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.
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).
“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.”
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.
“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.”