Not long ago, Brian Barnhart received heavy criticism for some decisions as INDYCAR’s top umpire. Now, as he departs after more than 20 years, he’s receiving something he rarely hears.
Barnhart announced Wednesday that he will leave his position at INDYCAR to become president of Harding Racing, the upstart team owned by Mike Harding that competed in three Verizon IndyCar Series races this year with driver Gabby Chaves. The news was met with compliments for Barnhart, who started his career as a race team mechanic and worked his way to one of the most influential positions in the sport.
“Maybe the upside is what it says about INDYCAR racing and Mike Harding’s commitment to it,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. “It’s a positive statement for what Mike Harding wants to do. He found someone with enormous experience, which is hard to do when you’re starting a race team. I think that’s a great statement. It’s a massive loss for INDYCAR racing, but it’s a massive gain for Mike Harding’s racing program and for Gabby Chaves.”
Harding, owner and CEO of Harding Group, a concrete and paving business in Indianapolis, hired Chaves to drive the team’s No. 88 Chevrolet for three oval races in 2017. The move also reunites Barnhart with Al Unser Jr., who won two Indianapolis 500s with Barnhart on his crew. Unser is driver coach and an executive consultant for the team.
“I’m very excited about getting back on the team side and competitive side of things again,” Barnhart said in announcing his move. “It’s certainly one of the components that factored in heavily in making the decision.”
After the news broke, praise poured in for Barnhart, including the people he once worked for and those he’s about to compete against.
“I really enjoyed working with Brian,” four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and team owner A.J. Foyt said in a statement. “I have a lot of respect for him. He used to work for me when I was still driving, so I’ve known him a long time. I think he’ll do a great job wherever he goes.”
Foyt’s driver, veteran Tony Kanaan, said Barnhart’s departure is a loss for INDYCAR for many reasons, but mostly because it removes his experience from a key leadership position.
“I’m pretty good friends with him,” Kanaan said. “I think it’s a big loss to INDYCAR. He knows everything. He’s been through it all. Those kind of people are really hard to replace. I’m not saying they can’t find somebody as good to replace him, but it’s going to take a little bit for the guy who replaces him to get going. Everybody needs a change and he’s still going to be around, which is great.”
Barnhart’s extensive resume includes the Indy 500 victories with Unser Jr. – one with Galles Racing, another with Team Penske. He moved from there to an executive position with what is now called INDYCAR – the sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder – where he held various leadership titles, most recently as vice president of competition, race director.
Through the years, Barnhart was sometimes criticized and mocked for calls made in race control. Most notable was a decision to restart a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2011 that led to Will Power’s memorable gesture on live television after Power spun and crashed.
The anger over the incident has long since disappeared, but the image of Power directing twin middle fingers toward the control booth atop the grandstand became a social media meme. Power’s brother, comedian Damien Power, did a faux interview with Barnhart in 2015 while wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of his brother’s gesture, to which Barnhart playfully deadpanned, “I’ve seen that before.” (Watch the video interview below.)
The praise for Barnhart by teams and drivers Wednesday after years of criticism wasn’t lost on social media. “It's ironic to see many of the same people who never missed a chance to bash Brian Barnhart are now singing his praises,” wrote Don Mitchell, a media planning and buying consultant.
Inside the series and its Indianapolis headquarters, Barnhart is highly respected.
“My personal relationship with Brian goes back a long, long way, and it’s always been one that I would consider to be about mutual, professional respect,” Hull said. “He’s full of integrity. He’s always represented himself well. His brand is to represent himself with professional integrity, and I think he’s always done a good job of that.
“When you’re starting a race team from the ground up, you need mentoring for it to be successful. That’s what Mike Harding and Gabby Chaves have found in Brian Barnhart.”