As a co-owner and founding partner of Panther Racing, Jim Harbaugh has come close to winning the Indianapolis 500 with the team's four second-place finishes in the past five years. On Jan. 20, the San Francisco 49ers head coach will take his team into Atlanta for a showdown with the Falcons in hopes of getting his first chance at a Super Bowl victory.
It marks the second consecutive season Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, where last year they missed a Super Bowl berth in a 20-17 loss to the New York Giants.
Harbaugh, who met team co-owner John Barnes during his playing days with the Indianapolis Colts while on a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is a lifelong IndyCar racing fan. After helping form the team Harbaugh worked on the pit crew during IndyCar Series races and was an integral member of the team in its early years.
Watch: Harbaugh discusses owning an IZOD IndyCar Series team
He's stated on multiple occasions that the start of the Indy 500 is the "single greatest moment in all of sports" and that the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is "better than Christmas."
In August of last year, while Panther Racing was in town for the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Harbaugh hosted the race team and a group of National Guard soldiers and their families at the 49ers facility. During the race that weekend at Sonoma Raceway Panther re-designed its IndyCar in a full 49ers livery and driver JR Hildebrand's firesuit matched the full football uniform worn by the 49ers players.
Below is the transcript from Jim Harbaugh's media availability during Panther's visit to 49ers headquarters, where he discusses visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a kid, becoming a Panther team owner, the last lap of the 2011 Indy 500 and the similarities between an IndyCar Series pit crew and an NFL football team:
How did you get into IndyCar racing?
I first met John Barnes around 1994 when I first got traded to Indianapolis and signed with the Colts. I just went out to the track one day and was walking around and met John and his Pennzoil team at that time. They invited me back the next day, then I came back for the race. The following year we kept in touch and then a couple years after that John Barnes spearheaded (forming) Panther Racing, and two championships and 28 victories later, therest is history. It's been a great team, and a real privilege for me to be a small part of the team.
Have you ever driven one of these cars?
I've done a (two-seater) ride, but I've never driven one.
Have you always been a racing fan?
Always been a racing fan. My dad, Jack Harbaugh, took us kids and the family to the time trials in 1976 when Tom Sneva broke the 200 mph barrier. Ever since then I've always liked the Indianapolis 500 and racing. That was the big sporting event that was always on Memorial Day weekend and it was always the best thing that was on, so we always watched that every year. Then when I went to Chicago to play with the Bears, a good friend of mine on the team was (former Bears tight end) Cap Boso, who was from Indianapolis; he went to Chatard High School and grew up there so he always talked about Indy how great the Indianapolis 500 was and I went back to a couple of the Indy 500s with Cap and some of his friends, and I got to see what Indianapolis was like during the month of May. It's just a month-long ramping up to the Indy 500, which is a spectacular thing. Then to be part of the team, and to be in thepits for the start of the Indy 500 – I still believe it's the greatest single moment of any sporting event I've ever watched. It's like that at pretty much every one of those races. It's just a great privilege to be able to be part of that team and watch it up close. I've learned a lot too about the team dynamic at Panther Racing from John Barnes as a leader and how he runs his unit. I carry a lot of that over into coaching what we do here at the San Francisco49ers.
How many speeding tickets have you had during your career?
Speeding tickets? A few. (Laughs) I don't know how many exactly. Not too many lately. I've matured.
Did you have a say in the Panther Racing No. 4 cause it was your jersey number when you played?
No, I didn't have a say in that, but that was just something that the team did. I felt honored that they honored me by putting that number on there. That was a really neat thing; a gift that John Barnes and the team gave. I'm very proud that that's the number.
Did you grimace when the team was a quarter-lap away from winning the Indy 500 a couple years ago?
That was a tough break. JR (Hildebrand) made the decision that only these guys can make. I don't know the (split-second) decisions these guys have to make, but there's nobody better in the world than these racecar drivers at making quick decisions. They're really like modern-day gun fighters when you watch them up close with all they have to do in the cockpit. It was just a tough break. But I'm forever proud of the team and that the team was in that position that they were in at that part of the race. They're always fighting. They're always climbing. They're always doing a tremendous job. It's really about the people they have working in the organization and their leader, John Barnes. I'm just proud.
Do you go back every year to watch the Indy 500?
Not every year. It's been two years since Sarah and I've been back there. But for a while there we had a long streak of going back for the Indy 500. Haven't made it back for a year or two.
As a coach could you comment on how the pit crew seems to work together in concert?
A team! The team! The team! That's exactly how they operate. They're well drilled. They're in great shape. That whole dynamic; the pit crew, the engineering of the car, the mechanics, the testing that the team does, aerodynamics – everything about that operation is designed to get a mile-an-hour faster. And that's one thing that's been so profound for me watching – the way they chase that speed, the way that chase that 0.01% improvement, that 0.1 tenth of a mile per hour faster. That's been profound and I've learned great lessons from that, and we attempt to do that here. That's one of our primary goals. How can we get better and what facet of what we're doing can we tweak to try to get a little faster. Where can we reduce drag?Where can we save time? Where can we become more efficient? And that's the whole operation of racing and they do it as a team. Everybody doing a little adds up to a lot. And that concept is there and that's the same way we approach it at the 49ers.