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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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INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500