By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Harding Racing has perhaps one of the more interesting team dynamics in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area.
It’s a mix of old school experience with some new school enthusiasm and talent and it’s helped a partnership that started as a technical alliance between Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and Harding Group.
For the driving side of the team, the old school/new school partnership is between Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Unser Jr. drove in 19 500s and with the years he’s attended as a spectator/official/crew member, the two time CART champion has more years at Indianapolis than Chaves’s age. Chaves, the 2014 Freedom 100 winner and Indy Lights champion is in his third Indianapolis 500 after winning Rookie of the Year in 2015.
Unser Jr.’s realizes that many facets of running the race have changed since his last start in 2007 but many things are the same.
“The fundamentals of the Indy 500 are the same and they’ve been the same from the 50s and 60s, you first have to finish to finish first, the pit stops have to be made correctly, the fundamentals are the same,” Unser Jr. said. “The formula of the way that they’re driving these cars has changed immensely, we never ran wide open from full tanks to empty tanks every stop, and that’s what they do out there and they generally run in packs,” Unser Jr. added.
The biggest change from Unser’s era to Chaves’s era has to be the mechanical side of the sport but Unser sees that Gabby has adapted to his own era.
“Back in my day if I qualified 8th or something, there’s three cars in front of me that are going to break, you just know that they’re going to fall out of the race. Two are going to have issues, some kind of mistakes during the race with pit stops or what have you, so when it comes down to it, I’m only racing one or two guys out there if we finish, if we don’t have any mechanicals. The mechanicals really don’t exist today, there’s no broken gearboxes, there’s no blown engines, that kind of thing, so the reliability is out the ceiling and so the formula is different.”
“The maturity level I’ve seen in [Gabby] has come through because he’s come up the Road to Indy and he’s been around for the last three or four years and he knows what these cars want, what they like and what they don’t like and he’s a fantastic driver,” Unser Jr. said.
Chaves believes his situation is perfect with having a two time Indianapolis 500 winner helping him.
“A lot of the time what holds back the young guns is the inexperience,” Chaves said, “and when you get a young guy that can definitely have the speed and get the car up there in speed but not necessarily have the experience to make the best decisions in the race and all that and you pair him with the experienced veterans and guys that have been here that have won here, I think to me that is the greatest combination that you can ask for.
“For me and in my case, working with Al Jr. has been phenomenal because not only do I think our personalities match very very well but I think he can bring to the table what is needed and what is missing in a younger driver’s experience,” Chaves added.
The technical side of the team has an interesting old school/new school flavor to it as it is a father/son combination. Larry Curry is the team manager and has a resume at Indianapolis that stretches back to the 1970s with teams like Patrick Racing, Team Menard, Vince Granatelli Racing, Roth Racing, AJ Foyt Enterprises and Vision Racing, among others. Matt Curry is the lead engineer on the car and working as a father/son combination makes it interesting.
“I’m not going to tell you that we don’t butt heads, we’re a father and a son but I respect him,” Larry said. “Matt’s a very accomplished guy in his own right, hell he won this race with Tony Kanaan [in 2013]. I’ve tried to win it, finished second in it twice but I never did win it, but as a family we set on the pole here two years back to back, he was involved in that with me.
“So we’ve had the poles, he’s got a win so as a family we’ve kind of done a lot of things here but no, he’s his own man and sure, from time to time he’ll say ‘Hey dad what do you think about this’ and I give him my opinion good or bad. Sometimes he’ll look at me and say ‘Well, I wouldn’t do that,’ but at the end of the day, if he says this is what our run plan is, that’s what our run plan is,” Larry added.
Now as a son, one would think that Matt might hold it over his father that he’s won the race.
“Not at all, that would just be cruel,” Matt said. “It took me 20 years to get my first win, it’s not easy. I’ve had cars here that were fantastic hit an oil slick and (get) destroyed. I’ve had similar experiences to him where you’ve been so close so close and that day it was just our day,” Matt added.
With a father and son working together, one having a win with the other having poles and more experience, one might think that it can be a battle of egos, but the elder Curry doesn’t see it that way.
“The bottom line is, we don’t allow egos to creep into this, we really don’t. We all have a common goal. We want to give Gabby the best opportunity he can have to win and you can’t let ego have a place in that, you just cant,” Larry said.
But does that mean that Larry can put additional pressure on his son?
“You don’t get to manage a team or be in charge of engineering a car or whatever if you can’t handle [pressure] and on top of that if you’re not naturally putting pressure on yourself to get the best result that you can, then this probably isn’t the right business for you,” Matt said.
“You have to be self-motivated and driven to achieve it and some days you’re right and some days you’re wrong and even [in qualifying], we came back from qualifying, everybody’s scratching their heads, I looked at stuff and went ‘You know, it’s on me,’ I missed one thing and that one thing put us in a position that we didn’t want to be in,” Matt added.
From the technical side to the driver side, Larry reassured Chaves for his reasons behind bringing Unser Jr. on board.
“Now, Al can bring a perspective, it’s like I told Gabby when we hired Al because I was instrumental in saying we need to do this, I said ‘Don’t ask me what the Unsers know about winning this race. Uncle, father then the son, collectively they’ve won this thing nine times.’ So, I’m not asking Al to tell Gabby how to drive the car, I’m asking Al to tell Gabby how you need to position yourself to win it because they know that, I know they know that,” Larry said.
But what makes Chaves the guy?
“I see Tony Stewart. I got Tony Stewart when he was a rookie here, I was the guy who brought him in, okay. He was 25 years old, Gabby’s 23. When I was running the Speedrome (a short track near Indianapolis), I put on a special midget race called The Tony Stewart Classic. [Gabby] came and ran it, never been in a midget in his life.”
“One of the questions that he asked me when we were back in the pits he goes ‘Oh, the engine’s in the front?’ I said ’As a matter of fact, it is!’ But he went out and did a hell of a job in that thing, and I used to explain Tony Stewart this way to people.”
“I said ‘If you can drive a midget fast, you can drive anything.’ And Gabby got in it, did it, had a legitimate shot to win the whole thing. Had there been a yellow in that race he would’ve won it,” Larry said.
Technical feedback is a primary concern for younger drivers that aren’t as experienced but Larry’s experiences with Chaves indicates that that won’t be an issue.
“He gives you his answers in a hurry, he doesn’t need to go out and wear it out, he says, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ And I really think he’s one of those guys that’s been missed,” Larry said.
“I have 100% confidence in that kid’s ability to drive it and to do this.