TORONTO – Gabby Chaves spent the weekend at the Honda Indy Toronto watching someone else do the only job he’s ever wanted — and that he had until a few days ago.
As Conor Daly turned laps in the No. 88 Dallara-Chevrolet, Chaves watched intently with a headset and radioed feedback about its handling. He participated in team debriefs after practice. He chatted and smiled amiably with team members fine-tuning the car in the paddock.
Chaves did everything but climb behind the wheel of the car he drove for the first 11 races of the season – until the difficult conversation Monday in which Harding Racing team president Brian Barnhart informed him the team would be evaluating its performance with other drivers.
Five days later, the move still stung.
“Of course, man,” Chaves told NBCSports.com with a smile Saturday after returning from the team’s pit stand. “Of course. And while I understand it, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept, but if I want to grow and want my team to succeed and move forward, I’ve got to play and support the decisions they make.
“If it helps us move forward, we’ve got to do it. … It’s never easy to be on the sidelines and be watching, but this is my job is to be here, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Though it’s Daly in the car this weekend, it’s still Chaves’ face on the side of the team’s transporter, indicative of the fact that he has a contract through the 2019 season that should return him to the car.
The tentative plan is to use various drivers over the final six races of the season to build a framework for expanding to a second car next year (with Chaves returning to his full-time ride).
“It’s not easy,” Barnhart said. “On the other hand, if you walked in and told your driver, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit you this weekend because we’re going to go a different direction and get different feedback,’ if the guy goes, “Oh, OK, that’s fine,” you don’t want that guy anyway.
“He was pissed, and that’s exactly the way you want him to be. He’s fighting every second that car is on the track, he wants to be in it, and that’s the way it should be. After the discussion that it was going to happen, I can’t do anything but compliment Gabby for his professionalism, his class, his dignity in the whole thing.”
Just the scene near the team’s transporter after practice seemed inherently awkward.
Daly, wearing his firesuit, rolled up on a scooter, and the fourth-place finisher in last year’s “Amazing Race” quickly drew a throng of autograph-seekers. Meanwhile, Chaves, who was clad in a team polo, remained unnoticed while sitting at a table off to the side.
There was no trace of bitterness, though, as Chaves, 25, explained that a longtime bond with Daly made the situation easier.
“We’ve been racing together since we were 12 years old together, so we’ve known each other for a long time,” Chaves said. “So that makes it easier to work, of course.
“He’s just a driver just looking for the opportunities, right? I’ve been there before. There is no awkwardness between Conor and myself. We’ve been friends for a long time. We know what it’s like to be out of a ride, in a ride, out of a ride. The best we can do is actually support each other here.”
Daly, who was back in a car for only the second race this season and the first since a 21st in the Indianapolis 500, can appreciate the feeling of being in limbo. He has been sidelined most of 2018 after consecutive full-time seasons in IndyCar and has nothing lined up beyond Toronto.
“This is not an easy game we are playing, and obviously, I appreciate how Gabby’s been through this whole process,” Daly, 26, said. “He’s been awesome. It is what it is. It always sucks to have to be in that situation. I’ve been in that situation before. But yeah, we’ll both keep moving forward.
“What can you do about it? He’s been on the radio every single time. We’ve both been learning together. He’s been communicating while on the pit stand, which is great. It’s a team effort. If he sees this team benefit from this, then it will help him in the long run for sure also.”
There were immediate benefits in qualifying Saturday when Daly took advantage of a session briefly interrupted by rain to qualify 11th, the team’s best starting position since Chaves started eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg.
Harding, the only one-car team running the full 2018 schedule in the Verizon IndyCar Series, faces an uphill battle of trying to be competitive against multicar teams with more data and funding to optimize their parts and setups. Barnhart said the biggest technology gap is in shock development, estimating bigger teams can spend $500,000 to $1 million annually (Harding doesn’t have a shock program).
At Iowa Speedway, Chaves was instructed by the team to park the car after 99 of 300 laps. Ranked 18th in the points standings with no hope of improving, Barnhart said the team has been focused on 2019 since Chaves finished 14th at Indy, one of three tracks the team ran with him in 2017.
“The transition into a full-season car has been an enormous task for this team because of the different equipment necessary to go road and street and short oval racing,” Barnhart said. “We were ill prepared for the size of that task for the diversity of tracks and to do a full season of racing. We had some stuff to do superspeedway racing, and that’s it. We still don’t have the right components to do short ovals, road courses and street circuits.
“There have been too many times this year we feel we’re taking a knife to a gun fight.”
Barnhart said the feedback at Toronto from Daly, whose style is different than Chaves, “validated” the handling woes and struggles that the team has faced this season.
Chaves also “made some good suggestion contributed as well” to improving the car Saturday, Barnhart said.
“It’s been a good weekend,” Barnhart said. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a tough weekend. But it was the right decision, and now we just need to take that information and move forward.”
The next step is a Tuesday test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in which the team is expecting to use both Daly and Chaves to simulate what a two-car setup could resemble next year.
Then after an off week, the team will re-evaluate its driver lineup for Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Gateway, Portland and Sonoma. It likely won’t be Chaves in the car, but the team still expects him to be there.
“All I said to him was I know this is going to be tough and can’t be easy to watch someone else drive your car, but we’d really like for you to be there and participate,” Barnhart said. “But if it’s too difficult emotionally and you can’t do it, I’d understand. He kind of hesitated on it, and he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ It’s just a reflection of what kind of guy he is. It’s the right thing to do, and he did it.”
Chaves plans to attend the final five races just as he did in Toronto.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Of course. That’s my job, man.”