For QB, Indy is hardly the pits Harbaugh joins crowd in auto racing huddle

May 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh will be a working stiff tomorrow, down in the pits, holding a sign board for his IndyCar driver, Scott Goodyear.

Football personnel and motorsports -- it's beginning to sound like love and marriage. Joe Gibbs, Dan Marino, Walter Payton, Mark Rypien, Jerry Glanville and Joe Montana all have owned one kind of race team or another.

Now it's Harbaugh's turn.

He is back in Indianapolis getting ready for the 82nd Indianapolis 500 as part-owner of the car that Goodyear will start from the inside of the fourth row.

"I handle the sign board," Harbaugh said after signing autographs and grabbing a soda. "And I can hit my spot."

Harbaugh took a swig of soda. He grinned. He says he's learning about racing, "like a fourth-grader," but added: "I got the team's sponsorship deal."

Well, he paused, "Did I say I got it? I helped get the sponsorship deal. I'm sure in my mind I'm a lot more important than I really am."

And then he stopped and laughed out loud.

"You know, you can ask me a lot of [hypothetical] questions and I can make up answers," he said. "But the truth is, I'm like a fan. I get to be around the guys in the pits. I get to discuss a lot of things that go on. It's just nice to be on the team."

Harbaugh said he shook hands with four-time winner A. J. Foyt this week, "and I thanked him for sighing an autograph for me when I was 10 years old."

It was in 1974 that his dad, Jack, brought Harbaugh to see an Indy 500 time trial. That was the last he saw of this city until 1994, when he was traded from the Chicago Bears to the Indianapolis Colts. He decided he wanted to see the race and scalped a $20 ticket.

It has been onward and upward ever since. In 1995, he was given a ticket to Turn 4 by former Bears teammate Cap Boso, an Indianapolis native, and in 1996, after coming within one completion of leading the Colts to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh sat in the suite of local car dealer Gary Pedigo, who is also a member of the race team's ownership group.

"Now, I'm down in the pits," Harbaugh said. "Next year, who knows where I'll go? But I don't think Scott has to worry about me getting in his seat."

The team seems to be the thing to Harbaugh. He said he can't compare what he does as a quarterback to what Goodyear does as a driver. "The driver is putting his life on the line. I don't know what that's like. I don't pretend to."

But he said many of the other concepts are the same.

"There are the same feelings of working toward a goal," said Harbaugh, 34. "That great feeling in the locker room after a game or a race. The high-fiving after a win. Just feeling good about yourself.

"When I'm out there on the line with the sign board, I don't get the same competitive feel I do when I'm playing football, but I look around me at my teammates, and I know they do. I can see they're emotionally charged. I love watching them."

It is left to Goodyear and team manager John Barnes, who is one of the seven co-owners, to talk about Harbaugh's role.

"I've just gotten to know Jim the last four or five months," Goodyear said. "But it doesn't take long to recognize that he's a great team player -- and he's very competitive. He's great with giving the guys pep talks and we have great conversations about teamwork."

It will be Harbaugh's responsibility to make sure Goodyear pits his car in the right spot. To hear the quarterback tell it, it's no big deal, even a bit laughable.

"It's kind of fun, not being the guy who lays it on the line," he said.

But Barnes said Harbaugh is putting it on the line with every pit stop. If he does his job wrong, if he puts the board in the wrong place, the entire race could be lost.

"It's incredibly important," Barnes said. "He has to make sure the car stops in exactly the right spot; within two inches of the same spot every time. It sets the tone for the pit stop. If the car is too close to the pit wall, the inside tire guys can't work; if it's out too far, the fuel hose won't fit."

But Barnes said no one on the team worries about Harbaugh.

"He's a great motivator for everyone," Barnes said. "And he practices his job every chance he gets. You know, I've been in this business 31 years and in that time I've met a lot of people.

"I've met with presidents and kings and none has impressed me as much as Jim. He gives totally of himself to everyone."

Indy 500

When: Tomorrow, noon

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

TV: Chs. 2, 7. Coverage begins at 11 a.m.

Pole-sitter: Billy Boat, Dallara-Aurora, 223.503 mph.

Defending champion: Arie Luyendyk.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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