By: Tanner Watkins
February 12, 2019 | 8:00 AM
Amid the news that Pato O’Ward had separated from Harding Steinbrenner Racing on Monday, many IndyCar observers were disappointed with the day’s proceedings.
Fans, fellow drivers, journalists, and even series officials were left with a sour taste in their mouths during IndyCar Media Day in Austin, imagining what could have been for the second half of HSR’s all-teen team which included the top two finishers in last year’s Indy Lights championship.
Through slew of well-wishes and hopeful feelings directed to O’Ward, one driver took exception to the team’s handling of the events. It had been a story he knew all too well.
After finishing runner-up in the 2017 Indy Lights season, Santiago Urrutia had entered into advanced talks with Harding Racing to run full-time with the newly-formed team. The conversations began at the IndyCar Series season finale in Sonoma where Urrutia was taking in the action.
“At one point I received a call at Sonoma, and Larry Curry came to me saying, ‘Santi, I want to have a meeting with you. I’m working for Harding and (Mike Harding) is very interested in having you on the team,'” explained Urrutia.
“I had a meeting with him at Sonoma, and he told me that basically everything was set and that Mike Harding wants me one hundred percent on the team.”
After the weekend concluded Urrutia was instructed to keep in touch over phone and e-mail while he flew back home to Uruguay. Arrangements were made for Urrutia to return to the States shortly thereafter, and one week after the Sonoma race, the then 21-year-old was in Indianapolis.
“I stayed in Indy for three days, and they never got my calls, texts or anything,” Urrutia says, taking note of the odd behavior. “Finally, I reached Mike and we had a meeting.
“We had breakfast very early – at like 5:00 a.m. So we had a meeting in this restaurant, and he said, ‘Santi, you’re going to be the driver. We see that you have a lot of potential to race with us and you are going to be teammates with Gabby Chaves. Everything is done, we’ve got the sponsorship and everything, and we are going to pay you a salary – and not everyone does that in IndyCar.’”
For a promising young talent like Urrutia, this was the ideal chain of events leading to an IndyCar debut – especially in today’s pay-to-play landscape of auto racing. On the same trip, Urrutia was introduced to some members of the Harding team in Indianapolis and even met with their current driver at the time, Gabby Chaves.
“After that, I mean, everything was settled,” recalls Urrutia. “I had a hat from Harding in my house and I got the (team) e-mails, the calls, everything.”
As the winter progressed, though, Urrutia began losing his connection with Harding. Again, he struggled to communicate with the team after sending texts, placing calls and composing e-mails. After months of silence he was summoned to Indianapolis around the New Year.
“I flew, again, to Indy and they told me that they could not find a sponsor,” explained Urrutia. “They thought what we would do is make me race in Indy Lights, and if I win the championship then I go straight with them in IndyCar.
“At the time, they told me they were going to give me $100,000 to race in Indy Lights with Belardi because I wasn’t having a lot of money to race for Belardi,” continued the Uruguayan driver. “Then they gave me a contract. I had a contract, I have everything that says that they’re going to give me $100,000 to race in Indy Lights and I would be the second driver for Harding. If I won the championship, I would be a full driver for next season.
“They never gave me the $100,000, and they never gave me the ride in IndyCar.”
It is worth noting that Urrutia’s initial connection with Harding Racing came in the form of Larry Curry, who later moved to the less influential role of team manager as Brian Barnhart was hired as president. Even as the organization endured expansion and re-structuring, Urrutia claims he was reassured there was no reason to worry about his place with Harding.
“I know Larry Curry then left the team and it was Brian Barnhart, but Brian called me many times to say, ‘Santi, no worries. Everything is done. You’re going to be in the team,’” says a visibly frustrated Urrutia.
“So it was Mike Harding and Brian Barnhart saying to me, ‘you are going to be full-time,’ but they never do anything. They just lied
What pained Urrutia so greatly about Monday’s announcement concerning O’Ward was the fact that he had endured a similar fate – one that he continues to face today when trying to find additional funding for racing.
“They have been lying to me for one year and a half,” Urrutia says about his own relationship with Harding. “They told these stories, and when I came to Uruguay I talked to my sponsors and I say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in IndyCar!’ I told my dad, I told everyone. Imagine now how happy I was! I was IndyCar – an IndyCar owner shook my hand and said ‘Santi, you are going to be in my team for next year. We’re going to pay you a salary and everything.’ Then he never gets my calls and starts doing these stupid things.
“So don’t get me wrong when I talk bad about (Harding) because
“I know of the situation that Pato is in right now, and that is why I put it on Twitter because it pisses me off.”
Neither O’Ward nor Harding Steinbrenner Racing could be reached for comment on Monday.
At this point in the process, Urrutia sees the multiple mishandlings – of his, O’Ward and Chaves’ careers – as a black eye for IndyCar. He notes how similar circumstances have stunted O’Ward’s plans for 2019 and Chaves was so easily replaced last season – even after Chaves was under contract for this upcoming season.
The frustration – which is palpable when listening to the Uruguayan explain what is now a route to GT racing in Europe next season – has been building for quite some time for Urrutia. After years of struggling to make it as a professional driver, what he considers a misstep with Harding Racing will take years to correct.
“Young drivers, families, and sponsors spend a lot of money to get to the highest level, and if you get (in trouble with) this kind of person, it is ridiculous,” says an exasperated Urrutia.
“It is very bad for us and it’s very bad for sponsors. It’s very bad for everyone because the next time I would talk to a sponsor and say, ‘I’m going to race in IndyCar,’ they are not going to trust me. They’re going to say, ‘You told us before that you were going to be in IndyCar but you never raced in IndyCar.’
“I think it’s really bad for everyone. IndyCar should do something with this, with Mike Harding and Harding Racing. I’m just telling this story because it is so frustrating for me as a driver,” continues Urrutia.
“I left my house at 14 years old fighting for my dreams and everything, living outside of the family, then running out of money and just working to get money and live month-to-month. Then this guy just doesn’t f—— care. He just goes and does whatever he wants, and no one does anything. He still has a team, still has cars in IndyCar, so someone has to do something, I think.”
Header image by Road to Indy.