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Rahal Letterman, Sharp go to court

Dueling lawsuits show a team and driver at odds over financial support and sponsorship deals.

December 01, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Most auto-racing teams try to improve on their seasons by heading to the garage or test track to find more speed.

Veteran driver Scott Sharp and his IndyCar Series team, Rahal Letterman Racing, headed to court.

Sharp, frustrated with his first season at Rahal Letterman, took the unusual step of suing the team for allegedly failing, as promised, to spend enough money and take other steps to make him more competitive. As a result, the team broke their contract and effectively freed the driver to race for someone else, his suit claimed.

The team is owned by Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner of the Indianapolis 500, and late-night television host David Letterman.

Rahal Letterman this week not only denied Sharp's breach-of-contract claim, it countersued Sharp and his sponsor, distilled spirits maker Patron Spirits Co.

The team alleged that it was Sharp, "induced and/or instructed" by Patron, who tried to cancel their driver and sponsorship agreements for 2008. It also alleged that they failed to make the first payment on $5.2 million in sponsorship money owed the team for 2008.

"Their attempted legal maneuver to break the contract early is totally without merit," Rahal said in a statement, adding that Sharp and Patron "are contractually committed" to stay with the team next year.

Sharp referred comment to his lawyer, Michael Josephs, who said Sharp "is not going to drive for Rahal [in 2008], that's for sure."

Matthew Carroll, Patron's vice president of marketing, said the company had not yet seen the suit and declined to comment.

Rahal Letterman is a team that last year lost perhaps the series' biggest star, Danica Patrick, when she left for Andretti Green Racing. She was replaced by Sharp, 39, who holds the IndyCar Series record for starts at 146. The Floridian has won nine times but only once in the last four years, in 2005.

Sharp this season had three top-five finishes, was eighth in points and finished sixth in the rain-shortened Indy 500, his best showing in 13 attempts.

But in his lawsuit, filed Nov. 15 in Florida, Sharp alleged that Rahal Letterman "failed to invest the millions of dollars" needed to keep him competitive with drivers at other top teams such as Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Green.

Sharp's suit stated that he was hesitant about signing with Rahal Letterman because "Patrick was very vocal about the fact that her losing record and subsequent departure" from the team was because of the team's "unwillingness to spend the dollars needed to compete at a high level."

Sharp signed anyway after the team promised him that "RLR would expend top dollar . . . to compete with the leading teams in the league," the suit stated.

But Rahal Letterman's suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Miami, paints a different story. It claims Sharp and Patron were interested in staying with Rahal Letterman next year but in a different racing series, the American Le Mans Series.

But in early October Sharp effectively tried to terminate the driver and sponsorship contracts and failed to make a required $1.2-million payment toward their 2008 sponsorship agreement, according to the suit, which seeks unspecified damages.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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