The Strangeness Surrounding HSR

The Pato O’Ward saga with Harding Steinbrenner Racing (HSR) is a strange one. But it didn’t get strange just this week when O’Ward requested and was granted a release from his contract for 2019. No, it got strange a lot earlier than that.

Things started seeming amiss beginning last July before the NTT IndyCar Series went north of the border for the Honda Indy Toronto. They were in the midst of their first full season of competition and were predictably struggling.

In the prior offseason, everyone was heaping praise on Harding Racing for doing things “the right way”. They had run three races in 2017 – all of them ovals and had finished well in each one. They had a capable driver in Gabby Chaves, and an all-star support cast that included Larry Curry, Brian Barnhart and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, Jr. They had no sponsorship, but they set out on what appeared to be a well-devised plan to go IndyCar racing fulltime in 2018.

Little Al was no figurehead. At every race I attended last year, he was seen on the Harding pit-box communicating very actively with the crew and Chaves. With the assembled talent they had hired at the helm, everyone assumed it was just a matter of time before Harding Racing began to click.

But heading into Toronto, it was learned that Chaves was being pulled out of the car while the team would supposedly evaluate several other drivers – until the season-finale at Sonoma, only one other driver drove the Harding car – Conor Daly for three races. Gabby wasn’t being fired, mind you. He was still part of the team and was an unwilling and awkward spectator, watching from the sidelines as Conor Daly drove his car. It had to be the racing equivalent of having your wife tell you she wants to date others while wanting to stay married to you for now – but you get to watch her date the other men.

After Daly spent three races in the car with semi-decent finishes, the team chose to go back to Chaves rather than evaluating other young talent as they had vowed to do. But the return was short-lived – only two races, at Gateway and Portland. Before the season finale at Sonoma, it was announced that Chaves was out of the car again and that Harding would run two cars at Sonoma – for rookies Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward.

Herta had a forgettable weekend, but O’Ward turned a lot of heads by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth. That’s a little deceiving, because Sonoma was also the same weekend that Andretti Autosport was providing technical assistance to Harding. Reportedly, O’Ward was running a car with the latest and greatest shock-absorbers; while Herta was stuck with shocks from about four generations earlier. I’m no engineer, but I’ve been told that the type of shocks on a car can make all the difference in the world in terms of handling. That would explain the discrepancy in lap times and performance between O’Ward and Herta.

That weekend was also strange for Harding because they were a Chevy team receiving technical assistance from a Honda team. That was rumor fodder for the offseason for several reasons, not the least of which that Harding might become a “junior” team to Andretti Autosport. The outcry from both Chevy and Honda teams in the paddock was predictably loud, if Michael Andretti would have been allowed to have access to both engines.

In the meantime, it was confirmed that Gabby Chaves was out, Herta and O’Ward were both in and that Harding Racing was being re-branded as Harding Steinbrenner Racing, reflecting George Michael Steinbrenner IV (grandson of the famous late owner of the New York Yankees) moving up as an owner from Indy Lights – where he had an association with Andretti Autosport and employed Colton Herta as a driver.

It’s more than a little ironic that for the second time in less than three years, Gabby Chaves has been odd-man out indirectly due to the Herta family and Michael Andretti. If you’ll recall, just before the 2016 season, Chaves was set to return for a second season at Bryan Herta Autosport. Due to lack of funding, Bryan Herta had formed a partnership with Andretti Autosport for the 2016 season. But when Alexander Rossi suddenly became available from Formula One, Gabby was unceremoniously dumped in favor of Rossi. Now that has worked out very well for Andretti Autosport as Rossi went on to win the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie and contended for the championship last year in only his third season. Still, that doesn’t do anything for the mindset of Chaves.

Just after the 2018 season, Chaves found himself dumped again, this time in favor of Bryan Herta’s son Colton and an indirect alliance with Andretti. I doubt that Gabby sees much humor in the irony.

When the newly formed Harding Steinbrenner Racing was kicked off during a Yankees game at Yankee stadium, it seemed to be just a matter of time until Yankee sponsors found their way to the sidepods of the two HSR cars of Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward. It never happened.

It’s obvious that I am not an IndyCar insider because I am one of the few that never heard whispers in this current offseason that HSR may be in trouble. I knew that the old Harding Racing had been hanging by a thread, but I thought the Steinbrenner presence had brought financial stability to the fledgling team.

To be perfectly honest, I never heard a peep about their woes. The first hint of anything came on Monday, when longtime reader and commenter Paul Fitzgerald put in his comments that Pato O’Ward may not make the grid at St. Petersburg due to the money troubles at HSR. When I read his comment, I probably had the look of a perplexed dog, because it sounded like it was out of left field. Well a couple of hours later, I realized the joke was on me when I saw the release that O’Ward and HSR had parted ways and that he would be taking his million dollar Indy Lights scholarship money elsewhere.

We have all read the speculation and the actual facts about what has and has not transpired this week. Adding to the strangeness, Colton Herta led both practice sessions on the opening day of Spring Training at COTA in the single HSR car that was carrying black blank sidepods. He led the morning practice on Wednesday as well. Although Alexander Rossi led the final practice, Herta set the fastest overall time of the two-day test and the top speed in three of the four sessions. That performance is not usually indicative of a team that is in financial trouble.

Tuesday night, I saw an AutoWeek article that stated that Michael Andretti had offered O’Ward an eight-race package but that O’Ward had turned it down in favor of a full season elsewhere. Time will tell if that is the correct strategy, but I think O’Ward used a flawed thought process in turning down a half-season at Andretti Autosport.

For 1978, Roger Penske offered Rick Mears a six-race package. Mears took the deal, figuring that a partial season with Penske was better than a full season with most teams. Mears ended up running eleven races that season, which included a front-row start in the Indianapolis 500. Fourteen years later, he retired from driving with Penske as a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and a three-time series champion. He is still employed at Team Penske today.

Pato O’Ward is very talented, but is also very young (age 19). The first practice at St. Petersburg is three weeks from today. All of the fulltime seats are set, and most of the part-time rides are confirmed as well. Juncos Racing is the only team still up in the air. No offense to Ricardo Juncos, but if I’m offered a fulltime ride at Juncos and a half-season ride at Andretti Autosport – I’m taking the deal at Andretti.

In 2010, Ryan Hunter-Reay had few options. He was coming off a disjointed season that started at Vision Racing and ended up at AJ Foyt Enterprises. His IndyCar career was looking bleak. He accepted a part-time deal with Andretti Autosport for the first of the 2010 season through the Indianapolis 500. He had nothing guaranteed beyond May. After winning at Long Beach, Michael Andretti kept finding more money to carry Hunter-Reay through a few more races…and then a few more. Hunter-Reay ended up running the entire 2010 season for Michael Andretti. He won the 2012 IndyCar championship and the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and is well-established as the team leader on a very talented team. Do you think he made the right choice to accept a deal for a partial season at Andretti Autosport?

Perhaps Patricio O’Ward has something serious working. If not, I’m a little baffled as to why he would turn down eight races at Andretti. Since last July, the events surrounding what is now known as Harding Steinbrenner Racing continue to get stranger and stranger by the day. But O’Ward turning down an eight-race deal at Andretti Autosport may be the strangest yet. He’s a talented and promising young driver and the NTT IndyCar Series could benefit from his presence n the series. I hope it all works out for him.

George Phillips

Please Note: I am lucky enough that I get the President’s Day holiday off on Monday. I’ve scheduled a couple of major household projects that will keep me busy through the holiday weekend. This will also be my last break before the NTT IndyCar Series kicks off in three weeks. Therefore, there will be no post here on Monday Feb 18. I will return here on Wednesday Feb 20.

7 Responses to “The Strangeness Surrounding HSR”

  1. BrandonW77 Says:

    I was also baffled when I heard he turned down the 8 race Andretti deal. That’s nearly half the season on a top-level team and if he performed well, as it seems he’s very capable of doing, it likely would have led to either more races this season or opened the door for a full season next year. There are no quality full-time seats available, sucks that he got shafted out of a full season but this deal would have been the next best thing. I hope he has a change of heart and that Michael will still offer him the deal if he comes knocking, the kid deserves to be on the grid in some capacity.

  2. O’Ward said he didn’t actually turn it down because of priorities. I’m not sure what that means. I agree 8 races at Andretti beats full time at Juncos. I still think he might be Andretti”s sixth at Indy.

  3. George, let’s use your marriage analogy from above to explain why O’Ward didn’t accept the Andretti offer right away: If you got a divorce would you still want to live in the same house with your ex? Marshall Pruett brought that up on a podcast and it makes sense. Andretti and HSR still have an alliance and O’Ward would be around them all the time. Not fun, eh? I’m just thinking that may have played a role in all of this….

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Let’s remember that Will Power took a partial season deal with Penske when Helio was having his legal problems. That also turned out very well for him. I think that Patricio has been getting poor advice if he turned down 8 races with Andretti.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    Questions ……………..

    What are the Guidelines for utilizing your Indy Lights Scholarship?

    Is it consumable towards only a full season Ride?

    Is it consumable towards a part-time ride?

    How does Colton excel and manage to top the charts at COTA while top teams do not necessarily excel ?

  6. For what it’s worth, Pato came out and essentially said yesterday that what Michael Andretti said wasn’t 100% accurate:

    “The truth of the matter is that I can’t talk about what happened with me and Harding and my release, and Michael knows the situation that I’m in. I had to sign a confidentiality settlement agreement in order to get released. Michael knows all the facts because we spoke on the phone many times last Friday, and it sucks that I can’t talk about it, but we both know the truth.

    “There are reasons why (the Andretti ride) wasn’t the priority offer to take. I wanted to see what options I had, but I never did. I never said no to Michael’s eight-race offer. Unfortunately, this whole thing has left me without a ride, but I won’t give up in trying to find something.”

    So, it would appear to me that one of three things is going on here:

    1) Pato unilaterally turned down an offer from Michael or acted on advice to do so. If this was in the service of pursuing a full time ride in 2019, this would have been spectacularly ill advised, as all of the full time seats have been filed for weeks, if not months (meaning that a team would have to remove their full time driver to slot Pato in). It’s possible, from what Pato said (this is a guess here on my part, including some reading between the lines) that Pato told Michael that he wanted to see what his other options were, but Michael told him that an eight race offer was only good until Pato hung up the phone. If Pato didn’t want to have to make a career call like that on a literal moment’s notice, then I can sort of understand him not taking up this hypothetical option (again, this scenario is 100% speculation on my part).

    2) Michael is either misrepresenting what transpired between him and Pato, or, at the very least, is leaving out key facts that Pato can’t comment on, due to a confidentiality agreement.

    3) Some strange combination of 1 and 2 that I can’t even begin to parse.

    Whatever the case, I doubt that most of us are ever going to know what the full story is here, but I truly hope that Pato finds his way onto the grid, sooner rather than later, because he’s REALLY talented.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I would agree that there is likely more to the story than we get to know. And I think you are very fair to point out that this all may have happened in a bit of a whirlwind for O’Ward.

      He went from understanding that he had a full-time ride to being released from the team in, what, a few days? A week? There were loud whispers of funding issues at HSR going all the way back to November or December, but it seems O’Ward was given assurances that he had a seat until quite recently, perhaps as recently as when HSR announced they were bringing only one car to COTA. It was surely not an easy situation to be in.

      O’Ward’s situation and Andretti’s offer may or may not be fairly comparable to the part time rides that vaulted the careers of Mears, Tracy, Power, and Hunter-Reay (among others), but the fact that it might not be ought to be acknowledged before chastising O’Ward.

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