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.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)