IndyCar: Harding Racing joins forces with Yanks’ Steinbrenner; hires O’Ward, Herta to drive in ’19

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When Indianapolis businessman Mike Harding said in 2017 that he was going to build a winning IndyCar team, he wasn’t kidding.

First, he hired former IndyCar President of Race Operations and Race Director Brian Barnhart to be the team’s president. Then he brought in two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. as an executive consultant who proved to be so much more in the team’s first full-time season in 2018.

Wednesday, Harding may have hit the biggest home run yet of his brief IndyCar ownership tenure.

First, Harding has joined forces with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner IV to re-form the team as Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“I am extremely excited to make the leap into the IndyCar Series,” Steinbrenner said. “Since I was a kid, it has been my goal to be a team owner in the IndyCar Series and I’m so excited to be doing that with Harding Racing.

“They are a team that shares our values that they don’t want to just be here, but to be a dominant mainstay in the series. That will continue to be our goal as we head into a partnership with a team that shares the same ideals and it makes life a heck of a lot easier.”

Then, during a late Wednesday afternoon press conference at Yankee Stadium, Harding and Steinbrenner hit a grand slam when they revealed that 2018 Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta will campaign a full-time, two-car lineup for the team in 2019.

“We have decided to go all-in for the future by hiring (O’Ward and Herta),” Barnhart said.

Added Steinbrenner, “We’re looking forward to watching as they mature and grow and fight to beat the grizzled veterans in the IndyCar paddock. We’re so excited to see where that will lead, how the team can grow, and how we’ll compete so we can hopefully vault ourselves to the top of IndyCar pylons.”

Herta, the 2018 Freedom 100 winner, will drive the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner entry next season, while O’Ward will drive the No. 8.

“I am so thrilled to finally announce the plans for next year,” Herta said. “I know it’s been a long time coming. After having a good time in Sonoma and dipping my feet into IndyCar, it makes me way more enthusiastic than I was before. … There is a lot to do, but I’m ready to get my head down and focus forward for the 2019 IndyCar season.”

Added O’Ward, “It’s a chance of a lifetime. I couldn’t be in a better position as of now. This is something I have been working my whole life for. It’s been a very adventurous and enjoyable ride. I’ve matured a lot over the past two years and I think I’m ready to be strong in the IndyCar Series.”

Added Harding, “The 2018 IndyCar season has been a tremendous learning experience for me. Now I am eager to join with Steinbrenner Racing and create the powerhouse team I know Harding Racing can be.

“I believe Harding Steinbrenner Racing will quickly impress the IndyCar paddock too. Let’s go racing!”

Several questions remain to be answered, things that Harding Steinbrenner Racing plans on resolving in the coming weeks and months:

1) What will happen to driver Gabby Chaves, who drove the No. 88 for 13 of the 17 races in the just completed 2018 season?

Chaves earned a season-best finish of 13th two weeks ago at Portland, and finished 20th in the overall season standings.

Chaves is under contract to the team for 2019. It’s unclear if he will remain with the team perhaps in another capacity, be loaned out to another team or potentially have the remainder of his contract bought out.

2) It’s also unclear what type of powerplant will be in the Harding Steinbrenner cars for 2019. The team ran Chevrolet powerplants this past season, but has not announced whether it sticks with the bow-tie or shifts to Honda.

3) O’Ward and Herta are both under contract to Andretti Autosport (which runs Hondas), but were loaned to Harding Racing to make their respective IndyCar career debuts in this past Sunday’s race at Sonoma. The Andretti organization played a big role in those debuts, providing resources and support.

Because Steinbrenner has been a partner with Andretti in the Mazda Road to Indy program, it’s unclear if O’Ward and Herta will remain under the Andretti umbrella through a partnership with HSR.

But one other thing of note: Harding Steinbrenner Racing could easily fill the role of a satellite team for Andretti Autosport, one that could be even more closely linked at the hip if HSR shifts to Honda power for 2019.

Honda has hedged on whether it can provide additional motors to new teams next season, particularly when mentioned as a potential engine provider to Fernando Alonso and McLaren if they come full-time to the IndyCar series in 2019.

Given the allure of both O’Ward and Herta – who are only 19 and 18 years old, respectively – and the likely substantial investment Steinbrenner has made with the team, it’s possible that Alonso may eventually figure into this overall deal, as well.

But that’s another thing that will also have to be figured out in the near future. There’s plenty of time: the 2019 IndyCar Series season does not begin until March 8-10 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Follow @JerryBonkowski