprint Car win of the year at Madera in November en route to the King of the Wing Western Sprint Car Series championship and third in the national championship.

His father Davey, Sr. has competed in 11 Indianapolis 500s with a best finish of fourth.  He also finished second in series points in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998.  He remarkably finished ninth in the 2007 edition of the 500 after a six year comeback from a devastating crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

“This opportunity with Jack McCormack is something I have been looking forward to for a long time,” Hamilton, Jr. said.  “We are working hard to be on the grid in March to challenge for wins and ultimately an Indy Lights championship.  We still have some work to do financially but we’re pushing hard.”

McCormack’s racing history goes back to 1966 in drag racing before a successful career in engineering and car ownership across IMSA, IndyCar, Indy Lights, and USAC.  McCormack has worked with a diverse range of top drivers such as Sam Posey, Skip Barber, Pancho Carer, Roger McCluskey, Jerry Sneva, Roger Mears, Tom Sneva, Geoff Brabham, and Dick Simon.

McCormack Racing and Hamilton have spent much of the off season testing primarily at Buttonwillow Raceway in California.  After several weeks practicing a third-generation Indy Lights car, Hamilton took controls of the current fourth-generation IL-15 for numerous testing days.  Hamilton and McCormack will make a private oval test later this month before joining the series officially on February 24th for the test on the one-mile oval Phoenix International Raceway.

The team has tentative agreements in place to compete in the entire Indy Lights starting with the Streets of St. Pete March 11-13.  Two separate Indy Lights races will be contested across opening weekend for the series.  Indy Lights’ 2016 agenda also includes oval races at Phoenix, Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Freedom 100 on Carb Day, and Iowa Speedway.

Both Hamilton and McCormack are still searching for additional funding to solidify an effort to be the seventh American on the grid this spring.

Alain Prost confirms having no role with Renault Sport F1 Team

Four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost visits the paddock area prior to the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix race at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, southern Austria, Sunday, June 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
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BUENOS AIRES – Alain Prost has confirmed to MotorSportsTalk that he will not have a role within the revived Renault Sport Formula 1 Team’s management.

Renault will return to F1 with a works team in 2016 after five years away, having taken over the Lotus operation at Enstone in December.

On Wednesday, the team unveiled its driver line-up and management team for the season, with Prost not being announced as having a role.

Many expected the four-time F1 world champion to take up a position similar to that of Niki Lauda at Mercedes, where the Austrian works as a non-executive director.

Speaking to MotorSportsTalk in Buenos Aires, Prost confirmed that he will not be involved with the F1 operation and will instead focus on his broadcasting commitments and his role in Formula E with Renault e.dams.

“I decided for sure, not so long ago. I prefer to be away from the operational work because it’s too complicated anyway with Formula E and the ambassador role and Canal+ [in France] and maybe Channel 4 [in Britain], different things that I have to do,” Prost said.

“I cannot do things everywhere, it does not work anyway. I think also the image could create more problems than advantages, especially for the management. They have a structure.

“It’s going to be tough at the beginning. I’ll let them work and I’ll still keep my role of ambassador and different things.”

Jose Maria Lopez open to Formula E move in the future

Reigning champion of the World Touring Car Championship series Jose Maria Lopez of Argentina of team Citroen Total, attends a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, April 30, 2015. The World Touring Car Championship, will take place on the  Hungaroring circuit in Mogyorod on May 2 and 3. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP)
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BUENOS AIRES – Two-time WTCC champion Jose Maria Lopez has expressed an interest in entering Formula E in the future, hinting that he would be open to a move for 2017.

In 2014, Lopez became the first driver from Argentina to win an FIA-sanctioned world championship since Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth Formula 1 title in 1957.

The Citroen driver added a second championship to his haul last year, but is on the lookout for future opportunities after the French manufacturer announced that it would be quitting WTCC following the 2016 season.

Speaking in Buenos Aires ahead of this weekend’s ePrix, Lopez said that he would be open to racing in Formula E in the future and giving Argentine fans a home driver to support.

“It would be fantastic for me to be part of this fantastic series, with this fantastic bunch of drivers,” Lopez said. “Today I have compromises with the brand with Citroen and also with the series I’m involved in, WTCC, we are developing the car so it’s a time of timing it’s not possible.

“But it would be fantastic because it’s a series which, [as] I’ve said before, is growing up really quick and it’s very interesting for the drivers. The fact that we have a race in Argentina, it would be fantastic to have as well an Argentinian driver.

“We will see. Today, everything is guessing because nothing is concrete and we talk about why not in 2017? It could be a good option.”

Lopez has previously substituted for the DS Virgin Racing team for a test thanks to its ties with Citroen, and enjoyed trying out a Formula E car.

“I did a small test with a team because there was no driver available and I was lucky enough to be there that day so I jumped in the car a few laps,” Lopez said.

“The first thing is you don’t have the noise of an engine. You hear everything what’s going on in the car – when the car is touching the ground, for example, you can hear the noise of the gearbox all the time, when you hit a kerb you can hear the suspension suffering.

“It’s quite a strange feeling but it’s still racing – the level of the series is fantastic, the driving is fantastic. And that is also very important. I know the drivers – I’ve been racing in the past with them.

“I’ve shared teams with Loic Duval, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Lucas di Grassi – they tell me the races are really, really, really fun, the car is fun to drive and the competition of is very very high.”

Nick Heidfeld to race in Buenos Aires as planned

FIA Formula E Championship 2015/16.
Beijing ePrix, Beijing, China.
Nick Heidfeld (GER), Mahindra Racing M2ELECTRO 
Press Conference
Beijing, China, Asia.
Saturday 24 October 2015
Photo: Sam Bloxham / LAT / FE
ref: Digital Image _SBL7972
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BUENOS AIRES – Nick Heidfeld will take part in this weekend’s Formula E race in Buenos Aires as planned after completing a trouble-free shakedown for Mahindra.

Heidfeld missed the last race in Uruguay after undergoing surgery on his wrist in a bid to remedy a recurring problem.

The German driver confirmed on Thursday that he would make a decision after shakedown on his participation, despite being 99% sure that he would be fit to race after testing an old GP2 car last week.

Shakedown took place on Friday afternoon, after which Heidfeld decided that he was happy to take part in the race as planned, as confirmed to MotorSportsTalk by Mahindra.

Two-time IndyCar starter and 2009 A1 GP champion Adam Carroll had flown to Buenos Aires as backup in the event that Heidfeld could not race, but will not be needed for tomorrow’s ePrix.