INSIGHT: Winding down IndyCar's biggest little team

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INSIGHT: Winding down IndyCar's biggest little team

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Winding down IndyCar's biggest little team


The winding-down process is underway at Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The three-year-old team, which scored three poles and two wins this season with Colton Herta in the No. 88 Honda, will consolidate with Andretti Autosport over the coming months. HSR’s equipment, and some of its personnel, will move to Andretti’s facility as Herta’s entry joins the four full-time programs for Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, and Zach Veach.

Interviews with current team members began last week at HSR’s Speedway, Indiana-based shop, and will continue until the merger, under the Andretti Harding Steinbrenner name, is complete.

“It’s really something that has come out of nowhere and caught us off-guard, because the original plan that was created in 2018 with this partnership did not contemplate taking the Harding Steinbrenner car in-house at Andretti Autosport in 2020,” says HSR president Brian Barnhart.

“It was designed to be a three-year relationship with Andretti Technologies where Harding Steinbrenner Racing really was a development program and we were focused on developing personnel, we were focused on developing components, we were focused on developing relationships, sponsors, whatever, and looked at that being a three-year program.”

Most of the HSR team took a week off after the September 22 season finale in Monterey. Since returning to work, sorting the team’s assets has been Barnhart’s primary focus.

“There’s so many details associated with the logistics move, the parts, the people, everybody from management people, to driver coaches like Little Al, to the shop floor guys,” he says. “Andretti has been spectacular. [Andretti COO] Rob Edwards and Michael [Andretti] and [president] J-F [Thormann] have all said, ‘Everybody’s going to get an opportunity to be interviewed and apply for positions moving up there.’ They’ve got a lot of programs under that roof now to begin with, with rallycross and with multiple Indy Lights programs and with multiple IndyCar programs.”

Having played a central role in developing HSR into a regular front-runner, Barnhart (right, with George Michael Steinbrenner IV) is now tasked with overseeing the team’s absorption into Andretti Autosport. Image by Owens/IndyCar

Starting with race engineer Nathan O’Rourke, Herta outlined a number of must-have crew members as part of HSR’s transition within Andretti Autosport. Barnhart anticipates some, but not all, of the race-winning 2019 HSR team will find a home at Andretti.

“So, the personnel is a little bit of a tricky one because they’re going to want to promote from within,” he continues. “They’re going to give people other opportunities off of those other programs. And that’s the other thing; the success gives you the opportunity to pick and choose the best of the best and make each program, each of the what will be the five cars under that roof, as strong as they can be, with the best people on each of them. So we’re just now into that process. We did a couple of interviews before we went to Laguna.

“Most guys took the week off after Laguna for some vacation time, and we’ve been continuing the interviewing process with everyone on the shop floor and getting an opportunity of where they see themselves, partially explaining the difference between being a little one-car team and moving into a larger, more corporate environment with multiple sponsors and five cars and other programs under one roof. And just how small team versus big team function and operate, and just going through that process with all the people.”

Blending the racing assets of HSR with Andretti Autosport will occupy most of October.

“It’s very complicated, time-consuming, and one of the biggest challenges, before you even get into the equipment transition, with the race cars that we have, whether it’s tractors and trailers, or sub assembly parts and brakes and gearboxes and wings and body work and spring inventory and shocks and all that stuff,” Barnhart says. “It’s going to be a lot of paperwork and a lot of detail-oriented work over the next month, for sure.”

As he works towards closing the doors at HSR, Barnhart gives credit to its founder who, along with the Steinbrenner family, and one key sponsor, prevented the team from folding halfway through the 2019 championship.

Some – but possibly not all – of this year’s No.88 crew will follow the car over to Andretti for 2020. Image by Jones/IndyCar

“You look at Mike Harding as an individual, and he’s been more dedicated and has probably persevered as an IndyCar owner without major sponsorship longer than any other individual that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “And that speaks to his dedication and his commitment to keeping this thing up and going, and keeping guys on the payroll and running this thing without sponsors.

“We thought we had a decent in-season relationship developed with a company that didn’t come to fruition, and it really was just a setback. And Mike just kept plugging away and doing it all on his own. We ended up getting a little help from Toronto on, from the Capstone Turbine Corporation. And they were a great little help to us, and really one of the biggest reasons we were able to finish the season this year was them stepping up to the plate.

“And that’s why this relationship moving forward, it’s the right thing for Mike Harding as well, because the new proposed relationship between Michael Andretti, Mike Harding, and George Steinbrenner is by far the better financially responsible position for Mike Harding to take as well.”

Barnhart was nothing short of a miracle worker during HSR’s brief and cash-strapped existence. Keeping the program alive during repeated funding shortfalls, forming the strategic partnership with Andretti Technologies, and bringing it together with Andretti Autosport – as Herta was being pursued by Arrow McLaren SP for 2020 – have been among his more impressive accomplishments in the sport. It’s unclear whether his future will reside with the Andretti outfit, or if his tenure atop an IndyCar team will reach its conclusion when the lights go out at HSR.

“It is one of those things that with everybody else, will be discussed and talked about moving forward,” he says. It’s a little bit more of a challenge. One of the economies of scale of running multiple car teams is you don’t replicate management. So that is a bit of a struggle for my position or where we’re at, because Andretti Autosport is very well-staffed with J-F Thormann and Rob Edwards and Josh Freund and Paul ‘Ziggy’ Harcus. They’ve got a lot of great people up there right now.

“So on a personal level, I certainly will do everything I can. My responsibility as it currently sits is to make sure I do the best I can for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, and when this merger takes place physically and moves inside that building up there, I’ll just try and do whatever I can to hopefully have a place to fit in up there and be as good a team player as I can be, and add value to whatever that might happen.”