While Jim Harbaugh is most known for being a vigorous, no-nonsense quarterback and a vigorous, no-nonsense head football coach, he moonlights in another leadership position:
A vigorous, no-nonsense IndyCar Series racing team owner.
Harbaugh is co-owner of Panther Racing, which he co-founded in 1997 and helped win two IRL championships in 2001 and ’02. Panther’s primary car, driven by young racing star JR Hildebrand, carries a No. 4 in honor of Harbaugh and was even decked out in San Francisco 49ers colors in Somona, Calif., in August.
And Harbaugh is more than just a figurehead for the team -- he’s been actively involved in the team’s management, pit-stop coordination and relationships with sponsors.
“Jim has never been a person who sticks his toe in the water; he’s up to his nose in everything he does,” said Panther’s co-owner, John Barnes. “Even now, we talk all the time and he helps me a lot with a lot of decisions that we make here. He’s somebody for me to lean on.”
In ‘95, while Harbaugh was the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, he attended the Indy 500 and hit it off with Barnes, who was the GM and chief engineer for Pagan Racing. Harbaugh fell in love with the sport. He kept in touch with Barnes over the next couple of years, visiting the tracks and learning everything he could about the intricacies of a race team.
Then in 1997, Barnes branched off to create his own race team with Pennzoil. He called Harbaugh, by then a well-liked member of the Indianapolis community, to potentially do a television spot for the team.
Harbaugh wanted to be involved with more than just a commercial.
“He sold me more than I tried to sell him,” Barnes said. “He was very interested in racing. He had reached a pinnacle in his profession as an NFL quarterback, and he really fit what we were trying to put together. He said he had to be a part of it.”
Harbaugh’s energy and leadership -- and his celebrity -- helped jump-start the team for the 1998 season, along with several other co-founders.
The team found quick success. Driver Scott Goodyear, in the No. 4 car, won the team’s first race in June 1999, and Panther Racing finished ninth in the season points standings that year. Two seasons later, with new driver Sam Hornish Jr., Panther Racing won the IRL championship. It repeated in ’02.
During the championship years, Harbaugh was around more than usual -- those were the years he transitioned from quarterback to coach and found himself with some extra free time.
“It’s been a real privilege to be a small part of that team,” Harbaugh told reporters earlier this month. “To be a part of that team and in the pits for an Indy 500; I still believe it’s the single greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a fan at or watched.”
The team had the option of switching its car to the notable No. 1 after its championships, but instead kept No. 4 to honor their football co-owner.
“Our primary car will never be anything other than No. 4,” Barnes says.
These days, Harbaugh isn't around the team as much because he spends so much time coaching the 49ers. But his presence is still felt around the garage, and Barnes keeps Harbaugh abreast of everything happening within the team.
For Hildebrand, 25, the Harbaugh connection has extra flair: He grew up in the Bay Area as a hardcore 49ers fan. So Hildebrand was stoked to visit the 49ers' training camp this past summer, where he had a long conversation with Harbaugh before taking in a practice.
“You meet the guy and talk to him for even just five or 10 minutes, and you can understand why he’s been so successful as an NFL coach,” Hildebrand said. “You look at the kind of vibe that Jim brings to an organization, or brings to a team, and he’s an easy guy to buy into. For us, whether it’s talking about racing or football or baseball or whatever, he’s just a vibrant personality, and you’re not getting some shtick. He’s very real with you.”
You could hear cheers around the Panther garages last Sunday as the 49ers held on against the Falcons in the NFC championship. Harbaugh offered tickets to Barnes and some of the team members, but the team is going to stick around Indianapolis and watch the game away from the craziness of Super Bowl week.
“He knows how we feel about him,” Barnes said. “There’s only one winner, and this time, we hope it’s Jim.”