Harding seeing results of building team from ground up

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If anyone has been reminded of how much impact one NTT IndyCar Series triumph can have on a fledgling race team, it’s team co-owner Mike Harding.

How often in a frustrating 2018 did Harding ask himself what was he doing?

“A lot,” he said. “Last year, we weren’t even in the realm.”

After an offseason of change that started by joining with George Steinbrenner IV to become Harding Steinbrenner Racing, striking a technical partnership agreement with Michael Andretti to utilize Andretti Autosport’s expertise and backing then-18-year-old rookie driver Colton Herta, the team approached a new season with modest optimism that it could be competitive.

Mike Harding celebrates COTA win with crewmanThen, in just the second race of the 2019 campaign, Herta became the youngest driver in Indy car history to celebrate victory when he prevailed in the INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of The Americas on March 24, at the age of 18 years, 259 days. (Harding is shown above with Herta on the victory podium and at left hugging a crew member after the win.)

“I feel a lot better this year. A lot of swag,” the understated Harding said with a modest grin.

Herta, the son of team co-owner and former driver Bryan Herta, is heaped with praise for elevating the team’s profile in such a short time. Harding kept forking out his own money to keep the team going because of the unwavering belief that eventually the investment would pay off.

Brian Barnhart, team president at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, realized just how important Herta’s COTA win was to Harding.

“You don’t recognize it on Mike until you’re standing there on the timing stand and you turn and see the look on his face,” Barnhart said. “It really kind of registers with you, ‘Oh my God, look how happy this guy is.’

“With what this guy has been through, with his perseverance, commitment and effort to keep this race team afloat for as long as he has, that look on his face, that smile, that pure elation and joy, that’s when it hit me. That guy really deserves this. He is a pretty reserved type of person, but that elation on his face was as pure as it gets.”

Harding started the team as a solo owner in 2017. Running part time, the fledgling effort showed promise with two top-10 finishes in its three oval races for driver Gabby Chaves, including a fifth at Texas and ninth at the Indy 500. Last year was a struggle as the team moved into a full-time effort and went through growing pains. Chaves’ best result in 13 races was 13th place at Portland. Conor Daly filled in for three races, also with a best of 13th (Toronto).

The tide began turning in the 2018 season finale at Sonoma Raceway, when the team entered Patricio O’Ward and Herta – fresh off their 1-2 finish in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season -- in the NTT IndyCar Series debut for both teenagers. O’Ward qualified fifth and finished ninth, sparking hope for a two-car effort this season with the young phenoms at the wheel.

When enough sponsorship failed to materialize, O’Ward was released from his contract and signed on for 13 races this season with Carlin. The team stuck with Herta and the search for financial backing goes on daily.

As the team prepares for two races this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11 and the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 26, Harding Steinbrenner Racing still seeks sponsorship. That one victory, and Herta’s continued success in being 10th in the points, has increased the receptiveness in those conversations with prospective backers.

“When you tell people we’ve won COTA,” Barnhart said, “people tend to listen to you a little more.”

Harding isn’t one for the spotlight. He prefers praise is bestowed upon his team as well as the alliances with Steinbrenner and Andretti. Steinbrenner became the series’ youngest owner at 22, and the youngest to win a race. The legacy of the New York Yankees ownership family, Steinbrenner has been sold on Herta’s potential for years, including the past two in Indy Lights, a union that produced six victories and 10 poles.

That said, Harding and Barnhart concede there was no way they could have expected Herta to deliver so quickly in the NTT IndyCar Series.

“Look at how the kid practices. We’re practically top five every weekend,” Harding said. “I knew last year we had an all-star team and sooner or later this would come together. Colton made all the pieces come together.”

If anyone knows how tough the competition can be, it’s Barnhart, a longtime race crew member and chief mechanic before becoming an executive and race director for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR. Harding hired Barnhart at the end of 2017.

“It’s fun to take the fight to the big guys,” Barnhart said. “We realistically didn’t think we would slay them all. You tried to look at it like, if we had a really good weekend, we might be able to knock off a couple of those guys. If you have a great weekend, you might get three or four of ‘em and a top-five. You didn’t really think you’d get ‘em all.”

Then, at COTA, Herta did.

Now the team must temper that enthusiasm and stay focused on the task at hand with 13 more races.

“We’ve got a really hectic, busy schedule,” Barnhart said. “Our run since Barber (the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7) has been a huge task for this little race team.”

Harding still hopes the team can expand, but that depends upon finding sponsorship.

“We get though this year and the goal would be to have a second car next year,” he said. “But we’ve got to get this year going. All race teams count on sponsors. It’s coming in, slowly but surely.”

As for the remainder of this season, Harding suggests Herta could still win another race or two. Optimism abounds.

“Life is better,” Harding said. “We’re very hungry. We’re starving.”

INDYCAR Grand Prix action begins Friday with practices at 9”10 a.m. and 12”30 p.m. ET that stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. NTT P1 Award qualifying starts at 4:30 p.m. and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass.

A final 30-minute practice streams live on INDYCAR Pass at 11:15 a.m. Saturday. Live race coverage starts at 3 p.m. Saturday on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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