Jim Harbaugh Doug Boles

As Jim Harbaugh leads his Michigan Wolverines into the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday night against Washington, many may not realize there’s an INDYCAR SERIES connection to this story and how much Harbaugh learned from that and applied it to where he is today.

That’s because before Harbaugh had stepped foot on the gridiron as a football coach, not only was he an NFL quarterback for 15 years, but he was also found on pit road for most INDYCAR SERIES races in the late 1990s and well into the 21st century.

While playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts (1994-97), Harbaugh was invited to the Indianapolis 500. Like most other first-timers embarking to this special event, Harbaugh was instantly hooked.

A few years later, a call came for a racing opportunity with an ownership stake of a new team in the INDYCAR SERIES – Panther Racing. Harbaugh happily joined the effort and was all in as one of six main figures to get this team off the ground and onto the grid in 1998.

One of the other five individuals? Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway now but co-owner of Panther Racing then. The two forged a close-knit bond that lasts to this day. In fact, just prior to practicing Friday for the biggest game of Harbaugh’s collegiate coaching career, Boles and Harbaugh shared memories and good luck wishes on a phone call.

Harbaugh and Boles were two pieces to a very successful Panther team that won two series championships and 15 races with drivers that included Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Goodyear.

“If you think about it, we were a bunch of guys that nobody thought we could build a team from scratch,” Boles said. “That's what we did, right? We had an idea, and all of us put it together.”

Boles gives a massive amount of credit to Harbaugh as one of the reasons for Panther’s sudden and lasting success. Harbaugh wasn’t just a silent owner sitting in the shadows and following from afar. He was heavily involved in decision-making and everyday operations. On race days, he even donned a yellow Pennzoil fire suit.

“We won the (Indy 500) pit stop competition that first year, and a lot of that was because I think of that team mentality that he (Harbaugh) helped bring,” Boles said. “Every time (he) put on a fire suit with the guys, he was just out there.”

Boles said that’s a mirror of Harbaugh’s personality, which was contagious for the team. When he spoke to a newspaper in Michigan right after Harbaugh was hired as the coach of the Wolverines, Boles’ quote still rings true today.

“The thing that makes Harbaugh so special is because he gets in there with the guys and the team is so important,” Boles told the paper. “One person doesn't fail. It's a team that fails. One person doesn't win. It's a team that wins. And if you were going to pick a place to go play, there'd be no better coach to go play for then Jim Harbaugh because it's all about the team with him.”

That’s the mantra that Harbaugh has followed his whole life.

“The team, the team, the team,” is his motto, a mantra also preached by the legendary Bo Schembechler when he coached Harbaugh at Michigan.

“Yeah, just wired that way,” Harbaugh said. “The two great loves that I have in my life are my family at home and the family here at work. And the players here are like beloved sons. Don't treat them any different than the kids at home and don't treat the kids at home any different than the players here on the team.”

Harbaugh felt that way about everyone at Panther Racing and instilled those values within that organization.

It’s why Panther won a race in just the second event of its second season in the sport. Scott Goodyear drove to victory lane on March 28, 1999, at Phoenix Raceway, giving Panther Racing its maiden win. Harbaugh was a key figure in the hiring of Goodyear.

Two short seasons later, Panther won a championship with Sam Hornish Jr. at the wheel, another piece of input from Harbaugh.

“We had something special early on in the Panther days, and I think a lot of it was that ‘have everybody's back’ team mentality,” Boles said. “And that was the piece that I think that (Harbaugh) brought, and the neat thing about having him wasn’t just a number on the car or a name on the ownership piece. He’d spend time with the guys.”

That inspiration has proven to be a two-way street, though. As much as Harbaugh brought to the team, what he learned in return has helped shape him to being on the verge of becoming a national championship coach. Many principles he has instilled at Michigan as a head coach were brought from his Panther Racing days.

“Nobody was bigger than the team,” Harbaugh said. “No driver, no crew chief, no mechanic. Nobody was bigger than the team, and I mean guys that were our crew, I mean the guys that were driving the truck. Everybody was important. It made a great impact. Everybody kind of affected each other in a positive way. That's one of the things I have remembered and taken from that. That's what I noticed.”

That’s why to this day, Harbaugh still reminisces fondly of his Panther Racing days.

“I just think back about all the stuff that I was gleaning from you guys (Panther) at the time,” Harbaugh said. “That was when I was a player. I wasn't even a coach yet. So, I took many life lessons and not only just all the things I learned and the fun we had.

“That was like a real ball team, Panther Racing. I look back at that as one of my favorite ball teams I've ever been on. Favorite Little League team, favorite high school team, favorite college team, favorite pro team, favorite teams I’ve coached, that Panther Racing team is right up there with all my favorites.”

Panther Racing closed shop after the 2013 season, but Harbaugh said he still watches the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and raves about how his former fellow co-owner Boles has helped grow this event into an even bigger success, including the 108th edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on May 26.

“I watch the Indianapolis 500, and it is back,” Harbaugh said. “It is back to where it was in the 70s, at least from my vantage point.”

Harbaugh drove the Pace Car for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 calling it, “life changing.”

“That was like one of the top five moments in my life,” Harbaugh said. “I still think about that.”

Twenty-five years after Panther Racing won its first race and 24 years after the team earned the first of three straight season-finale wins at Texas Motor Speedway, Harbaugh is back in Texas hopeful to win another season finale Monday night – the national championship in Houston.

And Panther Racing will have its fingerprints on the game.