Youngsters Out To Make Names For Themselves

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 26 2019
This mural in the headquarters of Harding Steinbrenner Racing lays out the team’s goals. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Colton Herta, youngest driver to win an Indy car race, will start his first Indianapolis 500 Sunday in a car fielded by George M. Steinbrenner IV, youngest team-owner in Indy car history.

Herta is the 19-year-old son of former Indy car driver/current team-owner Bryan Herta. But Colton was 18 years, 11 months, 25 days-old when he won his first NTT IndyCar Series race in his third career start at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on March 24.

Steinbrenner is the 22-year-old grandson of legendary New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III and the son of Hank Steinbrenner, the team’s co-chairman. George IV dropped out of college after one semester to chase a career in motorsports, a mercurial trip that has seen him partner with Indianapolis businessman Mike Harding as co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

And here they are at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, sitting in the middle of Row 2 of a 33-car field poised for 200 laps/500 miles. Which begs the question…are Herta and Steinbrenner too young to win the 103rd edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

“I don’t think so,” said Steinbrenner, seated in a conference room overlooking the team’s modern, spacious shop on North Main Street in Indianapolis, within walking distance from IMS. “It’s up to us to put the car and the driver up and I think we do have that. But the famous saying is the track picks the winner, no one else does. I think we have every capability to do so but there’s also a dozen-plus other cars that have that same capability. All you can do is be capable of winning, that’s the best you can do. And we feel we are a part of that club. It can happen.”

Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Mike Harding, driver Colton Herta and George Steinbrenner IV already own one IndyCar Series Trophy. This weekend, they go for a much bigger one. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

For the record, the youngest winner in Indy 500 history is Troy Ruttman, who was 22 years, 80 days old when he won the 36th edition of the race on May 30, 1952 at an average speed of 128.922 mph in the No. 98 Agajanian Kuzma/Offy.

Armed with that fact and a four-lap/10-mile qualifying average speed of 229.086 mph, Herta believes he can erase that history.

“The team isn’t incredibly young,” Herta said during a Media Day scrum on Thursday. “Me and George are young but we’ve got (Team President/Race Strategist) Brian Barnhart, all my engineers _ Nathan O’Rourke has been around the sport for 10-plus years _ all my mechanics, some of them worked with my dad when he was driving. I guess the face of the team with George does seem like a young team but there’s some very knowledgeable people behind it.

“I mean, there’s no really like any ‘Oh, shit!’ moments on the Speedway, when the rear end wants to come around. That’s how you know the engineer is experienced and they know what they’re doing.”

George Steinbrenner the IV. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

Herta’s connection to the Speedway is generational, as Bryan Herta made five Indy 500 starts between 1994 and 2006 with a best finish of third in 2005 in the No. 7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda. That race was the first of two won by the late Dan Wheldon.

While Steinbrenner’s links to Major League Baseball are obvious, there is a history of racing in the family. Steinbrenner III was a partner with Pat Patrick in several Indy 500s during the 1970s. Hank Steinbrenner, George IV’s dad, put Yankee pinstripes on Darrell Gwynn’s NHRA Top Fuel dragster as a sponsor in the early 2000s. George IV’s uncle, Chris Simmons, is a former driver who now is an engineer on five-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. George IV said his stepfather, Sean Jones, is a self-described ‘failed junior formula race driver.”

And there is a link to the late Tony Renna, George’s cousin on his mother’s side, who was killed in an Indy car test at IMS. Renna made seven Indy Racing League starts for Kelley Racing in 2002 and 2003, including a seventh-place finish in the ’03 Indy 500. Already signed to drive for Ganassi as teammate to Dixon for the 2004 season, Renna was tire-testing at IMS on Oct. 22, 2003 when his car spun in Turn 3, became airborne, smashed into the catch fence and began shredding parts. Renna, 26, died instantly.

“I was 7-years-old in 2003,” said Steinbrenner, confirming that tragedy ended any notion of him becoming a race car driver. “Yes, not only for me but for my family as well. Even if I still had the desire to be a driver myself, I don’t think my family would have been partial to the idea. We still loved racing but I don’t think myself getting into a go-kart would have been something that they’d be very ecstatic about.

“And from a very early age, just because it was sort of the realm I was familiar with and looking up to my grandfather, it was sort of a natural association that I love motor racing so I would be involved in the ‘front office.’^”

George Steinbrenner IV is more into horsepower than home runs. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Logically, that front office position would have been a cushy one in the heart of Yankee Universe, Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, as a birthright. “It always feels that way,” Steinbrenner said. “Of course there’s always a place for me with the Yankees and there still always will be. There might be potential down the road where I’m involved with the Yankees but I’m hoping some day I get to be involved in both motor racing and the Yankees. That would be the ultimate goal.”

To that end, Steinbrenner enrolled at Stetson University in Florida. “I studied business. It was short-lived,” Steinbrenner said with a laugh. “I went there for a semester to study business before losing my mind and deciding to go motor racing. Yeah, it was difficult because I sort of had this idea of what I was going to do already and I had the path to do it. I guess it de-motivated me, the fact that I had the vision already and the path and I just wanted to do it.

“So after a semester, I’m like, ‘This really isn’t working out’ and I was going to learn a lot more in a season being a ‘go-fer’ for Bryan Herta Rallycross if I wanted to be in motor racing than learning basic business practices in a classroom three of four times a week. When I moved here (Indy) to work in motor racing I kicked it into gear, I was ready to go…’All right, this is where I want to be. Let’s do it.’^”

Thus began Steinbrenner’s apprenticeship in 2016 with Bryan Herta RallyCross as team go-fer. “RallyCross is an interesting sport,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s very fast-paced, there’s not any downtime, very intense. So it was the perfect trial-by-fire in terms of learning the ropes and gave me a great appreciation from top-to-bottom of how a race weekend works and how a shop operates.

“I was more on the hospitality side of go-fering. I wasn’t really the tire guy or a spare mechanic. I was moreso stock coolers, get lunch, handle credentials, parking passes, stuff like that. And at the shop it was more I was manning the front desk answering phones, mopping floors, making runs to the store to stock the shop with all the supplies we need. I guess you would call it a traditional business go-fer role.”

George IV actually had met and struck up a friendship with Colton prior to joining Bryan Herta’s racing team. “I met Colton when I still was in high school (Clearwater (Fla.) Central Catholic). He was 12 and I was 16 and that was at a Skip Barber race. I had known Bryan for a year before working for him. In 2012 I met Colton, he moved over to Europe to race and was in Formula 3 by the time in 2016 when I started working for Bryan’s RallyCross team.

A New York Yankees baseball sits in George Steinbrenner IV’s toolbox. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

“When Colton wanted to come back to the States I was looking at starting a team in Indy Lights alongside Michael Andretti. The fact that Colton wanted to come back and drive Indy Lights essentially was the perfect fit. He was the No. 1 driver I would have wanted on my list and once he said he wanted to come back to America it was a no-brainer for me to put him in the seat.”

Herta won two races and finished third in the 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, earning Rookie of the Year honors. Colton finished second in the championship last season to Andretti-Steinbrenner teammate Patricio O’Ward, a native of Mexico. Herta’s four wins included a sweep of the series’ Month of May events on the IMS road-course and the 40-lap Freedom 100 contested around the 2.5-mile oval on Carb Day.

Steinbrenner decided it was time to explore the IndyCar Series, a checklist that included Harding Racing. The team founded in 2017 by Mike Harding, owner/CEO of an Indianapolis-based asphalt and paving company, finished ninth in its series debut race _ the Indy 500 _ with driver Gabby Chaves.  Harding Racing’s 2018 season saw Chaves make 13 starts in what morphed into a revolving door that included Conor Daly, Herta and O’Ward. Baseball-wise, Harding Racing was the equivalent of the Miami Marlins.

“We shopped ourselves around because we knew Colton was ready for INDYCAR,” Steinbrenner said. “Another year in Indy Lights wouldn’t have really been beneficial for him. And we felt as an organization we were ready if we could find the right place. So we talked to different teams around the paddock but landed in this place because Mike showed a very great interest in Colton. He didn’t look for as much as the other teams maybe would have for adding another car. It was just filling a seat for him. A lot of the other teams it would be adding another car, so it was more hoops to jump through.”

Harding Steinbrenner originally trotted-out a two-car effort for Herta and O’Ward when the partnership was announced last September. O’Ward, who subsequently was let go by HSR over a lack of funding, failed to qualify for this event last weekend driving for the team owned by Trevor Carlin.

“I respect George tremendously and I understand the position he’s in,” said Herta, alluding to their unique working relationship. “And you have to respect the guy that can fire you and hire you. So, it does help that we’re really good friends and we’ve been friends before this ownership even happened. But I do respect and I understand the position he’s in, so yes, if we need to talk business we can talk business.”

Herta acknowledged that much of Steinbrenner’s business is to “schmooze people,” a reference to the never-ending challenge of securing sponsorship.

“Of course,” Steinbrenner said. “The vast majority of our revenue…unlike stick-and-ball sports we don’t own any of the venues unless we were to start a promotional company. We don’t control ticket sales, we don’t control any of that. So we have whatever purse you might get for winning, which is tough to do in this sport, and commercial partnership. The significant majority of what we bring in in terms of monetary means to build the team takes commercial partnerships. It’s a huge part of what I do and what Mike does and we have an entire team here that works around the clock to make that happen…like most other teams in the paddock.”

Unlike most executives in the paddock, Steinbrenner is as excited about scanning a Yankees box score as he is at dissecting a spread sheet or speed chart. “Funny story, during the Saturday qualifying, since we were so late in the day and it was an afternoon game, I had it (Yankees-Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the American League East) propped up on the timing stand until we went out,” Steinbrenner said. “Anytime I can watch a game, I do, and if I can’t I’ll check the box score and watch the highlights.”

Baseball-wise, Herta grew up in Valencia, Calif., as a loyal Los Angeles Dodgers fan. “I was lucky because he did love baseball as a kid when he played it, but took up karting and baseball sort of faded from his interest,” Steinbrenner said. “So it wasn’t difficult to convert him; now he’s a full-fledged Yankee fan.”

George Michael Steinbrenner III’s famously loud public squabbles with the likes of manager Billy Martin, outfielder Dave Winfield and pitching import Hideki “Fat Toad” Irabu regularly dominated the back pages of the New York City tabloids during a tenure as principal owner/managing partner of The Bronx Bombers that began in 1973. Steinbrenner III, who died on July 13, 2010 at age 80, fashioned himself into a bigger-than-baseball cultural character…one recognizably whacky enough to be parodied in many episodes of the hit Seinfeld comedy series.

In comparison, the slightly-built George IV presents any potential client with a hip, glib, confident, calculating persona that is the polar opposite of “The Boss.”

“It’s a fair assessment,” Geroge IV said. “But I will say this _ my grandfather though he was prone to outbursts, his outbursts were very calculated. In that way we’re the same, it’s just our calculations are a little different. I’m just not nearly as outspoken. I sort of take after my uncle (Hal) in the quiet nature that I have.”

The comparison that makes Steinbrenner wince are the ones to legendary open-wheel owners Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and/or Michael Andretti. While Herta’s five series starts this season have been capped by his victory on COTA’s Formula One-approved road-course after qualifying fourth, the remainder of his season has been very much rookie-to-the-core. Since that win at COTA, Herta has finished 24th at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.; 23rd on the Streets of Long Beach (contact) and 23rd during the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road-course here on May 11 (contact after 15 laps).

The win at COTA, Steinbrenner admitted, happened much sooner than even he expected.  “Everything fell into perfect place…and the next three (race) weekends were really rough,” Steinbrenner said. “We felt like we had a quick car, quick driver like always and felt like we executed over the weekend. It’s just that once that green flag drops a lot of things can happen and shows that we still have a lot to learn. We can’t really call ourselves a top team until we can consistently be at the top. We’re not quite there yet.

“Colton, he wants it desperately and he doesn’t wait long. He’s got that competitive spirit where he wants to be fastest whether it’s a test session or we’re across the street at an indoor karting place. He has that love of speed and doesn’t have the hesitation at all ever to go as fast as he can.”

However, Herta said after Friday’s traditional Carb Day practice that he plans to “tone it down” for Sunday’s race. “I think I got all my aggressiveness out in qualifying,” said Herta, driver of the No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda. “Definitely want to take care of the car for the majority of the race and that last little bit, really start pushing it…start to amp the pace up and the aggressiveness up the last bit.

“I definitely know a lot more than I did a week ago, two weeks ago. I wasn’t comfortable at all the first day (of open practice). I have done the Freedom 100 but I realized that it’s completely different out there in an Indy car with somebody in front of you running in traffic. Yeah, it’s something that I stepped back…’OK, I’ve got to take this one step at a time or else I’m going to be in trouble and in the wall.’ Kind of humbled me my first run in traffic the first open day.”

Herta was 5-years-old when his father finished third here in 2005. The elder Herta won four Indy car races during his career and has added two Indy 500 victories as co-owner of Andretti Herta Autosport, which is fielding Marco Andretti’s No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda in this race.

“We’re always talking about racing…sometimes I ask him about driving experiences, stuff like that,” Colton said of his dad. “He’s taught me pretty much everything he can and it’s time for me to pick his brain.”

Colton shared in Wheldon’s improbable second Indy 500 victory celebration in 2011 as a wide-eyed fan. “I tasted the milk, everybody’s cheering, everybody’s going crazy,” Herta said.”I never fully understood how big it was to win it but I thought it was pretty incredible.”

Those memories were galvanized when Colton won last year’s Freedom 100. “I always wanted to run here,” Herta said. “I realized how cool it would be to win here a little bit on Carb Day because you still get 80,000 to 100,000 people out, a lot of people. Got to kiss the bricks. Actually, I didn’t truly kiss the bricks because I’m waiting to win the Indy 500 because I don’t think that counts _ winning the Freedom 100. There’s only one race you’re allowed to kiss the bricks, and that’s the 500. Every other thing doesn’t count.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 26 2019
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