National Guard to end sponsorship of Dale Jr., IndyCar’s Rahal (UPDATED)

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UPDATE (9:45 p.m. ET): Hendrick Motorsports and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal have issued responses to today’s news that the National Guard will not continue to sponsor their respective NASCAR and IndyCar teams.

In their short statement, HMS said that the team has a contract in place to “continue the National Guard program at its current level in 2015.”

“We have not been approached by the Guard about potential changes and plan to honor our current agreement,” the release ends.

As for Rahal’s statement, here it is in its entirety:

“We were informed this afternoon that the National Guard will end all sponsorship of motorsports, including both IndyCar and NASCAR at the conclusion of the 2014 seasons. This is obviously very disappointing news to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing given the significant incremental brand exposure we have worked to produce for the National Guard in our first season together, including various off-track marketing and advertising programs focused on supporting the mission set forth.

“We will continue to work hard to uphold the honor and integrity of the National Guard throughout the remainder of the season. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would like to thank the National Guard for allowing us the privilege of representing some of the finest men and women, those ‘citizen soldiers’ that protect our freedoms and safety each and every day… as we Focus Forward!”

The National Guard has been one of the most prominent sponsors of American motorsports in recent years. But as part of a planned redesign of its sports sponsorship program, it will sever ties with both NASCAR and IndyCar.

That means the end of their sponsorships with HMS driver and NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., and second-generation IndyCar pilot Graham Rahal.

Both contracts are set to expire at the end of this season according to the Army National Guard’s acting director, Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons.

“Significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business,” Lyons said in a statement released today.

Lyons added: “We believe industry and open competition can help us identify effective and efficient solutions to help us meet our marketing and recruiting objectives within budget constraints.”

This year alone, the Guard spent $32 million on its NASCAR sponsorship with Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports, plus another $12 million for its IndyCar sponsorship with Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Earnhardt has enjoyed the Guard’s backing since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, while Rahal and RLL took over the Guard’s IndyCar program this season after it had been with now-defunct Panther Racing from 2009-2013.

However, the Guard’s NASCAR program came under fire in May when USA Today released a report stating that the Guard had spent more than $26 million on that particular sponsorship but failed to sign up a single recruit.

The USA Today report also revealed that out of almost 25,000 recruit prospects that the Guard received through the program in 2012, only 20 of them met the Guard’s entry qualifications – and none of those 20 decided to join.

Despite those numbers, Lt. Col. Christian Johnson, the Guard’s marketing head, maintained in today’s announcement that the Guard racing programs played “an important role” in building brand awareness that “helped us achieve extraordinary recruiting and end-strength objectives over the past decade.”

This year, Hendrick Motorsports has appeared to be working hard to prepare for a post-Guard life. The team has recently brought brands like Nationwide Insurance and DC Comics into the fold, with Nationwide in particular coming on as a primary sponsor for Earnhardt over the next three seasons.

Since 2012, the Guard has drawn down its sports sponsorships to just those in NASCAR and IndyCar while eliminating programs in motorcycle racing and professional fishing.

Today’s announcement from the Guard noted that its marketing budget in the 2015 fiscal year is expected to be about half of what it was in the 2012 fiscal year.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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