Rahal’s bullish on IndyCar direction

Bobby Rahal
Bobby Rahal

Total is a name known throughout the motorsports world, but not a widely recognized commercial brand here in America. How important is it for the brand to be involved in IndyCar racing both as a technical and strategic partner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing?

"We're known all over the world, but our brand awareness is still limited in the U.S.," said Christophe Doussoux. "This is the business I'm responsible for, lubricants, and today the USA is still the biggest market in the world for us."

"Our ambition is to grow here. Therefore, growing the brand awareness is crucial for us. We believe it makes sense to grow this awareness by more consistent involvement in motorsport, motorsport being an area where we've been focused in the past to grow our brand recognition.

"Therefore, IndyCar, which is a tough discipline, very demanding in terms of technological challenge, was a great fit for us.

"Being chosen as a partner for RLL is a unique opportunity to show what we are able to do in motor racing."

Bobby Rahal has a history with Total, as they were a sponsor of his team in 1992 when he won his third IndyCar championship, the first as an owner/driver.

Was he happy to welcome Total back to his team and IndyCar racing?

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]"Yes, when we first started the discussions, of course I was quick to remind everyone I'd won my last championship with Total as one of our sponsors. Naturally that was all the more reason for us to get back together again.

"But seriously, it's been clear right from the outset that there was a strong passion here on the part of Total to come together with us, just as there was with them. It really couldn't have been an easier kind of courting period, I suppose you might say.

"Of course, Total has a fabulous reputation in motorsports, as fabulous or maybe even better reputation in the entire gas and oil industry. To be associated with a world class company like Total is a real plus for us.

"Frankly, I think it's a huge plus for IndyCar. A new company is coming into the series. It's been 26 years, so some people might have forgotten they were here previously. I think it's a big plus for IndyCar right now and a big plus for us at RLL.

"We're looking forward to a long, successful relationship with Total."

"This is a big deal for us," added Graham Rahal. "I want to emphasize that. It's great to have Total onboard. We already talked about the nostalgic feel to it. I'll get a nice throwback posted tomorrow that will explain that further.

"It means a lot to us. I think Tom Knox, Brian Marks, the entire group, Mr. Lanigan obviously, my dad, I think everybody has worked very hard to help grow our sponsor base and grow this sport. I think we're starting to see some tremendous success. We're in a great period of time I think for IndyCar racing at this point.

Total has come on-board with the Rahal team
Total has come on-board with the Rahal team

"This is a big one for us. Total, with their experience and their expertise in lubricants, obviously is something that we can work very closely with. We can use Indianapolis as it truly was built for in the first place, as a developing and proving ground, you know, for the product. Obviously May isn't that far away.

"If you look at Total, if you're familiar with the company, as I am, the racing heritage is very deep. The success that they've had is tremendous, whether it be Formula One, whether it be World Rally, whether it be sports car racing, and IndyCar obviously in the past with dad.

"It's a tremendous, I think, get, let's call it, for our sport, for us. We're excited to represent Total for many years to come."

When it comes to the new car, both Bobby and Graham were very upbeat.

"Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I think the car looks like a proper IndyCar should," said Bobby. "Very good lines on it. It looks modern, it looks purposeful. There's not stuff stuck on it to try to make it do something it can't do.

"I mean, I hate to say it's a throwback, because it's not, it's a modern-day racecar. But the shape of it is such, the kind of shape that drew people to IndyCar racing in the first place.

"I think it's going to make for a great championship. They're going to be a lot faster in a straight line than they were the last several years. I think that's good. It will open up the braking areas a little bit more, making passing a little bit easier.

"The drivers, they're really going to have to drive these things. Not like it was easy before, for sure, but there's less downforce. When there's less downforce, you really have to — a driver really has to like a car that kind of feels light, the car is dancing around. I think it's going to separate a crowd a bit. I think that's all good."

We asked Graham about some comments by some of the drivers about the lack of testing with the new car versus what the so-called Honda and Chevy factory testing teams got to do. Was any of their data shared with a team like yours and did he think it's a big deal?

"Well, I mean, yeah, I think it's a clear advantage for them. But to be honest, at the first test, Schmidt was a team that had a lot of testing. The first test, we were quicker than them. I don't see that as detrimental to us, I guess is my point.

"I think with good quality engineering staff, with a great team around us, drivers that are capable of getting up to speed quickly, I feel like we'll be right in the hunt right away.

"Clearly a Penske, Ganassi, a team of that stature, those statures that have had a lot of off-season testing, it might help them. But I think, as you guys saw with our team in 2015, when a lot of teams, Honda teams, were struggling, we made no excuses, went out there and performed really well. I think that's going to be our attitude again.

Graham Rahal
Graham Rahal
Richard Dole/LAT

"I don't look at us in any different light. I believe we should be able to go to St. Pete and we should be able to win. Frankly, there's a lot of testing. I mean, I'll go to St. Pete at least a couple more days, I'll be in Barber a couple days, we got Phoenix. There still is quite a lot of testing. I think we need to look beyond the excuses and just focus on what's next.

"Was the data shared with us? I would say some of it. We all have to remember it's fairly easy to fudge data a little bit. My point is, the distances or things like that, the data sets that are getting sent, are they accurate? Doesn't mean they always are. Thanks to Honda, they share with us. We don't get the setups, but we get the basics we can learn from.

"Takuma and I need to drive the cars, we need to develop our own opinions, and we need to go racing."

It's no secret that IndyCar is by far the best open wheel racing series on the planet, but on the commercial side, there is a lot to be desired. Is IndyCar limiting its ability to attract sponsors and manufacturers who sell products globally with its emphasis on just North America and no real exposure globally because of a TV contract that has zero international focus?

"Well, certainly IndyCar racing shouldn't try to be Formula One, " said Bobby. There's already that. Having said that, I do think if there was an opportunity to race in China, I mean, you've got to look at the companies that sponsor you or those that might be interested in sponsoring you if you race various places overseas. It's like, why not? If it's right, if the economics are right for the series, for the teams, why not?

"We used to have great races at Surfers Paradise, as you know. That did a lot to spread the popularity of the IndyCar racing not just internationally but even within the U.S. A lot of people would come from Australia and go to the States, watch races here, what have you.

"Let's put it this way: Our last race is September 15th, our first race is March 15th, somewhere in that area. That's a long downtime. You can't race here, so why not go to places like Australia or South Africa, which has had a strong motorsports heritage there. I don't know why you wouldn't want to do that.

"Hopefully one day.

"We've been stuck with a television contract that finally is up for grabs at the end of this year. Even Randy Bernard had to deal with that, Mark Miles over the last several years. I think there's been improvements for sure.

"When you see quotations about the number of people that Formula One reaches, Formula E, I don't believe those numbers whatsoever because I've been in Formula One. I just know those numbers are not factual. Makes it look bigger than it really is.

"Let's face it, Formula One still has a huge following. But I think IndyCar racing is in a good spot right now in the sense that the television contract coming up at the end of this year, it's in a position that most major sports are not in the sense that I think NASCAR's television contracts run for another five years, NFL same thing, although I saw Thursday night is going to be on FOX, and Major League Baseball.

"The world is changing rapidly between what I would call terrestrial TV – ABC, CBS, NBC – versus not just the cables, because they're suffering, like ESPN and others. That's across the board. That's not motorsports on ESPN, that's ESPN, period. Much of it is going digital," added Bobby.

"To me, the first series that really is able to grab hold on the digital side is going to be the ultimate winner. I think IndyCar racing is in a position to do that.

"I'm not negotiating the deal for Mark Miles. He's plenty smart enough to do that on his own. But I do think we're in a good spot. Who knows what's going to happen in terms of, again, what I call terrestrial TV or cable, who knows where we're going to be. ABC, ESPN, has all kinds of issues. I'll leave that to Mark and his group.

"But I do think we're in a good spot in terms of being able to take advantage of these new technologies. I think it's moving so fast right now for everybody, those even within the industry, that everybody's kind of running like crazy trying to figure out which way to go.

"In the meantime, in the meantime, Total is not the only new sponsor that we'll be announcing, we have several, let alone renewals of existing sponsorships. So I got to believe there's a reason for all that, and that's that people believe in the IndyCar Series as motorsports entertainment.

"You look at the circuits we run on, they're great venues. The addition of Portland this year. Back in the Northwest after many, many years. I just think these things are happening because people are seeing the value in it.

"We're glad to participate in some small way."

Mark C. reporting for AutoRacing1.com

Leave a Reply