- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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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.
There's time left. We've prepared the cars; they need painting, but that's about it. They could be ready very quickly.
”-- Bobby Rahal
"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."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Wanted: Sponsor to fund 2009 IndyCar Series season for turn-key operation. Only serious inquiries please. For details, contact Rahal Letterman Racing.