The expectation was known around the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock last year, but Harding Racing made official today its commitment to run a full season with driver Gabby Chaves in 2018.
The announcement is a positive step for Chaves and Mike Harding’s team, which recently added longtime INDYCAR race director Brian Barnhart as team president.
“It’s definitely a feel-good thing. It erases any kind of doubt or question mark,” Barnhart said. “You hear a lot of people make plans about trying to expand or do more but too often they don’t come to fruition. In this case, it feels great to have Mike Harding make that commitment to take Harding Racing and be a part of the Harding Group and become a full-season entrant in INDYCAR is definitely a feel-good thing.
“To make that commitment and to have signed full-season engine leases with Chevrolet, you’re all in at that point in time,” Barnhart added. “You’ve got the full-season tire supplement with Firestone executed. It’s a heck of a commitment and dedication on his part and it’s something the team feeds off of. It gives the team confidence, knowing they’ve got a good position to take this team into a competitive environment for the full season and do the best they can to make this year as competitive as possible.”
In three oval starts last season in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, Chaves finished fifth in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, ninth in the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and 15th in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono.
The 24-year-old Colombian driver has 26 series starts since making his debut in 2015, when he ran a full season for Bryan Herta Autosport and was the Sunoco Rookie of the Year. He drove in seven races in 2016 for Dale Coyne Racing. The 2014 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion has four career top-10 finishes in the Verizon IndyCar Series, with last year’s Texas race his best result.
“I’m very excited to be back in it full time,” said Chaves, who finished 15th in the points in 2015. “It’s a bit of a process trying to mentally prepare for what I know is going to be a very trying and learning year, but I’m very excited to see what we can do.
“Having a few more races experience working with different teams, I’ve been able to gather a lot of information on how teams do things that worked better than other teams, and I try to relay that information now to Harding Racing. When I raced full time before, I didn’t have a teammate or data to go off of. Having had the opportunity to test with Schmidt alongside (James) Hinchcliffe and drive alongside Conor (Daly at Coyne) and a lot of other guys and go back and forth on data, I’m able to see the places that I can get a little bit more speed and the places where I can improve. I can bring all of that information that I’ve gathered and really apply it to my fullest potential going full time.”
The introduction of the universal aero kit to all cars this season signifies somewhat of a reset on the playing field. But Barnhart, who has been involved with the series for 23 years, realizes what lies ahead as teams adjust to cars with less downforce.
“The biggest challenge for Gabby and the younger guys coming in is the reset with the new aero kits,” Barnhart said. “The lower downforce levels is going to be a huge challenge for some of the younger guys because the higher downforce levels is really all they’ve ever known. Some of the guys who have been around longer who have had the gamut of downforce levels, they’ve been through so much of it and they’ve got experience. While it’s a reset for everybody, it’s an even steeper reset for the younger guys.”
So what’s a realistic goal for Harding Racing? Chaves and Barnhart are measured in discussing what’s possible, ever mindful of the competitive environment they are in and how much the team needs to learn.
“The competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series is so deep, it’s unreal,” Barnhart said. “There are so many competitive cars and so many cars capable of winning races. It would be awfully arrogant and presumptuous of us to come in and say we’re going to win or we’re going to contend for a championship in our first season. That wouldn’t be very respectful of the other teams and the competition that’s out there.”
Ten different drivers celebrated victories in last season’s 17-race schedule.
“We need to manage our expectations,” Barnhart said. “Even though there’s a reset with aero kits for everybody, we still have a steeper hill to climb than they do just for the fact that we don’t have near as deep a data base as they do with racing in general and the tracks. We’re going to be eager to do as well as we can, recognizing the depth of competition and respectful of the quality of teams in the series and hope to represent Mike Harding and Harding Racing as best we can.”
Barnhart, who joined Harding Racing in late November, is appreciative of Mike Harding giving the team everything needed to be successful.
“Mike is going to demand results and wants to be as competitive as we can be,” Barnhart said. “He does a great job of making you want him to be successful. You want to do as good a job as you can because you want him to do well and be successful. I’ve seen that in my short period of time here and from a handful of people in the Harding Group that have been here for so many years, and I can see why, the way he treats you like family and the way he takes care of you.”
Chaves specifically mentions the need for a good run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil this May.
“I’m confident in my team, I’m confident with the car,” Chaves said. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m overly confident. We need to start hitting some podiums and, with the right circumstances, maybe even go for a win. Once we accomplish that, we need to go on and try to be competitive and shoot for those top-threes and top-fives every weekend.
“We hope we can do well where it matters the most at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. Realistically, if you’re not here to win, then why do it at all?”
The Harding Racing confirmation brings the total to 22 full-time entries this season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Private team testing is underway now ahead of the first series-wide open test set for ISM Raceway outside Phoenix on Feb. 9-10.
The 17-race season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street course from March 9-11 (ABC, 12:30 p.m. ET).