The Real All-American Team
Last Thursday, it was finally confirmed that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will be the recipient of the National Guard sponsorship. They will be the primary sponsor on Graham Rahal’s No.15 Dallara. According to Bobby Rahal, this also frees them up to add a second car to their team. I use the term “finally” confirmed, because this has been in question since it was first reported last October.
Not only is this a good move for Bobby Rahal’s team, but it is also good for the National Guard – considered to be one of the more lucrative sponsorship packages in the paddock. Since 2008, they had been saddled with the under-performing team of Panther Racing and principal owner John Barnes.
Although many fans have few kind words for Mr. Barnes, he was always given somewhat of a pass due to his heavy involvement with the US Military. I, too, will give Mr. Barnes a pass in that regard. I don’t think he was at all insincere in showing his appreciation for our service men and women. Quite the contrary.
Barnes has gone above and beyond in his efforts for the Wounded Warriors. He has worked tirelessly in his attempts to help veterans get hired in the workplace. No one could do the things that he has done, strictly for a series of photo-ops. Now that he has lost the National Guard sponsorship, I don’t expect his involvement in helping veterans to decline one bit. This is his opportunity to show everyone that his heart was truly in the right place and his actions had nothing to do with who was writing the checks to support his racing team.
But, as an outsider who knows nothing of the day-to-day relationship between the National Guard and John Barnes, I would say that the reason they stopped writing those checks to his racing team is simply that of performance. Let’s face it, in the world that you and I work in – no matter how great a relationship you have with your boss or employer, you have to perform. Being friends with your boss can buy you a little time and earn you the benefit of the doubt, but ultimately, you have to perform or you will be gone. John Barnes knows this. He demonstrated it when he fired the popular JR Hildebrand after he crashed four laps into last year’s Indianapolis 500.
When Robin Miller first reported that the National Guard sponsorship would be leaving Panther in favor of RLLR, John Barnes filed a protest – which I suppose is what you do when dealing with a branch of the US government. I’m not sure what he thought would be accomplished by this. It’s not like one of the higher-ups with the Guard decided that he didn’t like John Barnes’s shirt one day and made a knee-jerk decision to swap teams. These decisions are made at high levels after much discussion – especially when dealing with the government. They don’t make their plans known until everything has been fully decided.
All this did was to throw Rahal’s program into limbo for almost four months. Rahal had hired famed engineers John Dick and Bill Pappas, I’m sure with the idea that the National Guard sponsorship was going to allow them to expand and grow their organization. With the pointless Panther protest going on, all of Rahal’s plans had to be on hold. Sure, they made some tentative plans while knowing that the National Guard sponsorship was still fairly certain – but no driver or sponsors for a second program could be signed until they knew for sure. On January 17, it was announced that Panther had lost their protest. Then on Thursday Feb 6, they confirmed that they were teaming up with Rahal for 2014.
I don’t know this, but logic would tell you that the National Guard probably wanted an American driver. It certainly makes sense. When Panther first teamed up with the National Guard in 2008, Brazilian driver Vitor Meira was the driver. While I always liked Meira – I always found it a little odd to hear a heavy Portuguese accent touting the US National Guard. Dan Wheldon joined Panther in 2009. Although he went the extra mile in bragging on our troops and extolling their virtues every time he was on-camera, the British accent reminded you that this was not an American talking about American troops. It wasn’t until JR Hildebrand came on board in 2011 that the Guard finally had an American driver representing them in IndyCar.
Most that are regulars to this site know that I have never really bought into the theory that there are too many foreign drivers in the series. I’ve always held on to the idea that the Indianapolis 500 embraced foreign participation from the very beginning. After all, from the very beginning in 1911 – it was a 500-Mile International Sweepstakes. I could go on and on, but that is a subject for another day. Anyway, suffice it to say that I have never been opposed to foreign drivers. Having said that, I fully believe that any branch of the US Military should be represented by an American driver.
After Hildebrand was released from Panther a couple of days following the 2013 Indianapolis 500, Barnes announced that the team would be holding auditions for 2014 throughout the remainder of the season. After Indianapolis, the only three drivers to turn a wheel for Panther were Australian Ryan Briscoe, Spaniard Oriol Serviá and Columbian rookie Carlos Muñoz (who drove for an injured Briscoe in the second Toronto race). This told the National Guard two things – Panther was essentially writing off the 2013 season with their money; and they could expect another foreign driver in their car for 2014.
I suspect they had seen enough. Not only was the bulk of their time with Panther and John Barnes spent with foreign drivers – but that time had also shown them a slew of disappointing results. This is a team that has not been to victory lane since 2005. When you think of John Barnes, you think of an old-guard IRL team that favors American drivers like Sam Hornish. Since Hornish left Panther following the 2003 season, Panther has only employed one American full-time – JR Hildebrand. Townsend Bell drove the second half of the 2004 season to replace the fired Mark Taylor. Bell, Buddy Lazier and a few other Americans have driven in substitute roles or the occasional one-off effort, usually at Indianapolis.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has a much longer history of employing American drivers. Since coming over full-time from CART in 2003, Rahal has had the following Americans in full-time roles; Buddy Rice (who won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 and two other races that year while driving for Rahal), Danica Patrick, Paul Dana, Jeff Simmons, Ryan Hunter-Reay (who won at Watkins Glen while driving for Rahal in 2008) and now his son Graham. You can also throw in the names of Americans Mike Groff, Bryan Herta and Jimmy Vasser from the team’s days in CART.
With Rahal, the National Guard is getting a team that has employed several American drivers and one that has proven it knows how to win. Bobby Rahal won the third of his CART championships in 1992 as an owner-driver. They won as a one-car team with Hunter-Reay in 2008. Due to lack of sponsorship, the team left the series as a full-time team and did not return to full-time status until 2012. They expanded to a second car for James Jakes in 2013, but are seeking a savvy veteran for that seat for this season. Unfortunately, all of that had to be put on hold while the Panther/National Guard protest sorted itself out.
Ironically, the second seat at Rahal, which will not carry the National Guard as the primary sponsor – may be filled by Oriol Serviá, if certain rumors turn out to be true. The other two that drove for Panther last season? Ryan Briscoe has landed a plum ride at Ganassi, while Carlos Muñoz has a full-time ride with Andretti Autosport. Meanwhile, who did Panther – the team that perpetuates the reputation of being all-American – test at Sebring last week? Columbian Carlos Huertas. Panther’s plans for 2014 are still up in the air as no primary sponsor has been named.
In the meantime, I think there are good things happening at RLLR. If the rumors are true and Serviá does join the team, it would reunite him with Graham Rahal from their days together at Newman/Haas. Rahal said recently that Serviá was the best teammate he has ever had. If those two pair up again, and join forces with a highly improved engineering staff – look out! I have an idea that the Honda engine will be improved this year. Everything could fall into place for a breakout season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Other than AJ Foyt, who currently employs a Japanese driver (Takuma Sato) that replaced a Brit (Mike Conway) who replaced a Brazilian (Vitor Meira) that replaced a Brit (Darren Manning) who…OK, you get the idea – Bobby Rahal may head the most American-friendly team in the IndyCar series. Maybe RLLR is IndyCar’s real all-American team. Taking that into consideration and their upside potential – no wonder the National Guard wanted to go with them.