When Brian Barnhart left his IndyCar race director role to jump back into the team side in late-2017, he referenced “getting to my retirement age.” After six years working for a several versions of Harding Racing as team president, and then scaling back as solely a driver strategist of late with Andretti Autosport, the decades-long series veteran has taken on a new, larger challenge.
Thursday, Barnhart was introduced at Arrow McLaren SP’s race shop for a new, yet to be titled managerial role, the team confirmed. In the wake of the departure of team president and longtime AMSP team member Taylor Kiel this week, it’s presently unclear whether Barnhart will be Kiel’s direct replacement. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown told the Associated Press he and the five-member board that runs the team since McLaren Racing purchased a 75% majority stake a year ago are still in the process of finalizing the structure of AMSP’s management team. Kiel informed Brown the week of the Sept. 11 Laguna Seca season-finale of his plans to leave the team after 15 years.
Kiel was hired in 2007 when the team was known as Sam Schmidt Motorsports and started sweeping floors for the then-Indy Lights-focused team. In the span of 11 years, he grew to become the IndyCar team’s managing director in 2018 and was again promoted in early 2021 to his latest role as team president.
Before he dove back into the team side of the sport, Barnhart held a variety of managerial roles both within the IndyCar sanctioning body as well as at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After stints working with Patrick Racing, Galles Racing and Team Penske — where he won Indy 500s with Al Unser Jr. in 1992 and ’94 — Barnhart was hired as the director of race operations at the Racing Capital of the World, a role he held from 1994-97. He would then shift to a series role and wore a variety of hats over his 20-year run. From 1997-2011, Barnhart served as race director and chief steward of IndyCar/IRL — a stint where he also served as the series president from 2005-07.
After a tumultuous year on-track in 2011 — where he decided to restart a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the rain and received the infamous “double-birds” from a crashed, incensed Will Power — Barnhart lost his role as IndyCar race director was repurposed as the series’ president of operations and strategy for the start of the 2012 season. In May of 2013, he was named IndyCar’s vice president of competition, and after his own race director replacement, Beaux Barfield, left the series at the end of the 2014 season, Barnhart reassumed the role from 2015 until the end of 2017. It was then he was approached by Mike Harding to take the day-to-day reins of Harding Racing, which in 2017 had run just three races with Gabby Chaves but was preparing to take the leap to full-time status.
Under Barnhart, the team struggled in its full-season debut where it ran four separate drivers but, in the season-finale, provided the series-debuts for then-Indy Lights rivals Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta. Having picked up a technical alliance from Andretti Autosport while morphing into Harding Steinbrenner Racing for the start of 2019, Herta made his full-season debut and in the second race of the year — with Barnhart on his radio calling strategy — the 18-year-old Herta became IndyCar’s youngest race-winner. The young American driver would take three poles during that rookie season and also won the finale at Laguna Seca.
For 2020, HSR would be absorbed into the greater Andretti Autosport fold, with Barnhart continuing to serve as Herta’s strategist as the driver won from pole at Mid-Ohio, notched seven top-5 finishes and took 3rd-place in the championship. As a contractor, Barnhart then called strategy for James Hinchcliffe’s final full IndyCar season on the No. 29 Andretti Autosport car in 2021, and this past season, he did the same for Alexander Rossi’s No. 27 and helped lead that program back to Victory Lane for the first time in three years. As one person who worked closely with Barnhart over the years told IndyStar this week, the new AMSP employee has been good of late in his various team-centric roles of keeping up team spirit — something that will be key as Barnhart shifts to an IndyCar team that was embroiled in chaos and uncertainty for much of this year.
Coming off a 3rd-place championship finish with O’Ward in 2021, the start of AMSP’s 2022 was dominated by the news of the young Mexican driver’s unhappiness with his current deal and the idea he was shopping himself around the paddock. Days before the Indy 500, Brown and Kiel announced a new extension for O’Ward to link him to his No. 5 seat through 2025. By then, IndyStar had reported the team’s hiring of Rossi for 2023, putting O’Ward’s teammate Felix Rosenqvist, in the final season of a two-year deal with AMSP, firmly on the hotseat.
Flames only grew higher when, within weeks, McLaren announced it had signed Rosenqvist to a long-term deal to either man a seat in IndyCar or Formula E and then declared it had signed Alex Palou to a McLaren deal hours after Chip Ganassi Racing purported to have executed a team option on the 2021 champ. Over the final two months of the season, Brown later revealed McLaren had in fact not signed Rosenqvist to a new deal, but only held an IndyCar option for the Swedish driver for 2023 and had come to a verbal agreement on Formula E details before Rosenqvist backed out — wanting to stay in IndyCar, no matter the team.
Before Rosenqvist’s team option would’ve expired on Sept. 30, lawyers for Palou and Ganassi — the two sides embroiled mediation over a federal civil lawsuit brought on by CGR — reached a deal that would see Palou stay in the No. 10 CGR car for 2023. Minutes after that was announced, McLaren declared it would keep Rosenqvist alongside Rossi and O’Ward for the 2023 IndyCar season. Beyond Kiel, multiple AMSP employees from a variety of roles have stepped away from the team in recent months — a trend that has also stretched to McLaren Racing’s communications and marketing team back in England.
AMSP and McLaren Racing have given no official statement regarding Barnhart’s hiring and released only a two-sentence statement Tuesday regarding Kiel’s exit, stating: “Effective Tuesday, September 20, Taylor Kiel is stepping down as Arrow McLaren SP President after two seasons. As the team grows to three cars for the 2023 IndyCar season, announcements on team management will be made in due course.”
On Twitter, Kiel said of his departure: “It’s been an honor to work for Arrow McLaren SP for more than a decade. As I step away, I am most proud of growing this team into a powerhouse able to fight for championships and wins each week. I now look forward to spending time with my own growing family and whatever’s next!”
In whatever role Barnhart may assume, AMSP receives an IndyCar lifer not only well-tested on the strategy side but well-versed in a variety of aspects of the sport and one not unfamiliar with controversy.
Said Barnhart in 2017 when it was announced he’d be leaving his IndyCar role for Harding: “We’re all competitive people at heart, and the allure of trying to compete and win races is just really exciting to me. Since my years as a mechanic, the sport has changed dramatically, but a lot of the concepts and basic fundamentals are the same.”