INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Harding grew up an avid Indianapolis 500 fan and smartly used the iconic event to grow his business.
But renting suites, entertaining customers and throwing the biggest "Carb Day" party at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was never enough for Harding. He wanted to be part of the show in an official capacity and jumped in as a team owner, shrugging off concerns over the expense and the risks.
He now has one of the most talked-about teams in the paddock as he attempts to put a car in the Indianapolis 500 for the third year.
Harding signed rookie Colton Herta this year and in March the team won in Austin, Texas, mere days before Herta's 19th birthday. The youngest winner in IndyCar history has been strong in every session this season and was the fastest Honda driver on the opening day of Indianapolis 500 practice.
"In three years, we're just as competitive as Penske," Harding said of Roger Penske's vaunted organization, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary at the Indy 500.
The sudden emergence of Harding's young team is an anomaly based on strong relationships, valued team employees and Harding's vision. Last season was his first as a full-time IndyCar owner and he admits "it was a real struggle" for Harding Racing. But he had longtime IndyCar executive Brian Barnhart running the team and two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. as a consultant, and he desperately wanted Herta to drive his car.
But Herta had a deal already with Michael Andretti to race Indy Lights in a partnership with George Steinbrenner IV, another aspiring IndyCar owner, and that blocked Harding from simply offering Herta a seat in the big leagues. Harding took on Steinbrenner as a partner, rebranded the team Harding Steinbrenner Racing and put Herta in the No. 88 — the number Harding fields because he is an unapologetic fan of retired NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I'm friends with Michael and I went to him and said, 'I want Colton in my car,'" said Harding, who also negotiated a deal for a second car for rookie Patricio O'Ward to drive the No. 8 as a nod to Earnhardt's earlier career car number.
The deal with O'Ward fell apart before the season and Harding's hope of fielding cars for a pair of promising rookies evaporated. The team went forward with just Herta, who Harding rates as strong as Penske driver Josef Newgarden.
The team also showed immediate improvement once it became a customer of Andretti Autosport's shock program. Now Harding is truly in the game, with far more responsibilities than hosting 5,000 customers of his asphalt and concrete business on Carb Day before the Indy 500.
"I knew I had good people. I thought sponsorship would be easier than it is, and it's still hard," Harding said. "But with Colton, it's finally starting to come around. We have a driver of Newgarden material, the Andretti shock program, and I really believe we can win any day. We've already won once, right?"