Harding Racing president Brian Barnhart was all smiles and handshakes after qualifying for the IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Pato O’Ward earned the team’s best starting position of the year, which spoke volumes about the rookie program’s progression. It also spoke to where the outfit is headed. As RACER revealed in July, Andretti Autosport’s goal of expanding its four-car team to six, would take place under an ‘Andretti Junior Team’ alliance formed with Harding Racing.
The first evidence of the potential contained within the Andretti-Harding partnership has been on display this weekend as O’Ward and teammate Colton Herta have made serious waves as IndyCar rookies. As seen in the Harding garages and on pit lane, Andretti’s desire to use the Junior Team as a place where young drivers, engineers, and mechanics can grow has clearly been paying off.
Two weeks after he won the Indy Lights championship for Andretti Autosport, O’Ward and his Lights race engineer Mark Bryant (pictured above, with O’Ward) are on the fast track to IndyCar. Bryant is overseeing O’Ward’s No. 8 Chevy at Sonoma, with a number of his championship-winning Lights crew, including mechanic Jessica Mace, also on hand.
On Herta’s side, engineer Doug Zister and veteran mechanic Dave Popielarz — Fernando Alonso’s chief mechanic at the 2017 Indy 500 — are among the familiar faces that have bolstered the program. Whether it’s Bryant engineering in his first IndyCar race or Mace lending her diverse racing talents to preparing a car, both drivers feel right at home.
“It’s really comforting. It’s nice having familiar faces around, and it’s nice working with people who made this year go so well,” O’Ward told RACER. “We’re all new to this, but we have great help from the Lights team, from the Harding team, and from Michael Andretti. They’ve received us like a second family.”
“It’s a tremendous complement to the team,” Barnhart added. “To put two cars in track as competitive as they are, at the end of the season when everybody’s tired, we’re really proud of what this Harding team is doing.”
Despite the blended nature of the crews working on the Nos. 8 and 88 Chevys, O’Ward says having Harding team veterans like crew chief Brian Hornick and the Andretti crew coming together has created a reassuring environment where he can thrive.
“I can trust the car will be good and everything will be prepared well because we have only good people working together,” he said. “Because when it comes to getting those last few tenths from the car and taking the risks we take, you have to trust it was put together the right way, and I know that’s what I’ve been given. I don’t think I could be in a better position than I am right now.”
In a preview of IndyCar’s next-generation driving talent, Barnhart likes the attitude he’s witnessed with O’Ward and Herta. Wherever the Andretti Junior Team and Harding Racing are headed, it’s clear they have two teenagers who are preparing for the future the right way.
“They’ve both got the great approach coming in,” he said. “They come in and shake everybody’s hand in the morning, and they thank everybody at the end of the night. And they are very thankful for all the work everyone’s done to make these cars happen. These are some remarkable kids. Hopefully, it’s great prospects for the future.”