Created on Thursday, 06 February 2014 Written by JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The long battle between Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Panther Racing for Army National Guard sponsorship ended Thursday, with the coveted funding moving to Graham Rahal's car for the upcoming IndyCar season.
The Rahal organization sought the sponsorship last fall, but Panther Racing appealed to keep the contract it has held since 2008. All military sponsorships are reviewed annually.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office denied Panther's appeal last month, and RLL said the guard will be the primary sponsor for Rahal's No. 15 Honda.
"I think everybody that knows me knows I've always been extremely patriotic person: I'm proud to be an American and I've always displayed it on my helmet and on my race shoes," Rahal told The Associated Press. "So for me, there is more pride to be involved in this than anyone can know. I've always felt strongly that the guard should have an American driver and there's a lot of pride in having that seat."
Panther Racing signed American driver J.R. Hildebrand starting with the 2011 season, the year he crashed on the final lap while leading the Indianapolis 500. The team let Hildebrand go following the 500 last season, and used a variety of drivers — none of them American — to fill the seat.
In NASCAR, the National Guard sponsors Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 11-time most popular driver. The guard posted a photo on its Twitter account of Rahal standing in front of an American flag wearing a red T-shirt that said "American Made."
RLL team co-owner Bobby Rahal doesn't believe driver nationality is the most important part of the organization's winning bid.
"Graham, being an American and he's always felt very patriotic to his country, will be a great spokesman and I think that was an important element," Bobby Rahal told AP. "But you also want to make sure the driver is competitive. Nationality is important, but you've got to deliver the goods."
Panther Racing team owner John Barnes was recently honored with the "Spirit of Hope" award at the Pentagon for his support of the Armed Forces through his work with Operation: Hire Our Guard. Through the program, Panther Racing invited local business and military leadership to its events and educated employers on the unemployment crisis facing veterans.
Bobby Rahal said the team was prepared for the GAO decision to go either way, and they courted other sponsors in case the guard returned to Panther. But landing the funding is a big step that will help the overall growth of the organization.
Rahal added his son to the team last year, but the results didn't show: Graham Rahal had only one podium finish, led six laps and finished 18th in the IndyCar standings — a year after he finished 10th in the standings and nearly won at Texas while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
"For us, signing the guard is obviously huge, historic, because it gives us the ability to compete at the highest level and build our company," Bobby Rahal said. "We can give our driver the proper tools to succeed. My partners and I, we made the investments in the cars and the equipment and the personnel, and it was clear we weren't giving Graham the equipment he needed to succeed."
Rahal has overhauled the program since midway through last season, when he brought in engineer Mitch Davis. He's also added engineer Bill Pappas and last week named veteran John Dick head of research and development.
Graham Rahal said Pappas has already helped identify areas that need improvement, and the guard sponsorship will help.
"Dad's motto has always been 'Lean and Mean' but this gives us an opportunity to get more growth," Graham Rahal said, adding that his father and partners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan had been paying for many things out of pocket.
"They'd been doing so much on their own dime, so increased sponsorship makes a big difference in helping us go get more people and grow the organization," he said.
Whether that will be two cars in 2014 remains to be seen.
Bobby Rahal was vague on how many entries he will field this year, noting "I won every one of my championships as a one-car team." But he said the goal is ultimately to be a successful two-car team. The team fielded cars last year for Rahal and James Jakes.
Graham Rahal said he told he father he's comfortable in a one-car team if the second driver is not an asset to the organization.
"I want a teammate that can add to what we are doing. I don't want a teammate that isn't helping setup the cars. We need somebody who can put something into the program," he said. "And the problem is, there is really a small list of drivers who can add to the program. A lot of the great ones are already taken."