Al Unser Jr.: Harding Steinbrenner Racing ready to be contenders in 2019

Photos courtesy Harding Steinbrenner Racing
0 Comments

SPEEDWAY, Indiana – One of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr.’s favorite sayings of late is “momentum has gone into another gear.”

It’s a rather telling phrase, encompassing not just Unser’s life for nearly the last two years, but also the upstart IndyCar team he has worked for during that time, Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Unser’s official title at HSR is “consultant,” but he’s much more than that. The two-time Indy 500 winner and two-time CART champion is also a mentor, coach, strategist, business-to-business and sponsorship advisor, trouble shooter, talent evaluator, spokesman and figurehead.

It was team owner Mike Harding, who has had a long sponsorship association with the Indy 500, who called Unser one day in early 2016, asking if he’d speak at the annual Carb Day party Harding throws that draws upwards of 3,000 guests.

When the two men finally met in-person for the first time, they clicked immediately, as much as Unser did with several of the former team owners he worked for during his driving career, including Rick Galles, Doug Shierson and Roger Penske.

“We hit it off right away,” Unser said of Harding. “He mentioned that he wanted to go IndyCar racing. My first response was, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ (he said with a laugh). He said, “Yeah, yeah, I want to be an owner.’ So I went, ‘Okay, let’s rock and roll.’”

Unser believed in Harding and his vision so much that Harding was able to do something that Galles, Shierson nor Penske were never able to do: convince Unser to leave his lifelong home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and relocate to Indianapolis to work out of the HSR headquarters just two blocks from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I said ‘there was no way in hell that I’m moving to Indy, so just get that out of your mind,’” Unser chuckles, recalling what he told Harding. “But Mike just kept on and kept on and then what happened in the fall of ‘17, we brought (longtime IndyCar and IMSA official) Brian Barnhart on as president of Harding Racing.

“And then the real kicker was this race shop (formerly occupied by Sarah Fisher Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing) became available and he said he was going to get this place.

“Once he made the commitment to Brian and this shop, I thought about it and went, ‘You know what, I need to get my butt to Indianapolis, and so here we are.”

Unser is especially keen on HSR’s two drivers, who will be competing in their respective rookie IndyCar seasons in 2019: Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta, who finished 1-2 in the 2018 Indy Lights season.

From left at Yankees Stadium: Pato O’Ward, George Michael Steinbrenner IV, Mike Harding, Al Unser Jr. and Colton Herta.

The final piece of the HSR puzzle is George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner III. Shortly after last season ended, George IV became an official co-owner of HSR, further elevating the status of the program and illustrating just how serious this operation truly is to become a winner.

“The way this thing has unfolded, all the pieces falling in place, we’re in a very, very unique and exciting time with George Michael Steinbrenner coming onboard and what he brings,” Unser said. “George Michael is 22 years old, the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

“Plus (the Yankees are) the No. 1 sports franchise in the country, they’re going IndyCar racing and they’ve decided to do it with our team. It’s not just exciting for our team, it’s exciting for all of IndyCar to have the No. 1 sports franchise in the country, of all sports, coming to our series, it’s just phenomenal.”

Even though he is 34 years older than his 22-year-old “boss,” Unser, 56, said age doesn’t make a difference.

“I don’t see Mike Harding or George Michael as my boss,” Unser said. “I see them as my partner and I feel that back from them, that I’m their partner and we go into it together with one common goal: to go out and win races.”

When asked to reflect back on his career to what was the most exciting time of his life, you would think Unser would say either his two Indy 500 wins (1992, 1994) or two CART championships (1990, 1994).

Not so.

“This is the most exciting time of my life, without a doubt,” Unser said of joining HSR. “The only thing that I can compare this to is when Roger (Penske) gave me the call and said, ‘Al, I want you to drive for me.’

“That’s why I relocated and moved here to Indy. I really am all-in.”

When Unser hung up his firesuit for the final time after competing in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, he admits he was ready for it.

“To be honest with you, when I ended my driving career, I was burned out on the racing,” he said. “I had raced my entire life since I was nine years old and going to the races and that sort of thing. I needed a break from it.”

Al Unser (right) talked son Al Jr. out of becoming an IndyCar team owner several years ago.

After a respite away from the sport, Unser briefly considered becoming a team owner, but was talked out of it by his father, four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser.

But when Harding proposed a role as a consultant, Unser didn’t have to think too hard about it. He was one of the first drivers Rick Mears worked with at Team Penske after the latter retired as a driver and became a consultant, a role he still holds today.

The situation is the same with Dario Franchitti and his consultancy to Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I’m here to help in any way I can,” Unser said. “It’s just a true blessing.”

Unser has raced against the best in IndyCar, including A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Scott Dixon and so many others. He has a keen eye for talent and ability.

That’s why when asked how quickly HSR can be a championship contender, Unser didn’t hesitate, responding with a very serious look upon his face.

“Right away,” he said. “The team is jelling real good, the kids are super-talented, there’s so much experience here that’s going to support these young kids who have so much talent and the way the cars are super competitive.

“Yeah, we can go and be championship contenders straight away this year, absolutely.”

Those are not cheap words or uttered just to impress a reporter or fans. Unser absolutely, positively believes in HSR and its potential. The organization has all the pieces in place to win from the moment the first green flag drops March 10 in the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

“It’s hard to put into words how excited we are,” Unser said. “I just feel so fortunate, so lucky and so blessed that Mike Harding showed the confidence in me to bring me onboard in the beginning, and then of course Brian Barnhart.

Unser congratulates O’Ward on a job well done in his rookie debut last September in the 2018 season-ending race at Sonoma. O’Ward qualified fifth and finished a strong ninth.

“Brian was my left rear (tire changer) on both my Indy 500 wins and both my championships. Brian and I go back a long way. Mike came to me and asked me just a simple question, ‘How do I take my team to the next level.’ I simply said, ‘We have to go get Brian Barnhart, it just has to happen.’

“Mike made it happen, Mike is the one who has made all this happen. He’s invested his money and he’s definitely committed in a huge way. Without Mike Harding, none of this would exist, simply put.

“I have not seen this kind of situation fall into place as quickly and as talented as the people are that are involved here. It’s like a brand new franchise going straight to the top.

“(Harding) definitely took the bull by the horns and said, ‘I’m in.’ That’s why I moved here, because of Mike, because of his vision for his company, the asphalt company, the race team, he comes from a great family and he’s just a down-to-earth person.

“Everything here is just so exciting and moving so quick. And at the same time, we’re really watching our steps.”

Then, Unser adds with a big smile, “We’re actually taking baby steps – we’re just doing them really quick.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Eli Tomac wins Houston Supercross: Hunter Lawrence takes early 250 East lead

0 Comments

With his 47th career victory and third of the 2023 season in Houston, Eli Tomac closed to within one win of tying Ricky Carmichael for third on the all-time Monster Energy Supercross list.

Tomac rebounded from last week’s crash by earning the holeshot in both his heat and the Main. At the start of the big show, he couldn’t shake Aaron Plessinger in the first four minutes and actually was in the process of losing the lead as a red flag waved for a crash involving Tomac’s teammate Dylan Ferrandis when he overjumped an obstacle and landed on Ken Roczen’s back fender as they raced for eighth.

“That was a tough race,” Tomac told NBC Sports’ Will Christien, referencing his loss to Chase Sexton in the heat. “And honestly, I was just beat down after that heat race and was searching quite a bit and was basically losing speed everywhere. I just rode better, straight up in the Main. I felt better.”

In their heat, Sexton passed Tomac at the two-minute mark and then simply rode away from the field. At the end, he had an almost eight-second gap on Tomac.

“It wasn’t great by any means,” Sexton told Jason Thomas. “I feel like the strengths I had all day, I really lagged in the Main event between the whoop and the sand section. I think I could have walked through it faster. It was still a good ride; it wasn’t great. I expected after the heat race he would be fired up.”

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Jason Anderson scored his second consecutive pole, but he was not happy to finish third behind the two points’ leaders.

“We should be thankful every time we get to be up here,” Anderson said. “They’re making it tough on me, but all I can do is give my best.”

Tomac had to withstand a red flag and the distant second place finish in his heat to win the Houston Supercross race. In the post-race conference, he indicated that he did not make any changes to the bike and simply rode better.

Aaron Plessinger and Cooper Webb rounded out the top five.

Ferrandis was fitted with a neck brace, but still able to walk to the medical cart. He was still being evaluated by the medical staff as the night came to a close.


In 250s Hunter Lawrence entered the 250 East opener as the consensus favorite to win the championship this year with Christian Craig making the move into 450s and his brother Jett Lawrence in the West division. He answered quickly with a huge lead in Heat 1, but it almost went awry in the Main.

Lawrence got a good start, but he was passed early in the race by two-time MXGP champion (2020, 2022) Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut this week. Vialle passed Lawrence on the first lap. When Lawrence tried to pass him back, Vialle scrubbed speed off a jump and pushed Lawrence wide, over the Tuff Blox.

Championships are made out of Lawrence’s response. He kept his composure and did not overcorrect before methodically working his way to the front.

“We had a little off track excursion. I wasn’t sure how hard across Tom was coming so I thought I’ll just go left, but then saw that was the side of the track. Thankfully I didn’t hit the Tuff Blox and got back on track safely. … Good start; put myself in position.”

Click here for full 250 East Main Results

Making a move from the 450 class to 250s, Max Anstie had immediate success. He finished second in his heat behind Jordon Smith and lined up with a great gate pick. He had to overtake Vialle in the opening laps and lost ground on Lawrence, that cost enough time to keep him from pressing Lawrence. This is Anstie’s first podium in the United States

“Honestly, I’ve dreamed of this for a long time to come up on these steps and man it’s a great feeling. I’ve really enjoyed the day and being on this 250, I feel like an 18-year-old kid. Everyday I’m learning.”

Smith backed up his heat win with a podium finish.

“It feels good to be back up here again,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time; a lot of injuries.”

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his debut in the 250 class was not unfounded. He finished fourth in his heat to advance to directly into the Main. During the early laps, he was circling the track in a podium position until a minor mistake sent him off the box. In the closing laps, he narrowly made an aggressive pass on Jeremy Martin and narrowly missed the podium with a fourth-place finish.

Martin held on to round out the top five.

Vialle was running in a podium position when went down with a 1:30 left on the clock. He ended his night seventh.

Chance Hymas was also making his 250 debut and scored a top-10 in eighth.

2023 Race Recaps

Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Houston coverage

Houston by the numbers
Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list