Graham Rahal on IndyCar sponsorship: “The money doesn’t find itself”

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Graham Rahal’s regular season as driver of his No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, in the Verizon IndyCar Series, starts this weekend.

Yet he’s coming off a stretch since the end of the 2015 season, where without too much on-track activity (testing and the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GLTM), the focus has been on finding the dollars for 2016.

It’s a necessary part of the business because driving talent isn’t all that keeps you in a seat anymore, with a few exceptions.

“From a sponsor standpoint, we’ve had more success as a team this offseason than we’ve had the last 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports in an interview last week.

How so, you ask?

With confirmations of Steak ‘n Shake’s return (five races of primary sponsorship), a renewal of DRIFIRE (associate sponsorship), and the additions of Hyatt (major associate sponsorship) and Fifth Third Bank (associate sponsorship), it seemed RLL was in the news rather regularly after completing partner deals.

It didn’t happen by accident.

“When people and teams say, ‘You can’t get sponsors,’ that’s not right. There’s a lot of sponsors,” Rahal explained.

“People look at this season, and it’s March to September. That’s my easy season. Then I’m out with Brian (Marks), my dad, (Mike) Lanigan, and we’re chasing sponsors every week trying to get deals done.

“You can get deals done. There’s a lot of people intrigued.

“We’ve got the new sponsors, and then PennGrade, who was with us last year (via D-A Lubricants), they’ll step up. Hyatt, it’s exciting for them to get involved. Hyatt has a lot of great locations near tracks. Fans then see the sponsors are there, and can support the sponsors, as you saw with Steak ‘n Shake and so on. There’s a lot of cool stuff happening.”

Rahal noted the team around him for helping grow the partner portfolio at RLL, and he also noted how he’s grown and developed in the pursuit of partners his own.

If you think about it, Rahal lost his ride because of a sponsorship loss at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at the end of 2009. He was out of a ride full-time in 2010, and bounced around between NHL, RLL (Indianapolis 500), Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Sarah Fisher Racing. Interestingly, of those teams, only RLL is still active full-time six years later.

But since 2010, when he brought a couple partners to Ganassi for 2011 – primarily Service Central and NTB – he’s been actively working to find partners to help get back on the grid full-time.

“Brian does a great job, Mike Lanigan does a great job with what he can, and my dad, there’s no quit in him,” he said.

“I don’t say this arrogantly, but I think I’m the most involved on chasing sponsorship. If you connect the dots, you can make it happen. We have a cool deal (in the works) for Road America, with connecting some dots and the team becomes a beneficiary.

“You have to work hard. The money doesn’t find itself. Whether it’s B2B or pure marketing, you have to find a way to make it happen.

“But I’ve been fortunate to do so.”

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
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Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”