The feel good story of 2019 doesn’t feel too good right now. The terrific teenage tandem of Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta won’t be teammates in the NTT IndyCar Series after all.
It basically boils down to the fact there isn’t enough money for Harding Steinbrenner Racing to field two cars for the 2018 Indy Lights champ and second-generation talent. O’Ward saw the handwriting on the wall and asked to be released from his contract with Mike Harding, which was granted earlier today. Herta (pictured above at Sonoma last fall) is at Circuit of The Americas for spring training Tuesday and Wednesday and appears set to continue with the team.
Now, this isn’t a good guy/bad guy story as much as it is a field of dreams and the realities of big time motorsports.
Harding came into IndyCar in 2017 with one car, Gabby Chaves as a driver, no sponsor, a small crew and big hopes of blossoming into a two-car operation. That first year was an anomaly as Chaves finished ninth at Indianapolis, fifth at Texas and qualified eighth fastest at Pocono without putting a scratch on his car. That’s not how new teams usually start out.
Last year was more of the norm because, other than qualifying eighth in the season opener at St. Pete, Chaves struggled with no teammate, older suspension parts and a lack of engineering until Gerald Tyler was hired as technical director. Conor Daly was brought in to pinch hit for three races and moved the team in the right direction with his chassis feedback and pace.
Then, in the season finale at Sonoma, Harding (with help from Andretti Autosport mechanics and engineers) fielded cars for O’Ward and Herta as Chaves was parked and given a buyout (he had 2019 remaining on his contract).
In qualifying, O’Ward gave a jaw-dropping display of his ability by posting the fifth-fastest time of out 25 drivers! He then ran ninth in his IndyCar debut while little Herta soldiered home 20th after starting 19th.
They were a few days away from being introduced as IndyCar teammates in a dazzling video scoreboard presentation at Yankee Stadium. Then the New York media, which doesn’t recognize auto racing as a sport, did the unthinkable and busted out positive stories on George Michael Steinbrenner’s advancement into IndyCar. It was a feel good story complete with headlines in the Post, Daily News and Newsday. Having Hank Steinbrenner and his son in the IndyCar family was one of the biggest catches since Paul Newman jumped in 35 years earlier.
But as the calendar crept into 2019 we began hearing stories. Harding had laid off all but a couple people. Nothing was happening in the shop on Main Street in Speedway because money was tight, to be kind. And Steinbrenner had yet to announce any sponsorship.
The understanding was that Steinbrenner would take care of Herta, while Harding handled O’Ward – in terms of finding money.
All through January I kept putting off calling Harding Racing president Brian Barnhart because I was hoping things would get turned around by spring training. I finally called O’Ward a couple weeks ago and he was distraught because he didn’t have a car or crew, from what he could gather. He was told to be patient but he wanted Harding to release him ao he could take his $1 million Lights championship bonus to another team and try to salvage something for 2019.
And that’s where we stand today. It appears little Hertamania is going to be a one-car band with Steinbrenner/Harding while O’Ward shops for five or six races (maybe with Andretti?).
Now fans of our Mailbag at RACER.com are writing in and wondering how this could happen? How could a team make all these grandiose plans without having the funding in place? Best I can guess is that Hank Steinbrenner is about as well-connected as any sportsman in this country and he’s got people looking and he will eventually find sponsorship but he’s got the wherewithal to get things rolling. And partner Sean Jones is doing everything possible for his pal, George Michael. Mike Harding also has people looking for money but, to date, hasn’t found any in three years.
And you can’t field two Indy cars on the come.
I’ve done this for 51 years and I remember a press conference with James Garner announcing his IndyCar team and it never turned a wheel. Cedric the Entertainer was going to help find millions for the old Tony Bettenhausen team but never raised a penny. It happens.
But this is a funny business. Everybody wants to hear the truth until they’re involved. The IndyCar fraternity has been whispering about this story for months yet some of us chose to tread lightly in hopes things turned around.
The Harding Steinbrenner camp is understandably bumpy about people questioning their viability. But Marshall Pruett and myself have championed this pairing since it was first hinted last summer and we purposely kept it under wraps until the press release went out. Then we stalled in reporting what was really going on this winter until recently because we wanted to give this team the benefit of the doubt. Hell, everybody wanted this team to work because it was such a cool story with a couple of great kids and two gung-ho owners.
While I tip my hat to Harding for agreeing to release Pato, I wish he’d been more up front with him a few months ago. And I don’t think Mike would have given up on this kid if there were any chance to salvage things. Unless IndyCar steps in to help with a free engine or some money, not sure this 19-year-old phenom will be in more than a handful of races in 2019. And that sucks.
The Steinbrenners are revved up about IndyCar and hopefully they can pull things together and be around a long time. Ditto for Harding.
It was a great story — O’Ward and Herta — and it still can be but just not as teammates.