Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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


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.

Lowdon, Booth bid farewell to Manor in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Manor Marussia Team Principal John Booth and Manor Marussia President and Sporting Director Graeme Lowdon arrive in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth both bid emotional farewells to Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team in Abu Dhabi on Sunday after resigning from their roles last month.

Lowdon and Booth were instrumental in the formation of Virgin Racing in 2010, which ultimately evolved to become Marussia F1 Team.

When Marussia collapsed financially in 2014, Lowdon and Booth managed to keep the team going and revive it as Manor for the new season, securing its place on the grid.

However, following disagreements with team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick over the future of the team, both Lowdon and Booth tendered their resignations, with today’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marking the final race in their roles.

“This is of course my final race with the Manor Marussia F1 Team,” Booth said.

“At a time like this, there is so much to say but I think the single biggest sentiment I will take away is incredible pride at just how much we punched above our weight for such a small team.

“It was a greater challenge than we ever anticipated, but six years on we are still here fighting.

“I wish the team every success in the future and I will be following their progress with a great deal of satisfaction at what we created together.”

Lowdon took to Twitter to thank the Manor team, but left the door on F1 open by only saying goodbye ‘for now’.

Manor’s final race of the year ended with another double finish as Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi finished 18th and 19th respectively. After the race, both drivers paid tribute to their outgoing bosses.

“I would like to thank everyone in the team for their support, but in particular John and Graeme, who we say goodbye to here today,” Stevens said.

Merhi added: “I would like to thank the whole team, not only for this opportunity but for the hard work throughout the season. We’ve had some difficult times, but I am very proud of us.

“My thanks also to John and Graeme and I wish them well for the future. I am sure we have not seen the last of them!”

Alonso: I will be racing in 2016, “that’s 100%”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda arrives in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
1 Comment

Fernando Alonso has once again rejected speculation claiming he could take a sabbatical from Formula 1 in 2016, telling NBCSN that he will be racing next year.

Alonso saw a miserable first year back at McLaren come to a disappointing end in Abu Dhabi on Sunday as he finished 17th, two laps down on race winner Nico Rosberg.

Deficiencies with the Honda power unit used by McLaren have blighted Alonso’s efforts all season long, prompting a number of outbursts that continued in Abu Dhabi when he threatened to retire the car.

The Spaniard finished the season with just 11 points to his name, marking his worst F1 campaign since his debut year with Minardi back in 2001.

Earlier in the race weekend, it was suggested that Alonso could take a year out of F1 if McLaren and Honda were unable to provide him a competitive car for next year.

Alonso denied such speculation on Saturday, and confirmed to NBCSN after the race on Sunday that he would definitely be racing in 2016.

“No, I will be racing. That’s 100%,” Alonso said when asked if he would be taking a sabbatical.

“If I had to choose a sabbatical, I would choose this [year]! I was here, I was pushing, I was giving my maximum, and I will always do.”

Alonso spent the entirety of his race in Abu Dhabi alone at the back of the field after a first lap collision with Pastor Maldonado and a penalty for his part in it.

“Being last with no battles all the race, it was pretty much alone,” Alonso said.

“We say always that there are some test races for us, but today it was more than ever a test because I was alone all the race.

“Hopefully we got some useful information for winter to develop the car but it was a very difficult race from the start.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi GP post-race (VIDEO)

xxxx during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

The final round of the 2015 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi may not have had a great deal riding on it with both championships already decided, but with the foundations already being laid for the new year, there were a number of storylines running throughout an eventual race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Nico Rosberg managed to see off a late challenge from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to pick up his sixth win of the year and, for the first time in his F1 career, a third in a row.

The German driver controlled proceedings from start to finish, while Hamilton was forced to settle for P2 once again ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

For the final time in 2015, Will Buxton brings you all of the news, interviews and insight following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Grosjean delighted to sign off from Lotus with points

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is pushed onto the grid by his team before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
1 Comment

Romain Grosjean was delighted to end his long-running association with Lotus by picking up two points for ninth place in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Grosjean started back in 19th place after being hit with a gearbox penalty on Sunday morning, but managed to fight his way through the order to stand on the brink of the top ten in the closing stages.

With fresher tires, the Frenchman battled past Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat to move up into ninth place, securing two points for Lotus in his final grand prix for the team.

The result also ensured that Grosjean finished the year 11th in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016.

“It’s been an emotional journey for me and I’m so happy to be able to reward everyone at Enstone with points in my final race for the team,” Grosjean said.

“I had to push all the way and it wasn’t always plain sailing as there was a lot to manage on the car. The calls from the pit wall were great and my pit stops were fantastic.

“I owe a lot to this team and it really feels like a family to me. I hope to be back one day in the future. This has been the best season of my career.”

Teammate Pastor Maldonado’s race ended at the first corner after he was crashed into by Fernando Alonso, leaving him with terminal suspension damage.

“It’s sad to end the race in the first corner because we were looking good for the race,” Maldonado said. “Today we had a good strategy to go with our better race pace, but anyway this is racing and it can happen.

“I didn’t see the contact I just felt it in the back of the car from Fernando. I tried to restart but then I saw the suspension damage. Imagine if that incident had been the other way round, it would’ve been big news then!”