Gabby Chaves seeks career redemption with newly-formed Harding Racing

Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Just three years ago, Gabby Chaves appeared poised to conquer the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock after a four-win 2014 championship run in Indy Lights.

Preparing his third Indianapolis 500, Chaves is just wants an opportunity to prove his talent.

“I don’t think that IndyCar has really seen what I can do,” Chaves told Kickin’ the Tires. “I don’t think our fans have. I don’t think the teams have.”

Chaves, 23, came to IndyCar in 2015, contesting the full season with Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian courtesy of the scholarship associated with an Indy Lights championship.

Hopes were high for the Columbian entering that season, and for good reason. Chaves arrived in the paddock to instant success, winning a race in his first season of Indy Lights in 2013. His title-winning second year in the IndyCar ladder series saw the young prospect beat out a host of talented drivers, including Jack Harvey, Zack Beach and Matthew Brabham, each of whom have earned an IndyCar drive in the years since.

Unfortunately, Chaves’ year didn’t live up to expectation.

Hampered by inexperience – and perhaps equipment – Chaves struggled to find pace. The native of Bogota, Columbia proved impressively consistent, finishing 15 of the year’s 16 races, and earned rookie of the year honors over Sage Karam and Stefano Coletti. But he managed only a lone top 10, with an average finish of 14.4 at the end of a subpar season.

“I had a decent rookie year, but it wasn’t to the standards that I set for myself,” Chaves said. “I expect to go out there and be competitive every single weekend, not just random races here and there like we had our rookie year.”

Devoid of the sponsor support needed for a full-time run, Chaves lost his ride for 2016. Bryan Herta moved his team into a partnership with Andretti Autosport that fostered an Indy 500 victory with Alexander Rossi.

Chaves contested only seven races, earning a best finish of 12th for Dale Coyne Racing. The five-time winner on the Mazda Road to Indy hasn’t been seen in the paddock for a race since the rain-delayed event at Texas Motor Speedway in Aug.

“We had some good races, some terrible races,” Chaves said. “But I think the potential showed, and what we didn’t get a chance to do is then go back a second year with the same guys and really show that potential.

“I was outside of the car, and then I was in a car without any preparation for that specific case. For a young driver, especially inexperienced, it was probably the worst scenario besides not being in a car.”

For a time, it appeared Chaves’ options might be exhausted, but underneath the surface  a new opportunity was forming.

Mike Harding, owner of Harding Group – which has completed paving projects and other jobs for Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the last 17 years – had an interest in racing. With the help of paddock fixture Larry Curry as a team manager, legend Al Unser, Jr. as a driving instructor and a technical alliance with Dreyer and Reinbold’s Dennis Reinbold, Harding Racing was formed.

The foundation was laid. All Harding needed was a driver.

Enter Chaves.

“I try to look at the other young drivers around, and really this is probably one of the best situations that a young driver can hope for,” Chaves said in a Sunday media availability. “Having the experience around you, having the team that’s pretty much formed around you. Starting fresh, getting some continuity, so you can work withy for team and not only focus now what’s right now, but know that you’re going to have some more preparation for the future.”

Harding Racing has small plans for 2017, debuting at the Indy 500 after a lone test at Texas Motor Speedway and hoping to make a couple additional oval starts this season. However, the team holds a grander vision for the future.

“We’re going to race Pocono (Raceway) and Texas (Motor Speedway),” Harding said. “Our plans are running in the full series next year and get the sponsors, so we’re working hard for that.”

If the team’s word is taken at face value, it appears their driver for the entirety of the run will be Chaves.

In preparation for his first race with the team, Chaves has performed admirably. The third-year IndyCar driver has been spotted inside of the top five on the speed charts in more than one occasion, even topping a lightly contested session ahead of Saturday’s first day of qualifications.

Chaves was unable to secure a spot in Sunday’s Fast Nine pole qualifying round, but the Columbian earned a greater reward – the respect of Unser.

A two-time winner of the Indy 500 (1992, ’94), Unser knows as well as any what it takes to win in open wheel racing. However, much has changed since Unser’s last time behind the wheel in 2007.

“The fundamentals are the same,” Unser said of modern racing. “The formula of the way 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. They generally run in packs.”

 

It’s Chaves’ understanding of the that modern formula that Unser believes sets him apart.

“Gabby’s in tune to that formula of racing,” Unser said. “He’s out there. He knows what he needs to do.

“This is the maturity level that I’ve seen in him. He’s come up the Road to Indy, and he’s been around for the last three or four years. He knows what these cars want, what they like and don’t like. So he’s a fantastic driver.”

Chaves hopes to prove Unser correct. Now in the growing stages of what he hopes will be the future of his promising young career, the 23-year-old intends to make good on his promise.

“I don’t think that I have truly shown what I can do,” Chaves told Kickin’ the Tires. “I’ve won championships, won in every racing series I’ve competed in. I expect it to be no different in IndyCar when I’m able to put the best of my abilities out there.

“This is the perfect opportunity to do that. To know that I have a future with the team – that this is not just a one-off effort, and that I have something to work towards – gives me the confidence to work and really go out and excel.”

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