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

9 Comments

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.

Phoenix weekend, Friday notes

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Days are weird when the track activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series doesn’t start until 4 p.m. PT and local time. Qualifying is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, online via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App at http://indystream.nbcsports.com.

That then makes the notes we gather a little different.

  • Thursday night kicked off the weekend with an honoring and fun night of storytelling from Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, moderated by veteran open-wheel and NBA reporter Gary Gerould. The event, held at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, offered a lot of camaraderie, laughs and memories shared for the pair of Brazilians. We’ll have a full recap of the event on Saturday.
  • Oberto premieres on Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this weekend as a primary sponsor. In a “convenient coincidence,” Oberto is also on Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ No. 41 Beetle GRC for two-time defending champion Scott Speed in this weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross opener in Memphis (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC). The red-and-white No. 27 car had a primary sponsorship vacancy for most races this year in the wake of hhgregg’s financial issues, with United Fiber & Data only on for selected races.
  • Fernando Alonso’s entry is getting most of the attention among one-off Indianapolis 500 cars, but he’s not the only one. Per Spanish site IndyCarAlDiaJuncos Racing is set to run at least one car on the same May 3 date as Alonso will make his debut, as Ricardo Juncos’ team gets close to making its announcement for its driver or drivers it will have in this year’s race.
  • Alonso’s livery for his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti is set to be revealed either the Tuesday before his test on May 2 or the morning of his test on May 3, itself. The @McLarenIndy account tweeted a sneak pic of the livery earlier this week.
  • The Jay Howard Team ONE Cure Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports doesn’t yet have its engineer set, but the team is getting close to finalizing the crew for that car.
  • Zach Veach’s No. 40 IWiT Championship Chevrolet will be revealed Wednesday night, May 10, at AJ Foyt Racing’s Indianapolis shop.
  • On a Red Bull Global Rallycross note: Andretti, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have both IndyCar and GRC efforts running this weekend, so four of the 10 Supercars. The rest of the GRC field features Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE (three cars), Subaru Rally Team USA (two cars) and Loenbro Motorsports, the former Ganassi team (one car).
  • Be on the lookout for a pair of digital pieces on NBCSports.com later this weekend. NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt caught up with Helio Castroneves for Rapid Fire, while she’ll also fill in for Anders Krohn – who’s on Red Bull GRC duty in Memphis – hosting IndyCar Paddock Pass. Hargitt caught up with Barber winner Josef Newgarden, series returnee JR Hildebrand and Hildebrand’s Barber fill-in Zach Veach in this week’s episode.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

McLaren/LAT
Leave a comment

Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

Getty Images
1 Comment

The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.