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IndyCar: Harding Racing 2018 Review

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Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, MotorSportsTalk will review how each organization in the IndyCar Series performed in 2018 and also taking a look ahead to 2019. We previously featured Juncos Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, and Carlin Racing. We continue with Harding Racing (now called Harding Steinbrenner Racing).

The 2018 season was Harding Racing’s second in the IndyCar Series – they contested three races in 2017 – but their first full-season effort.

They began the year with Gabby Chaves, brought in Conor Daly for three races, brought Chaves back for two races, and then ended the year with Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta.

A somewhat tumultuous season ended on a high note, though, with O’Ward qualifying fifth and finishing ninth at Sonoma Raceway. What’s more, the revamped team, now called Harding Steinbrenner Racing, with support from Andretti Autosport, heads into 2019 with much better prospects and with a pair of young hot shots in O’Ward and Herta as their drivers.

One of the newest teams in racing – it literally did not exist prior to 2017 –  could be in for a big year in 2019.

Gabby Chaves

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 4
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums
2018 final standing: 21st
2018 final stats: 13 starts; 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives; 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 13th (Portland)

SEASON WRAPUP: Gabby Chaves remains a top young prospect, though he continues to suffer from a simple lack of breaks. Chaves had finishes of ninth and fifth in two of his three starts with Harding in 2017, and entered 2018 hoping to build on that in the team’s first full season.

Yet, it was tough sledding for the single-car effort, and the combination did not score a top 10 in any of their 13 starts together. Ahead of Toronto, the team opted to evaluate driver options ahead of 2019 and pulled Chaves out of the cockpit, though he remained present within the team.

He started two more races, at Gateway Motorsports Park and Portland International Raceway, before yielding to O’Ward and Herta for Sonoma.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Even though O’Ward and Herta are the team’s drivers for next year, Chaves is still under contract with Harding. Although he certainly deserves a spot on the grid, where he lands at this point is completely up in the air.

Quote (following Portland, where he finished 13th): “We had a clean race through the start and I managed to pick up a bunch of positions, running inside the top 10 for a good part of the day. We struggled a bit on the black (Firestone primary) tires, so we lost a few positions on track when we were running our stint. We still managed to be in a good contention for a top-10 finish. On the last restart, I had a good run on TK (Tony Kanaan), he just didn’t give me any room and I ended up in the grass while trying to defend the next position. After that, I had to give up that position, as well. We have been improving the car all weekend and all year, so although 13th is not fantastic, it shows progression, which is good.”

 

Conor Daly

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 5
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 1 podium
2018 final standing: 29th
2018 final stats: 4 starts (**3 with Harding, 1 with Dale Coyne/Thom Burns Racing); 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives; 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 13th (Toronto)

SEASON WRAPUP: Conor Daly’s 2018 season became busier than anticipated during the summer when Harding drafted him in for a stretch of three races between Toronto, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Pocono Raceway.

Jumping in mid-season is a tall task, but Daly held as good of an account for himself as possible, bringing the car home in all three races and helping the team improve.

LOOKING FORWARD TO 2019: Daly is back in a familiar place ahead of 2019: looking for sponsorship to keep his career going. Like Chaves, Daly deserves a place on the grid, but whether or not that happens will likely come down to funding.

QUOTE (following Pocono, where he finished 15th): “It was obviously a tough day for us. We had to go into the race with almost no track time, so it was a big guess. At every stop, we put in a lot of front wing. We just kept trying to adjust, but still just struggled with the front of the car. I think by ourselves our pace was good, and we were maintaining a decent spot for where we were on track. I had one chance to pass someone for position and went for it with Ed, but I had no front grip at all and then clipped it. It’s a shame. You hate to end your day like that, thankfully the car wasn’t badly damaged, just small stuff. I would love another shot at it because I think there are some positives to our car and some positives to what we have, I just don’t think we had enough time to evaluate everything.”

 

Patricio O’Ward

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 1
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums, 1 top five, 1 top 10
2018 final standing: 31st
2018 final stats: 1 start, 1 top 5, 1 top 10
2018 best race finish: 9th (Sonoma)

SEASON WRAPUP: The 2018 Indy Lights champion served notice at Sonoma Raceway that he means business. O’Ward qualified fifth and finished ninth in his IndyCar debut, and managed to be a shining star on a weekend in which the championship was decided. That he was able to garner such fanfare on a championship-deciding weekend says all you need to know about his potential impact.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: O’Ward will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for Harding Steinbrenner Racing and will look to repeat performances like the one he had at Sonoma.

QUOTE (after Sonoma, where he finished ninth): “It was a really great weekend, we learned a lot. We qualified the car fifth and we ended the race ninth. As a driver, you want to stay in your qualifying position or get better. But I think for a first try, especially with a super long race with three or four pit stops that was a job well done. I’m really satisfied, and I just want to get better for next year.”

 

Colton Herta

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 1
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s
2018 final standing: 37th
2018 final stats: 1 start, 0 tops 5s, 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 20th (Sonoma)

SEASON WRAPUP: Colton Herta’s lone start at Sonoma did not garner the same fanfare as that of his teammate O’Ward. However, Herta’s effort was no less valuable as he gained great experience in how an IndyCar race weekend operates. The 2018 Indy Lights runnerup, and 2018 Freedom 100 winner, is a bright young prospect and looks to have a long career ahead of him.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Herta will be O’Ward’s teammate, piloting the No. 88 Chevrolet for the Harding Steinbrenner outfit.

QUOTE (following Sonoma, where he finished 20th): This weekend was a good experience. I’m not too happy with the result, but I’m happy with how my debut went and the pace that I showed. There are sure some things that I can work on going into the offseason. I had an amazing time. Thank you to Harding Racing, Mike Harding, Team Chevy and Firestone. Can’t wait to see if we can do it again in St. Pete.”

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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500