New teams entering the Verizon IndyCar Series, even if only for the Indianapolis 500 or a few select races, has been one of the most popular “needs” for the series over the course of the last handful of years.
Just as some say IndyCar needs international races or American drivers, IndyCar needs new teams, first and foremost to even out the drivers-to-seats ratio that leaves so much fresh talent on the outside looking in.
The only conceivable way a new IndyCar team could be bad news is if it were unprepared and, frankly, embarrassed itself on the racetrack. Thankfully, IndyCar’s newest full-time competitors Harding Racing are set up for the opposite of embarrassment.
The three races Harding Racing entered with its No. 88 Chevrolet Indy car last year will become 17 races in 2018 with the Indianapolis-based team embarking on a full-time campaign this year.
Each figure in the program is careful to recognize the depth of competition in IndyCar, but also conveys Harding’s confidence that driver Gabby Chaves will have a successful year.
“It’s clearly our goal and our intent to be as competitive as we can, but I certainly don’t want to come in and have false expectations because … I wouldn’t want to have that arrogance from our team standpoint, and I also wouldn’t want to be disrespectful of the level of competition that’s in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said outgoing IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart on a conference call with the media.
After more than two decades holding the key position within the series, Barnhart charges into the new venture for Harding as its president. Given that his job was quite literally watching the ultra-competitive product that IndyCar is, Barnhart is acutely familiar with the level of the sport he now competes in from the pit wall.
“It is in my opinion the most competitive form of motor sports in the world,” Barnhart continued. “There are some of the best drivers and the most talented team-driver combinations and the depth of field is incredible in IndyCar racing. The last several years, multiple cars have won races, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to the level of talent and competitors there or … think all of a sudden we’re going to win a bunch of races and compete for the championship.
“Ultimately that’s our goal, but we also have to manage those expectations and be respectful of the level of competition we’re fighting against. We’re going to do everything we can to give Gabby the best opportunity to be competitive as he can.”
The three race starts Harding has under its belt came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. As a result, the first time a Harding-entered Indy car will turn right will be when Chaves guides the No. 88 Chevrolet out of pit lane to begin Practice 1 at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.
But with the obviously beneficial leadership of Barnhart, Chaves’ 26 IndyCar starts, aid from longtime open-wheel team manager Larry Curry plus two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and even the lack of funding insecurity thanks to Mike Harding’s concrete and asphalt paving company Harding Group, this team enters IndyCar with stability, experience and an equal opportunity with a universal aero kit that’s new to everyone.
Though no cold hard numbers were laid out by Barnhart when asked about his team’s goals for 2018, the wins-are-within-reach-relatively-soon approach is hard to invalidate.
Valuable Second Car on the Radar
Harding’s full-time IndyCar program was a rumor that frequently surfaced following the team’s debut race at the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. More recently, the possibility of not one but two season-long entries being fielded by the team has arisen.
The benefit of data sharing and collaboration that inevitably comes up when talking about one- versus two-car programs in IndyCar is on Barnhart’s mind.
“Ultimately our goal will be to expand to a two-car effort for the entire season,” he said. “Obviously, finances and sponsorship are driving that at this point in time.
“We’re not going to add a car or simply do a car for the sake of doing one unless it adds value. With the short sessions, with the limited testing, clearly multi-car teams have got advantages, but we’re not going to throw one out there unless it can be advantageous to Gabby and our primary effort in the first car. It’s got to be somebody that can help with the data, the input and the feedback and make it a value-add to the team to do so.”
Per Barnhart, Harding’s growth in IndyCar will most likely unfold beginning with a second Indy 500 entry followed by an additional car for some events before culminating in the eventual second full-time machine.
Just as he was at Harding’s three races last year, Chaves was alone as a Bryan Herta Autosport driver during his rookie season in 2015.
“I would say that though certainly it’s probably not ideal, it’s been done in the past with great success, a few years back with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and Simon Pagenaud and the last few years with Graham Rahal, and they showed that a one-car effort can be just as competitive as a multiple-car team,” Chaves said.
“I think we’re just going to have to be extra diligent in our work and make sure that everything we do has purpose to it and we’re not just out there running laps just to run laps. I think that’s going to be where we can maybe make up some of the lack of information that we won’t get from a second car.”
Harding will join Carlin, Juncos Racing and Michael Shank Racing at St. Petersburg as first-time competitors at the track to kick off a year that sees a surge in rookies of both the driver and team varieties.