“It's been a long time coming.”
Those were among the first words spoken by Gabby Chaves on Friday during a media teleconference following the announcement that he and Harding Racing will engage in a full-time campaign for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The 24-year-old Colombian helped lead the Mike Harding-owned organization to impressive finishes in their three-race effort in 2017, including a ninth-place in the team’s series debut in the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May. They followed that up two weeks later with a fifth-place finish in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The long-term goal was to grow into a full-season entry for 2018, and there was no shortage of preparation and growth along the way. It included adding longtime INDYCAR race official and executive Brian Barnhart as team president in late 2017.
“We've been preparing nonstop as if we were going to compete full time all offseason, but now that it's official, it certainly feels fantastic, and now we're ready to get on track and see where all the work that we've done puts us, and we'll go from there,” said Chaves, driver of the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet.
After winning the 2014 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship, Chaves drove the full 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season for Bryan Herta Autosport in a one-car effort and was the series rookie of the year. When Herta merged with Andretti Autosport to field Alexander Rossi in 2016, Chaves was left without a ride. He drove in seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 before landing with Harding last year.
Chaves believes all those experiences have helped him grow as a driver.
“I think when I came into my rookie year, obviously as a rookie and without any teammates to kind of bounce off any ideas or to learn from, I think that was a pretty big undertaking for a young guy then,” he said Chaves. “But over the last two seasons, I've been able to do some races here and there, share data with other guys, kind of understand the car, understand the technical side of it, the engineering side of it and the mechanical side of it a lot more in depth than I did my first year.
“I think I was really able to put those skills a little bit better to the test in the few races that we did last year with Harding. I think the results kind of showed the right progression. That's kind of what I'm really aiming for this year is to keep that going, to drive to the fullest of my potential and obviously to keep learning in any way, shape or form that I can to keep my career going ahead.”
What is ahead is the chance to drive the universal aero kit, which will make its competition debut at the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in March.
Though there may be concerns over being a single-car outfit without the ability to share data that multi-car teams can, Chaves is quick to say it is about quality over quantity.
“Though certainly it's probably not ideal, it's been done in the past with great success (as a one-car team), a few years back with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Simon Pagenaud and the last few years with Graham Rahal (at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing),” he said. “They showed that a one-car effort can be just as competitive as a multiple-car team.
“Obviously track time is going to be very valuable and how much information you can gather over (practice) sessions will be very valuable as well. I think we're just going to have to be extra diligent in our work and make sure that everything we do has purpose to it and we're not just out there running laps just to run laps. I think that's going to be where we can maybe make up some of the lack of information that we won't get from a second car.”
A vitally important piece to the Harding Racing puzzle is having two-time Indy car champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. back on the pit wall as Chaves’ driving coach.
“He's got the experience,” said Chaves. “He knows what it takes to win. He knows what it takes to win, most importantly, the Indianapolis 500. I think having him with me at every race, and although maybe at the time that he was driving the cars drove differently and maybe the driving doesn't 100 percent correlate to how we drive the cars now, it's still the same thing.
“You're still trying to win races with speed and with race craft and with strategy, and just having the experience that he brings and being able to bounce off ideas and pick his mind a little bit on how he runs his races, how he runs through the race in his mind.
“That just gives me a lot more to go off and to hopefully learn at an even quicker pace and apply his experience for me on track.”
The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg airs at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.