In an announcement from New York this afternoon it was confirmed that this year’s top two finishers in the Indy Lights championship, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta, will become full-time entrants in next year’s IndyCar Series season with the newly formed Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The team will field two entries in 2019, with Herta driving the No. 88 and O’Ward in the No. 8.
Making a debut in 2017 at the Indianapolis 500, Harding Racing recently completed its first full season of IndyCar Series competition by wrapping up the Grand Prix of Sonoma last weekend. In 2018 the team primarily used Gabby Chaves as it’s full-time driver, but began to audition drivers for a second seat during the summer which saw Conor Daly, and later Herta and O’Ward, take chances in Chaves’ No. 88 machine.
Harding Racing is owned by Indianapolis businessman Mike Harding, who has assembled a well-respective staff that includes two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. as a consultant and experienced open-wheel executive Brian Harhart as team president.
“We are happy to announce that Mike Harding of Harding Racing and George Steinbrenner IV of Steinbrenner Racing will join forces in 2019 to become Harding Steinbrenner Racing,” said Barnhart. “We will be making the move to a two-car team, fulfilling a goal we stated earlier in the year. We have decided to go all in for the future by hiring two recent stars of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series, Freedom 100 winner and Indy Lights Series runner-up, Colton Herta and reigning Indy Lights Series Champion, Patricio O’Ward.
“We are thrilled with their performance in the 2018 Indy Lights Series in which they ran 1-2 for Andretti Autosport. We are also exceptionally proud to have recently provided them with them their inaugural IndyCar experience at Sonoma Raceway.”
Today’s announcement bridges the gap for former Indy Lights team Steinbrenner Racing, owned by George Michael Steinbrenner IV of the famous New York Yankees bloodline. Steinbrenner Racing began competition in 2017 with Herta in his rookie Indy Lights season, eventually finishing 3rd with 7 podium finishes. In 2018 it was Herta again with the team, this time fighting O’Ward and his Andretti Autosport team right down to the wire for the 2018 Indy Lights championship.
O’Ward would edge Herta in a tight battle which culminated in a championship celebration during IndyCar’s return to Portland International Raceway. Despite coming up short in this year’s Lights championship, Steinbrenner IV is poised to make the jump to IndyCar Series ownership with the announced partnership with Harding.
“I am extremely excited to make the leap into the IndyCar Series,” said Steinbrenner IV. “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.
“Excited to have two of the best young drivers on this continent and to have them both make the leap into the IndyCar Series at such a young age as teammates with Harding Steinbrenner. We’re looking forward to watching as they mature 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.”
At 18 years of age, Herta became the first IndyCar Series driver born in the 2000s to make a start when he rolled off the grid 19th on Sunday. After 85 laps of competition, Herta had managed to keep the car in one piece and on the lead lap, finishing 20th.
“I am so thrilled to finally announce the plans for next year,” said Herta. “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. This is all possible because of Mike Harding and I want to give a big thank you to the Steinbrenners. There is a lot to do, but I’m ready to get my head down and focus forward for the 2019 IndyCar season.”
And then there was Pato O’Ward. The Mexican driver burst onto the scene in 2018 by winning 9 of the 17 Indy Lights races this season (with 13 podiums and 9 pole awards as well) and he dazzled Sonoma Raceway spectators this past weekend by qualifying 5th in his first IndyCar Series start.
After overcoming choppy waters during the race’s midpoint, O’Ward worked his No. 8 Harding Chevrolet back to 9th to secure a top-10 in his first IndyCar appearance.
“If you would have asked me if I was going to be an IndyCar driver last year, I would have told you hopefully, but no,” said O’Ward. “It’s a chance of a lifetime. I couldn’t be in a better position as of now. I’m really thankful for the opportunity that Harding Racing, Mike Harding and the Steinbrenners are giving me. 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. We showed some pace in Sonoma and learned a lot. I think it’s going to be just as important to learn as much as we can in the beginning of the 2019 season, so we can end the season strong. The car will be fast, and I know the team will give me what I need to do the job.
“There’s nothing better than having trust with the people who are giving you the car because when the car is going fast those extra risks that you have to take are from the trust and confidence form your team.”
So where does Harding’s former driver, Gabby Chaves, fit into this equation?
That remains to be seen, but one could guess that Chaves’ multi-year deal will receive compensation at some point – maybe in the form of a buyout in the near future. It is an unfortunate ending to Chaves’ one-year, full-time run with the developing team.
Harding Steinbrenner Racing will make their official debut March 8-10, 2019 when the IndyCar Series season renews at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Image courtesy of Harding Steinbrenner Racing.