One of the newest NTT IndyCar Series teams is also one of the youngest. Harding Steinbrenner Racing formed in late 2018 with the merger of Mike Harding’s “Harding Racing” IndyCar team, and George Steinbrenner IV’s “Steinbrenner Racing” Indy Lights (the support series to IndyCar) team. The two pooled their resources together and formed Harding Steinbrenner Racing along with technical support from Michael Andretti’s team.
Toward the end of 2018, Harding Steinbrenner Racing was looking toward their first full season in 2019 and brought on then 18-year-old Colton Herta. Herta, the son of IndyCar winning driver and Indy 500 winning team owner Bryan, was on Steinbrenner’s Indy Lights team and has been friends with Steinbrenner since he was a pre-teen.
“I think I met [George] in 2011 oh, sorry no, 2012 at a Skip Barber race,” Herta told The Comeback. “We just really bonded together right off the beginning and we became really good friends actually. The relationship grew and eventually he wanted to start a team, and I was in a position where I was looking for a drive as well. So it just kind of worked.”
George IV, the 23-year-old son of current Yankees owner Hank and grandson of legendary owner George, took a different path in sports than previous generations of his family. After talking to George, it made sense why he would want to go into IndyCar, and there could be a possibility the Yankees may be an option in the very distant future.
“I grew up around [IndyCar], a lot like growing up around baseball,” Steinbrenner told The Comeback. “It’s just sort of always there, more so on my mom’s side of the family, but my dad was a big racing fan growing up. In terms of being involved in sport, it was more on my mom’s side. I had a cousin who was an IndyCar driver, Tony Renna, and I have an uncle who’s actually Scott Dixon’s engineer, Chris Simmons. So yeah, I just grew up around the track and it sort of became a second passion for me in life.”
“There still is a possibility and a likelihood honestly, but that won’t be for a long time. And in terms of…I felt like I would have more to learn going elsewhere, branching out and being more involved than I would in the learning process of Yankee, wherever it is in Yankee world that I would be at age 23. I wouldn’t be running the show and I wouldn’t be for a long time. And I think in this scenario, being able to branch out and sort of get my feet wet in the business world and in the sports business world to learn a lot and learn as much as I have. Especially doing it in something I love just as much as baseball.”
Even at such a young age, Steinbrenner already shows the business acumen that has kept his family in business for so many years. While the Yankees may have the reputation by some as a team who just spends money, George IV knows the position his team is in and understands the pitfalls if he were to write a blank check just to chase a hobby.
“The biggest [misconception] is always that, paying our way,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s easy, it’s, it’s a natural assumption to think that someone in my situation would just be writing a blank check. ‘Here you go, let’s go racing.’ And it’s not how we’re doing it. That’s why we just started slowly. We started in Indy Lights and tried to do it the more traditional way, like a lot of other owners in the series have done it. It’s building a network of partners and sponsors and people who can support you, instead of just having to write an $8 million check yourself.”
“So doing it the more traditional way, I guess of trying to make it sustainable because you can’t sustain it. You could be worth $100 billion and you can’t sustain a race team writing a ten million, twelve million dollar check every year. After awhile it just becomes unrealistic. So wanting to do it the right way and yeah, it’s easy to assume I’m just writing blank checks, but that’s not how we’ve gone about it. Because my family has made money in sports for decades. So the idea of not making money in sports is a bit foreign and they wouldn’t be as nearly as supportive as they are now if I were doing it the wrong way.”
“[Not overextending your resources has] always been the way to do it. And thankfully growing up around the paddock and knowing people involved in the sport and knowing Brian Herta for a long time. He’d been a single car team owner and then partnered with Michael [Andretti] on the #98, it’s always been a blessing to get to learn from him, and now from Michael [via Andretti Technologies partnership]. And it’s just sort of understanding from a fairly young age of how the business model kind of works and then wanting to get into that. There is a way to do it without having to write blank checks.”
“Mentally, we’re a startup. You can’t expect to have a startup and then sell to Amazon for $500 million two weeks later. It just doesn’t work like that. So don’t get starry-eyed about the Penskes or the Ganassis. They got there for a reason, and it wasn’t by getting starry-eyed and overextending and doing stupid things. It was by doing it all the right way and being very calculated and not doing something unless you know you can get it done.”
It seemed unexpected, but while Harding Steinbrenner Racing was finding their form as a young team, they wound up winning in their second ever race as a combined team, at the inaugural IndyCar Classic at the Circuit of the Americas. With that win, Herta (in his third career race) became the youngest IndyCar winning driver, and Steinbrenner became (with Harding) the youngest IndyCar winning owner.
Sure, some fortunate things needed to happen, but Herta was fast all weekend and was up near the front the entire race. A little bit of luck was involved, but you can’t take advantage of that luck unless you’re good enough to put yourself in the right position, and that’s just what they did. The team enjoyed the win, but both Herta and Steinbrenner admitted that the first win came a bit earlier than they were expecting.
“I think it was a surprise, not only for me but the whole team and really the whole grid,” Herta said. “We knew we’d been in a position where we could win eventually, but I didn’t think it’d be so soon. We knew we would have had speed, but to do it for 60 laps instead of just one lap is quite different.”
“I think that definitely gave [the team] more confidence going into the next rounds and just because they knew that we could do it at that point and they knew it was possible. I think everybody wants to work extra hard.”
“Yes, we were [surprised],” Steinbrenner said. “It obviously had a lot to do with Colton and a lot to do with the Andretti Technologies partnership. It had a lot to do with that. But we still didn’t expect to win, especially our second race of the year. We knew Colton had the speed, we knew the car had the speed. It’s just, it takes a lot of things coming together to win in this series. I mean, you’ll have a champion win four races in a year and there’s 17 of them. You’d think a champion would win more than that, but it’s just so darn hard to win in this series. Especially for a team so new and a driver so new and we thought it would take time. But [Colton] was one of the faster guys right out of the gate. And then obviously in Austin, everything just sort of fell together perfectly for us to take the checkered flag.”
“It was a huge motivator, and something that really started in preseason testing in Austin. We’d run preseason testing and we had two sessions the first day, he was first in each one. We had two sessions, the second day, he was first and second. And that’s when, after the first two were like, ‘Okay, we don’t know what everyone else is doing. Maybe everyone’s sandbagging a little bit, you never know.’ And then by the end of the two days, we all just look around each other and [realized] we’ve got a bullet, we’ve got a heck of a driver, and our car’s a bullet. So we can compete if we really put everything into it.”
“And we can compete. It’s just, we’ve had a lot of bad luck and a lot of rookie mistakes all the way around that we kind of expected before that preseason. [The rest of the season has] kind of fallen more in line results wise. Speed wise, we’re still higher than expected. We’re still competing to start in the top five every weekend. That doesn’t matter, it’s all about where you finish. Other than the win, it’s been a little more to what we would’ve expected before the season started.”
As the series heads to the final few races of the season, Harding Steinbrenner Racing is at a crossroads. While nothing is official, Herta is reportedly going elsewhere, likely to the new Arrow McLaren SP team. Obviously, this is a very tough situation for both driver and owner, given that they’re not only work colleagues but friends. At the same time, both understand that this is a business and it seems like their friendship is too strong to let business get in the way of that.
“[Our respective upbringings] is just one of the first things we were able to relate to each other about,” Steinbrenner said. “And that does have some of it, but it’s really just our personalities are so darn similar. We’re both very laid back. We have an extremely similar sense of humor, that helps a lot. Everything’s kind of easy going when we’re around each other. Yeah, we don’t quarrel, we don’t bicker, we don’t…there’s none of the petty…we don’t let any of the petty crap get to us. So it’s a good relationship and having that sort of demeanor helps into business as well. And it’s not just for our personal relationship being so easy going, go with the flow as we both are. It helps in our business relationship as well.”
With one eye on 2020 and another on the rest of 2019, both Herta and Steinbrenner have some decisions to make. Without sharing what their 2020 plans were going to be, Herta and Steinbrenner both detailed what goes into making a decision as a driver or an owner to either stay with/keep your driver or sign with another team/find a new driver.
“I think it has to make more sense than where you’re at,” Herta said. “Really. That’s, that’s the biggest thing is, it has to be super competitive. It has to be able to be a step up or else why would you do it. I’m not on a farewell tour or anything, so I’m not gonna sign for big money and do a few years left and then be gone. I want something that can hold me for the future and then can keep me for a while and let me learn and grow. Like I have this here but just competitive everywhere we’re going. That’s the bottom line, is if it’s not competitive, it’s not really worth the time.”
“Well, you’re always trying to figure it out,” Steinbrenner said. “When there’s different scenarios, you look at all of them and then some. And you explore every scenario until you figure out what you’re going to do. Colton’s doing the same thing. It’s just anytime there’s any, and we see it in any other sport, anytime there’s a free agent everything’s going to be explored, everything’s going to be rumored, everything’s going to be talked about. And until that dotted line is signed, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. We’re working hard to figure out what we’re going to do and you’ll just have to wait and see what that is.”
Whether they stay together or go their separate ways, the future is bright for both Colton Herta and George Steinbrenner IV. Herta is just 19 and has already won an IndyCar race and a class victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. There’s no doubt Herta has the ability to be a future champion.
As for Steinbrenner, being at least a generation younger than every other owner on the paddock affords him valuable time to improve Harding Steinbrenner Racing. When it comes to specific goals, Steinbrenner likes to take things one day at a time.
“I just want to be competitive,” Steinbrenner said. “I don’t have any set plans because to me, that’s when things start to get dangerous. I mean, when you look to, ‘I want to expand to two cars in two years,’ or when you set that kind of goal. When that two year milestone comes, you might not be ready for it and you don’t want to push to get to that milestone for pride or whatever it may be. So yeah, it’d be cool to have three cars and all three of them be filled with all-star drivers who can all compete for a championship. And it would be cool to just have one car that we think can go out and compete for a championship. As long as we’re competing for wins or championships, wherever we’re at, that’s where I want to be.”