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.

Toro Rosso at crossroads after Kvyat’s point, Hartley’s strong debut

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In a weekend with something to prove at Circuit of The Americas, Daniil Kvyat rose to the occasion with what he called “his best race of the season for sure” at the United States Grand Prix.

But it may not be enough for the Russian to have saved his seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso for the three final races this year.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Brendon Hartley capped off his roller-coaster debut weekend in Formula 1 with a solid 13th place finish after starting from the rear of the grid, learning as the race went on and bringing home his Toro Rosso chassis to the flag.

Toro Rosso faces a dilemma of three drivers available but only two seats to fill for the final three Grands Prix, with the Mexican Grand Prix coming up just next week.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly will be back after missing Austin due to his Super Formula commitments at Suzuka in Japan, but ultimately that went for naught as the races were canceled due to a typhoon.

Kvyat qualified 12th, was promoted to 11th by way of grid penalties and ended 10th, scoring a point for only the third race this year and first time since coming ninth in the Spanish Grand Prix back in May.

It was a weekend where he would have been expected to outdo Hartley, and did so, but not by a massive margin. And he was already coming in with a track time disadvantage, losing out in FP1 as Indonesian Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael ran in his chassis.

As it was, he rated his weekend performance highly and didn’t do his chances of staying in the car any harm.

Speaking to NBCSN after the race, Kvyat said, “Yeah, it was a perfect race. I did everything well. Brought the points home. It was close with (Felipe) Massa.

“We had some energy release issues on the engine. But it was a massive weekend. It was great. I really enjoyed myself. It was a good job by the team to keep it together with very limited running.

Hartley built up confidence throughout the weekend as he learned the car, the Pirelli tires and how an F1 race races versus an endurance race that he’d been used to doing for several years.

Having coming into the weekend with no expectations and just taking the race session-by-session, he felt good at the end of it.

“There’s so many little things to reflect on,” he told NBCSN. “I’ll put the eyes at rest and process it all. I did the standing start and it wasn’t the best… it’s been a long time.

“But yeah, (you’re learning) in terms of following in traffic, what 20 laps on these tires means, how much you can push it. I’m pretty satisfied. The pace was pretty strong. I made the mistake of getting passed by (Lance) Stroll. I couldn’t pass him back. Lots of challenges. I hope I can get another shot at it.

“Up until this moment… I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to do the job. I’m really relaxed. Now there might be some conversations.”

Toro Rosso figures to reveal its Mexican Grand Prix driver lineup early this week.