Losing More Than We Realize

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I had planned to write about this on Friday, but with the death of Jim Nabors I decided to postpone this topic  to today. Last Wednesday came some news that no one saw coming – that Brian Barnhart will leave his position at IndyCar as Vice-President of Competition and Race Director in order to become President of Harding Racing.

This is not the first time that Harding Racing has turned heads. One year ago, had any of us even heard of Harding Racing? I’ll confess I had not. Before their debut in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, they assembled quite a collection of racing and engineering talent.

Talented engineer Larry Curry had resurfaced from a troubled past that included jail time and a public firing from Vision Racing to become Harding’s team manager and competition director. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and CART champion Al Unser, Jr. was also rescued from his own troubled past and became heavily involved with the team. Gabby Chaves was the driver. He had no self-inflicted troubled past, but he has been the recipient of some bad luck in his short IndyCar career – being bounced from his ride with Bryan Herta just as the 2016 IndyCar season was about to get underway, and not being able to find another fulltime ride – until now.

All this brand new team did was finish ninth in their very first race – the 2017 Indianapolis 500. Their next race – they followed that up with a fifth place finish at Texas two weeks later. Their third and final race of the season was not as spectacular. Chaves ran at the back of the field all day, but brought the car home in one piece in fifteenth.

Still, you would have to say that their maiden season was a successful one. They did it the right way – running a few races and figuring out what went right and what went wrong, in order to build for the future.

Well, the future is now – or more precisely, the full 2018 IndyCar season.

Team owner Mike Harding always felt that he had a strong core to his new IndyCar team, but he also felt there was still a key piece missing. That’s when he made a pitch to Brian Barnhart, who stresses that he was not out looking for a job. Harding came to him and presented a package that was so tempting, he couldn’t turn it down.

Brian Barnhart has worked at IndyCar for the last twenty-three years in various capacities; including Director of Racing Operations and League President. It was his role of Director of Racing Operations that also required him to be Chief Steward at races. It was in this role that he infuriated many fans. The fact that he acted as sole judge and jury in race control earned him the infamous nickname of The Iron Hand of Justice. Fans and drivers alike reached their boiling point at the way the rain-shortened race at New Hampshire was handled by Barnhart – culminating in the famous “double-birds” offered up by an enraged Will Power.

It’s a shame that most fans remember Brian Barnhart that way.

I have criticized some of Bran Barnhart’s decisions and decision-making process on this site in past years. But I always tempered those comments by saying that I believed him to be a good man. Readers even challenged me on that as if they didn’t even want to hear anyone say anything good about someone they held in such low-esteem.

But I stand by those comments. I’ve met Barnhart a couple of times – once at Barber and once at Indianapolis – both times being introduced to him by mutual friends. I’m sure he had no idea who I was, but he treated me very well and allowed me to ask him a couple of questions each time. This was several years ago, so I don’t even remember what the questions were. They were probably stupid questions in his eyes – and yes, there are such things as stupid questions – but he took time to explain whatever it was I asked him about.

I walked away from both encounters feeling guilty that I had ever written anything bad about the man, regardless of the fact I know he never saw or heard about what I wrote.

Looking back, do I think Barnhart made the right call every time in Race Control? No. Do I think he could have handled some of the backlash better than he did? Yes. But by and large, Barnhart got it right most of the time. It’s just when you get it right, it never gets talked about. And I’ll promise you that every decision he made was with only one agenda in mind – whatever he thought best overall for the sport.

Brian Barnhart has forgotten more about racing than most of us will ever know. It’s my opinion that he has been the rock of stability at the offices over on 16th Street across from The Speedway. Is there anyone else who has had a longer current tenure with IMS/IndyCar?

The reaction to Barnhart’s departure has been pleasantly surprising. When we first got the news on Wednesday morning, I thought it would be met with a lot of …don’t let the door hit you on the way out type comments. There have been a few of those, but overall it seems that people now understand what he meant to the series.

Mike Harding certainly understands, with probably a little help from Al Unser, Jr. Barnhart was on Little Al’s crew for both of his Indianapolis 500 wins as well as his two CART championships. He was a mechanic for car owners like Roger Penske, Pat Patrick and Rick Galles.

In a sense, Brian Barnhart is going back to his roots. After over twenty years of working for the sanctioning body, Barnhart is going back over to the team side of things.

At 56 years of age, Brian Barnhart is taking on a new challenge in the sport he loves at an age where some people are starting to make their plans for retirement.

Some fans will be thrilled with the news that Barnhart is leaving IndyCar. Those who have studied the sport for decades and know more about him, than what we saw on display in New Hampshire in 2011 will not be so happy. Like so many others, we won’t realize what a gem that IndyCar had in Brian Barnhart until he is gone. Mike Harding knew it. Pretty soon, we’ll all find out.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Losing More Than We Realize”

  1. Second to vote today.
    I listened to Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller talk of TGBB on Pruett’s podcast.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t get over that he was Tony George’s spokesman and helped steal the 2002 Indy 500 win from Paul Tracy. I wish him well but I’m glad he’s gone. His name brings back memories of the IRL and those are best forgotten forever.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Negatives: Indy 2002, Texas 2010, New Hampshire 2011, “gimme four good ones”

    Positives: Belle Isle 2008, Indy 2010, the undying legacy of “gimme four good ones”, asking Damien Power if his parents were big Gary Puckett fans

    I don’t know if the negatives outweighed the positives during Barnhart’s tenure helming race control, but it cannot be denied that there were positives. He is a clear asset to an individual team, too, and not just for his role in the Little Al-Paul Tracy post-race encounter at Michigan in 1992. “Just calm down, we don’t need this sh…”

  4. Sorry George.

    In all my decades of racing involvement. I’ve never despised anyone other than TGBB. He was, and probably still is a super pompous, arrogant, #$@#@%# and a bully.
    Yes, we have history. ….and his position, not logic or driver safety, allowed him to win our one and only face to face encounter before he was overruled.
    I’ll bet there was more to his leaving than we’ll ever know but may the glass shatter when it hits him in the ass on his way out. Rot in hell Brian.

    And may the ghost of PT (whom he screwed over big time) haunt him forever.

    Good luck to the Harding employees. I expect a large turnover.

    Sigh …….. I feel better now.

    Having said that, and trying to leave a semi-positive note. There was TGBB’s anecdote of how King Hiro (Hiro Matsushita) got his nickname.

    I’m not a super techie, but in racing there is (or was) a race radio 1920’s thing called a ‘repeater’ which we were taught to use as thus: 1) press the talk button and 2) take a deep breath before talking (about 4 seconds) and then 3) state your piece.

    Step 2 was very important because the ‘repeater’ demon had to have a think about what was happening and whether you were allowed to talk or not.

    But drivers, being drivers always got excited and pressed the talk button and started talking right away which tended to chop off the first bit off their conversation …….

    So ……….in Race Control they got a steady stream of input from the other drivers saying ——-king Hiro. ———-king Hiro. ————king Hiro ad infinitum. And the name stuck.

    • IMHO “despising” someone for doing their job or worse than that, suggesting that they “rot in hell” says more about the character of the writer than that of Brian Barnhart.

  5. I have no major issues with Brian Barnhart and I wish him well in his new endeavor. Trying to get IndyCar owners and drivers to agree and/or to move in a certain direction is like trying to herd cats or congressmen.

  6. Another polarizing figure TGBB. Like Danica Patrick, another polarizing figure. I will not take the bait and pile on about Brian Barnhart. I will say that from the outside, he seemed like an absolute disaster. As far as his contributions, I have to admit I am mostly unaware of what they are, that is until George wrote today. Can someone else help me understand what Barnhart’s contributions have been and how he is an asset to IndyCar?

  7. I don’t need the race control / rules guy on camera or hear his name mentioned during a broadcast seemingly as many times as some drivers. I’ve never been able to get past the “Gimme four good ones” crap. I always felt like he wanted that attention. Wanted that on camera recognition. Always struck me as a guy who thought he was a much bigger deal than he really was. That’s just my humble opinion. Not saying I’m right or wrong. I won’t miss him.

  8. I’m sure I said some pretty critical things about Brian Barnhart in the past, but 1) his name even coming up at all has basically been a thing of the past since the aforementioned Damien Power interview (Long Beach 2016 is about the closest thing to a truly “controversial” ruling that Race Control has made in the last two seasons, and I’ve heard some pretty solid justification for why they made the call they did that day…all of this is to say that Race Control is not the volatile place that it was even 5 years ago), and 2) a LOT of people within the sport whose opinions I value think extremely highly of Brian Barnhart. For those reasons, I’m glad he’s making a choice to better his life (he apparently wasn’t even looking for a job outside of the IndyCar office when he got the phone call from Mike Harding), and I’m sure that IndyCar will miss his expertise next year.

  9. “troubled past”
    you said it.

  10. Until now, Brian Barnhart has been an IndyCar official who was surrounded by an air of controversy by fans and former fans alike. But let me not talk about that now. You all remember at least some of those events anyway.

    My best memory of Brian Barnhart is when he directed a TV broadcast of an IndyCar race. In that race, at Barber Motorsports Park, Sebastien Bourdais drove into the Top 10 with the dreaded Lotus engine. That broadcast was pretty amazing because the choice of pictures enabled the broadcast to bring across stories not only from the front end of the grid but from deep in the field as well. Some TV directors have learned from that, some haven’t.

    Here’s wishing all the best to Harding Racing. Having somebody on the team as experienced as him is going to benefit them greatly. And yes, their 3-race rookie season has been impressive indeed.

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