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.
Barnes said his team was looking at its options and that it had been "an incredible privilege" to work with the guard.
"We are thankful for their partnership and very proud of the work we have done together, on and off the track," he said. "It has been an honor to represent our citizen soldiers, and create friendships that will last a lifetime."
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