Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wanted: Sponsor for Rahal Letterman

(by John Oreovicz on ESPN.com 1-30-2009)

Bobby Rahal has been a fixture in American open-wheel racing since he won two races and finished second in the CART IndyCar World Series as a rookie back in 1982.

But less than 90 days before the start of the new season, Rahal Letterman Racing is still scrambling to put together a sponsorship package that will allow the Ohio-based team to compete for the 2009 IndyCar Series championship.

Rahal, who won three CART-sanctioned championships and the 1986 Indianapolis 500, always has done a good job of preparing for the future. Five years before he retired from the cockpit, he branched out into team ownership, first by partnering with trucking magnate Carl Hogan in 1992 before joining forces with talk show host David Letterman in 1996.

Rahal Letterman Racing jumped from CART to the Indy Racing League in 2004, once again ahead of the curve that saw CART and later Champ Car fade into obscurity by 2008. But when the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council shut down late last year, funding for RLR's IndyCar program went away with it, leaving the team and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay on the sidelines.

Although the April 5 IndyCar opener in St. Petersburg is getting closer by the day -- not to mention the first preseason open test, set for Feb. 24 and 25 at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- Rahal and his managing director, Scott Roembke, are not panicking. And like any good businessman, Rahal has put in place a backup plan that has allowed his company to maintain most of its staff. Rahal Letterman was chosen by BMW to run the German manufacturer's two-car effort in the GT2 class of the American Le Mans Series with purpose-built M3 race cars.

"There's time left," Rahal said of his hopes to still assemble a competitive IndyCar effort. "We've prepared the cars; they need painting, but that's about it. They could be ready very quickly. It's not like we've done nothing for the last five months. But until somebody walks in with a bunch of money or we find it all of a sudden, it's not happening right now.

"Would I like to have an IRL program? Absolutely, and we're working hard on it," Rahal continued. "Unfortunately, we were really led to believe everything was going to be fine [with EPIC], and right at the end of the summer, all of a sudden, it wasn't going to be fine. We kind of got blindsided a bit. But I feel very fortunate we have been able to grow our relationship with BMW, and that's exciting for us."

RLR was not the only entity left scrambling when the ethanol council unexpectedly ceased operation. The Indy Racing League itself based much of its "green racing" campaign on the use of ethanol fuel. But while the series was able to conclude a new sponsorship arrangement with APEX-Brasil that eventually will see the series convert from corn- to sugar cane-based ethanol fuel, RLR was left high and dry -- a disappointing state of affairs for the IRL, and for a pedigreed team that won a race in 2008 despite fielding only one car against multicar efforts like Team Penske, Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing.

"The situation with ethanol came kind of late due to the economic issues that occurred in late September," Roembke said. "So we were probably a little late getting to the party on some of this stuff. But we're continuing to try to put a program together. It's very tough out there right now. Like many other teams, it's much more difficult in this global economic situation than we would like it."

But Roembke, who has been involved with Rahal's team from the start, has plenty on his plate with the BMW ALMS program. RLR also has taken over administration of the Formula BMW Americas series as well as BMW's Classic program, which demonstrates vintage BMW competition machines at events like the Monterrey Historic Races.

"Bob was always kind of a visionary," Roembke said. "He wanted to diversify the company as far back as when we branched out into [Formula] Atlantic, and by getting ourselves involved in other categories and obtaining the BMW GT2 program for ALMS this year, we've not put ourselves at the mercy of one single program. The biggest thing is you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. You want to try to be in a position where if something was to go wrong somewhere else, you have something to sustain the business.

"Chip Ganassi is the perfect example. Chip's a professional racer, and he's got his company spread over NASCAR, Grand Am and the IndyCar Series. I think there are some economies of scale in some of those programs, and there's not a racing series that has not been affected by the economy, whether it is drag racing, NASCAR, IRL or Atlantics. It's a different world we live in this year than it has been the last couple."

Rahal rejects the notion that sponsorship is impossible to find in the current market, citing two new companies affiliated with the BMW GT2 effort -- NEC Computers and Escort radar detectors.

"And those are multiyear deals," he said. "Yeah, it's tough, but that doesn't mean that there aren't people coming in. I think it depends on the series. If you look at NASCAR, which has been much more consumer based in terms of advertising and marketing, those guys are the first ones to feel the pain. It's tough out there for sure, but people are still spending money.

"We've gone through a tremendous growth period in all of racing over the last 10 years. But nothing lasts forever. It provides you with an opportunity to refocus and get back to what the basics are. It's difficult because there is a human side to it, and it's tough when you have to let people go. But we're working hard on our BMW program, we're looking at other opportunities, and for a company like ours, the broader we are in terms of the series and the products and the companies we represent, the better for us. I'm pleased and thankful that we have this relationship with BMW, and we're excited for what the future holds."

For Roembke, an Indianapolis native, the prospect of not competing in the Indianapolis 500 is a bitter pill. But it wouldn't be the first time in his racing career that circumstances have kept him away from his favorite race.

"I'm not going to say I'm not going to miss it," Roembke said. "I'm an Indy guy, I grew up around the race and I've been lucky enough to be involved with teams that have won it. But I'm also a professional auto racer. We have a program we're excited about in the ALMS, and I'm like everyone else -- I have to have a job and support my family.

"If we're not there -- and I want to stress that we are still trying to get there -- I'll be disappointed and watch it on TV. I survived when we didn't go six years in a row during the open-wheel split, and if we don't get back, I'll survive again. But I'll be thinking about the next ALMS race. Once you're in the pit box on race day and you've got your car out there, it doesn't really matter whether it has fenders or not."

Roembke sees other natural connections in Rahal Letterman's new links with sports car racing and the Formula BMW training series.

"Bob made his mark in racing in sports cars, and it's kind of like the great circle of life," he said. "He made his name in the States driving 935 Porsches for the various people, and that led to the ride at Indy with [Jim] Trueman. Bob has always had a very large place in his heart for sports car racing.

"Bob has also made it clear on several occasions that he has a soft spot for helping young drivers develop their careers, and at the track, our motor home is a revolving door for young drivers coming to him for advice. So I think him being involved in Formula BMW is an extension of that. I think Bob wants to try everything he can to help these young guys achieve their career goals, just as Jim Trueman helped Bob."

The RLR managing director also stresses it's not too late for the team to run the full IndyCar schedule, preferably with Hunter-Reay as the driver.

"Equipment-wise, we could leave it pretty late, though personnel wise, we'd have to make some moves," Roembke said. "I remember a few years ago when we did the Michel Jourdain deal with Gigante in CART -- that happened in early March, and we were on track two weeks later and had a really good season.

"But obviously it is getting late, and as we sit here today, we don't have a program. Eventually there is going to be a time where we have to say, 'OK, it's not happening for St. Pete,' but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to wait for Indy.

"Bobby is keeping an eye on it, and it's not from a lack of effort trying to fund this thing. Right now, it's just been difficult for us to make that happen."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Paul Tracy may be back in business

(by Gordon Kirby on motorsportmagazine.com 1-19-09)

The past year has been very frustrating for Paul Tracy. After Jerry Forsythe decided last winter to pull his team out of the reunified IndyCar series Tracy raced only a handful of times in a variety of cars from a Champ Car at Long Beach to a NASCAR truck in Texas. With Tony George’s help Paul’s only IRL race of the year came at Edmonton in July. The car was prepared by Derrick Walker and despite zero testing Tracy showed his stuff by coming through from near the back of the grid to finish a rousing fourth. Yet Tracy has encountered little or no interest in anyone hiring him in the IRL, Grand-Am or ALMS series.

“There’s nothing out there,” Paul remarked. “There are options if you want to drive for nothing. But I race for a living ¬– to get paid. I’ve spoken with Mark Raffauf at the Grand-Am and I’ve also talked with Jim France who suggested a few teams for me to talk to. But none of them have a budget for a driver. In fact, they want you to pay your way to get to the races as well. There aren’t any options if you want to get paid to drive.”

Tracy’s spirits were revived recently by talks with Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven about joining KV Racing for a full season of Indy Car racing if sufficient sponsorship can be found. “We’re trying to work together to drum up money for me,” Tracy commented. “Kevin seems to like the fact that he can walk into a board room and my name means something while there’s no recognition of most other drivers he mentions.”

Tracy had some personal sponsorship last year from Monster, an energy drink company, and hopes to convince them to become at least a partial sponsor of his car for the new season. “We’re talking to Monster and a couple of other companies, too,” Tracy said. “We’ve got a proposal on Monster’s desk and a meeting scheduled in a couple of weeks. So we’ll see what happens. If we can get something together, I’ll go racing. If not, I’ll stay home."

“I’m just working-out, getting ready like I’m going racing. I go to the gym every day and I’m working the phone, but right now, it’s like wading through molasses. There’s some interest from Canada and we’re working on that. We’re looking under all the rocks we can find.”

Tracy tested one of the SpeedCar series stock cars last fall and hoped to compete in the winter series but the Arabian-backed series has run into financial problems as well. “It didn’t happen,” Paul chuckled. “The price of oil plummeted and suddenly there was no money. When I went and tested they were saying they were going to have twenty-five cars but they only had thirteen cars on the grid for the first race in December. With the oil price so low, they’re in a cash crunch as well.”

So Tracy is hoping to return to Indy car racing with KV Racing. He celebrated his fortieth birthday in December but remains a ferocious competitor. Anyone who watched his opening laps at Milwaukee in the last two or three Champ Car races at the old one-mile oval knows that PT is still as aggressive as they come. He’s an exciting driver, an outspoken personality, and one of very few of today’s Indy car drivers who enjoys any kind of name recognition across the United States or Canada.

The IRL badly needs Tracy in its field, not only for the sake of the series as a whole but for its two Canadian races in particular in Toronto and Edmonton. There’s no other Canadian talent on the horizon and the fact is Tracy’s presence or absence could make or break both of those races. On the face of it you would think it’s a no-brainer for KV Racing and the IRL to put together a package to ensure Tracy a competitive ride this year. Let’s see what happens.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thursday, January 1, 2009

For better for some, for worse for others, these are the 2008 Oreo Awards

(By John Oreovicz on ESPN.com 12-29-08)

The holiday season is upon us, so once again it's time to look back on the past year and conjure up another edition of the Oreo Awards. No particular qualifications are needed for nomination -- just one reporter's whimsical look back on the events that shaped open-wheel racing in 2008.

Without any further ado, the envelopes, please!

Best News: The February announcement that American open-wheel racing would join forces under the IndyCar Series banner.

Best Driver: Scott Dixon. Hands down, Dixon was the class of the IndyCar Series field in 2008, leading key categories such as race wins and laps led. It's baffling that the championship outcome remained in question for as long as it did.

Best "Transition" Driver: Oriol Servia was by far the most consistent of the ex-Champ Car newcomers and the only one to finish in the top 10 in the championship.

Rookie of the Year: Graham Rahal. Hard to believe he's still just 19 years old.

Best Actor: Helio Castroneves. Another driver (Tony Kanaan, I believe) deserves credit for coming up with this press-kit gem a few years ago. But HCN earned his Oreo Award in 2008 by maintaining his usual bubbly personality all year long while knowing he was under investigation for tax evasion.

Best Finish: Chicagoland Speedway, where the Indy Racing League had to use images from a finish-line camera to determine that Castroneves was the race winner over Dixon.

Best Finish (Alternate Ending): Dixon reeled in a fuel-saving Castroneves over the final few laps at Kentucky Speedway and snatched victory at the line when Castroneves' car ran dry.

"You Make Show!" Award: Danica Patrick, who continues to display her emotions openly, often to comical effect. The tears shed in Japan for her first win were understandable, but the angry march down the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pit lane to confront Ryan Briscoe and the arm-waving show she put on in Australia trying to get the marshals to give her a push-start were just over the top. Then there was the pit-lane catfight with Milka Duno memorably caught on amateur video at Mid-Ohio.

Best Turnaround: After the Indy 500, Briscoe was 19th in the standings and potentially on thin ice at Team Penske. A week later, he was on top of the world after a dominant win at the Milwaukee Mile on the way to fifth in the championship.

"What Are You Thinking?" Award (also known as the Marty Roth Award): Stanton Barrett says he will compete full time in the IndyCar Series in 2009.

Spoilsport Award: Champ Car co-principal Gerald Forsythe's team did not participate in the "unified" IndyCar Series, leaving star driver Paul Tracy on the sidelines.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words Award: Tracy finished fourth at Edmonton in his only IndyCar start of the season.

Close-Up Award: Dan Wheldon sported a new look in '08, thanks to a reported $40,000 worth of cosmetic dental surgery.

Toxic Teammates Award: Andretti Green Racing, where Kanaan and Marco Andretti sparred on and off the track, Danica Patrick said she couldn't hear her radio and Hideki Mutoh was an innocent bystander.

"Where Did It All Go Wrong?" Award: Tomas Scheckter.