The hushed stories shared in dark corners of garages and out of sight behind transporters painted a harrowing portrait of the lack Colton Herta and his Harding Steinbrenner Racing team endured throughout their debut season.
From an overall shortfall in funding to the problems caused by a con man who promised big and delivered small, worries grew at a few points in 2019 where the team wasn’t entirely sure it would make the next race, much less finish the year.
Credit Capstone Turbines and a handful of companies for saving Herta’s breakout season, not to mention family members and team co-owners who dug deep to keep the No. 88 Honda in motion. Their win to close the season at Laguna Seca was a just reward for the display of faith and determination.
The situation improved to some degree in 2020 when Herta, Harding, and Steinbrenner moved to Andretti Autosport. Thanks to its well-oiled business development team, and another two wins, some new names appeared on Herta’s Honda-powered car throughout the championship, but not enough to suggest the budgetary drought of 2019 had been fixed with a windfall of cash.
And that’s where Herta’s new reality at Andretti as the driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda is such a welcome development. As the company embarks on a new multi-year deal with Andretti, it has a future champion to promote its financial services and brings the one missing piece of the Herta’s puzzle in the form of financial stability.
“Obviously, it’s a lot more sound and a lot more comfortable knowing we’ll have Gainbridge to focus on and build with,” Herta told RACER. “I always had full confidence in the Andretti team finding sponsorship and keeping the car running because truly, a lot of it was just down to their love of racing. So, I think having that sound sponsorship week in and week out same car, it helps me, but it also helps getting to know everyone, right?
“You’re not meeting new sponsorship people all the time and hoping it goes somewhere bigger. You’re in the same group with the same people, you get to know each other a lot better, and that just grows the relationship and how we can develop our program together.”
Herta’s announcement as the new steward of the No. 26 Andretti Honda comes with a tinge of sadness as he leaves the No. 88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner entry that will feature a new driver in 2021. Dating back to his 2018 Andretti Steinbrenner Indy Lights program, the young driver and team owner have forged an amazing relationship which will change when the next season begins.
“It is a little bit bittersweet,” he said. “I’m very thankful for what George has done, what Sean Jones has done, and the whole Steinbrenner family. And it’s not a completely end to this story, and I hope to be working with them on a few other things, and obviously want to show my gratitude for what they’ve done to me. And I don’t think much is going to change for me besides being friends with George.
“Obviously, I’m still going to stay at his house whenever I stay at Indy, and we still keep in touch often and play video games together and whatnot. So, it’s not a complete close to this, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. The possibilities are endless. So, it’s obviously not a full bookend to that relationship, but for right now, I’m really excited with the partnership with Gainbridge.”
The expectation for Gainbridge, which entered the series with Andretti and Zach Veach in 2017, to become Herta’s new sponsor was been spoken of for months. But it came with an anticipated shift from the No. 26 to the No. 88. By going the opposite route, and sending Herta from the 88 to the 26, the 20-year-old had one requirement to meet.
“It was very important for me that if I couldn’t continue with Mike and George, I needed everybody else to come along with me, because I’m very comfortable with them,” he said. “My engineer, Nathan O’Rourke, we work very well together and we’re very efficient. Brian Barnhart, my race strategist; the strategy and the pit stops that you could see this year were on point. When I wasn’t fast or the car wasn’t fast enough to get it done, the guys got me in the best possible position in the pits and strategy to drag what maybe was a 14th-place day into a fourth-place day. So I needed to have them stay with me.
“And I think that’s what Scott Dixon has at Ganassi. That’s what Josef Newgarden has at Penske. It’s what (Alexander) Rossi has here at Andretti. It’s a very solid team they’re surrounded by, and they have that consistency on the timing stand each year to keep them up front. So, when they can’t get it done, the team’s there to back them up and get them in a position where, with most guys, it wouldn’t be possible. We’ve had good success together, so keeping that core group together was my mission.”