Last week’s official confirmation that the National Guard would be sponsoring Graham Rahal in the 2014 IndyCar series ended an intriguing four months of speculation, appeals, secrecy, red tape, witnesses, denials and fighting for what is likely the most lucrative, one-car deal going in American open-wheel racing.
Essentially, the backstory is that Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan turned in a bid, along with a couple other IndyCar teams, to replace John Barnes and Panther Racing and acquire the Guard’s sponsorship. RLL Racing was verbally awarded the contract last fall and, understandably, Barnes did everything possible to try and keep it before being officially denied last month.
Barnes, who scored the Guard sponsorship in 2008, maintained throughout the past few months that everything was status quo despite massive layoffs and letting Ryan Briscoe out of his contract for 2014. He even had his publicist e-mail RACER‘s Marshall Pruett to cease reporting that his bid had been denied after it was already public knowledge.
It was a bitter pill for the longtime Indy car owner to swallow as he scrambles to field a full-time car and there was even an insane rumor that Rahal had paid Barnes to cease and desist.
“Despite all the comments, it was won fair and square, and we have the signed contract, so I’m not sure what else you can say,” said Bobby Rahal. “We won the contract on the merits of our proposal.
“We’re relieved and very pleased to conclude our deal with the National Guard. I thought our proposal was compelling and with Graham driving we could put them in victory circle. We’re looking forward to doing that. We’re excited.”
When I broke the story for RACER.com last Oct. 11, it was written as a done deal, sporting the headline: “National Guard switches allegiance to RLL Racing for 2014.” My source close to Guard procedures said that Rahal’s proposal had been accepted and the team had received a verbal commitment. But, almost immediately after our story appeared, the wheels of government protocol began turning and quickly made me think maybe I should have written more of a speculative story than such a definitive one.
Barnes missed the Houston race because he was already meeting with lawyers to prepare his counterattack. If he filed an appeal within 10 days after a federal agency authorized and awarded a contract, it would stop the process and become a contested contract.
On Oct. 17, Barnes filed an official bid protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). What happened during the next four months isn’t exactly known but, because Barnes had done such a good job of taking care of Guardsmen and women at the track, he’d made some strong allies – like Major General Martin Umburger, for instance. It’s believed Umburger and at least one other highly ranked officer went to bat for Barnes, be it written or verbally, and tried to convince the Guard to stay with Panther.
Witnesses on both sides were also called to testify and the silence was likely excruciating on both sides. But when Briscoe was released from his 2014 contract in early December, you figured Barnes must have finally seen the handwriting. Then, on January 17th, the GAO released an official statement that Panther’s bid protest had been denied. Now, regardless of whose side you favored in this it seems pretty straightforward. Nobody can dispute the thorough job Barnes and his people did of entertaining the Guard at the racetrack as well as participating in special programs year-round. In six years, it’s estimated the National Guard invested at least $75 million in Panther Racing and that covered everything on and off track. Yet Barnes only fielded one car full time and never won a race.
J.R. Hildebrand, who came within one corner of winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, was the lone American to be hired full time by Barnes and he was fired after last year’s race. Supposedly, Hildebrand’s firing didn’t sit well with some brass at the Guard, who had watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. carry its colors in NASCAR while a Brazilian, a Brit, a Spaniard and an Aussie drove the Panther car around J.R.’s almost three-year tenure. And it’s not that Vitor Meira, Oriol Servia, Briscoe and the late Dan Wheldon weren’t good drivers and good guys, it’s more the idea that the oldest component of the armed forces in the United States didn’t have a Yankee in the seat.
It will now, as the media-savvy, well-spoken, 25-year-old Rahal represents his country and having Letterman on the team also carries plenty of red, white and blue clout. But it’s a bottom-line business. Barnes didn’t produce on the track and got more than a fair shot. Now it’s up to the Rahals to deliver.
More and more fans are writing off Graham as a rich kid who will never be a winner or a champion like his dad because, other than a few races the past two seasons, he’s struggled to regain the form he showed in 2008-’09. But he’s got the chops to run up front and now he’s got Bill Pappas and John Dick to engineer his car in 2014, a good group of mechanics and a big time sponsor that can help pull the team closer to Andretti, Ganassi and Penske. He could also have a wise veteran like Servia as his teammate.
What he won’t have is any excuses.
IndyCar needs some fresh storylines and it got a big one last week. If young Rahal and the National Guard can team up to win some races, they’ll undoubtedly win some fans or hopefully make some new ones.
I’m always preaching that we need new American heroes in IndyCar and this could be the perfect combination.