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

Aug 7, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. AP

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.

  1. wethog66 - Aug 7, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    I can’t see how either of these teams was taken by surprise by National Guards withdraw from sponsoring race teams. I have been reading, and seeing, reports about Politicians questioning the benefits of branches of the military spending money on sponsorships like this for the last year at least. And all reports mentioned that recruiting has not benefited by the exposure of racing sponsorship. So like any company who sponsors race teams, no return on the investment equals no more sponsorship.

    Regardless, this is a troubling sign for motor racing, especially NASCAR. Long time sponsors like Dupont, Dewalt and Home Depot are either significantly toning down their involvement in NASCAR, or are leaving all together. And the trend the last hand full of years of multiple primary sponsors for individual cars has become a NASCAR wide thing. What is the next step? Possibly starting grids that fall short of the 43 car limit.

    NASCAR needs to wake up and make significant changes to how they do things. Sponsors are leaving and I have watched every race this year, on TV, and from what I remember 95% of the races are far from sellouts. The racing that is not a mile and shorter track is just plain boring. To many tracks are mile and a halfs and the cars are still holding the drivers back. I am tired of hearing that “aero push” has prevented yet another pass attempt the for the lead, and races decided by fuel mileage is……… sucks.

    Its easy for me to bitch about track lengths and car restrictions, but its a start. Somehow get the cars to the point that drivers have more opportunity to pass, and Saturday night short track racing is awesome. NASCAR needs more of it.

    • crunge4461 - Aug 7, 2014 at 8:01 PM

      What Nascar should do is mandate all teams buy showroom Mustangs, Camaros, Charger etc. and have the teams fit the car for racing with roll cages, fuel cells, seats etc. and go racing.

      Anytime I mention this people say I am crazy, but this is exactly what made Nascar. It was built on racers driving production based cars, even if only the body of the machine. Today the rear-wheel drive 36-38,000 V-8s are tremendously popular. I see these cars everywhere and some come with 500 Bhp off the showroom. Race those, no plates at Daytona, and it would be good for the sport. Good for manufacturers, race Sunday and sell Monday, fans would see their own cars as potential racers, and the natural variant brought by different car designs would be appealing as well and fans would start identifying with the brand again.

      Real stock based cars racing, is it too dangerous? With developments in seat, helmet and neck restraint systems I do not think terribly so, and none-the-less racing is supposed to be risky, that is one of the most inherent allures of the sport. If Nascar is worried about attendance etc. they should return to what made it popular in the first place….sorta regular guys in souped up showroom racers of various kinds battling on the track.

      • barrylibby - Aug 8, 2014 at 3:09 PM

        Oh my god, you mean cars w/ state of the art rear suspensions ,how will we have “Big Ones” !!!!!!!
        Even w/ real headlights !!!!!
        You heretic !!!!

  2. jets12 - Aug 7, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    What he ^ said.

  3. jezza819 - Aug 7, 2014 at 12:22 PM

    I kind of knew there was trouble when David Letterman had the head of the Guard on his show a few weeks ago and they had a few recruits in the audience that they recognized. I figured he was trying to give the Guard a little more publicity in the hopes of convincing them to stay.

  4. barrylibby - Aug 7, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    First it is our TAX dollars !
    Why is recruitment down? Because too many discovered that with the check goes a commitment to go to war !

    Above criticisms are right on. The technology on cars is designed to level playing field and enhance
    France family pocketbook. Not to improve racing.
    Too many races are becoming like pro basketball . Watch last 3 to 10 minutes or 30 laps you have seen game /race!
    I do not need fake headlights on a race car ,real ones at Lemans is OK and used.
    They aren’t Chevies ,Fords or Camrys period !
    Instead build a car that can keep its’ rearend on ground during the “aero” thing.
    Less “big ones”!

    • convincedofthehex - Aug 7, 2014 at 3:39 PM

      Agreed on all of it except your ripping on the NBA. If you love basketball, you’ll know those are the best players in the world and it is a game of constant adjustments.

      • wethog66 - Aug 7, 2014 at 3:46 PM

        I love basketball, but I loath the NBA. The best players in the world should be able to comply with simplest rule in basketball. The traveling rule.

    • charger383 - Aug 7, 2014 at 10:38 PM

      You are right about enhancing France family pocketbook, that is what is killing NASCAR

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