Photos courtesy Harding Steinbrenner Racing

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

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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.”

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Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?