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From dugouts to pit stalls, Steinbrenner tackles Indy 500

May 24, 2019
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In this Tuesday, May 14, 2019 photo, George Steinbrenner IV watches during practice for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis. The 22-year-old Steinbrenner is part owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing team. The team's driver, Colton Herta, qualified in the fifth spot for the starting grid in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — George Steinbrenner IV still remembers the feeling of driving down the Major Deegan Expressway and seeing Yankee Stadium, the old ballpark in the Bronx seemingly rising from the horizon.

It’s the same feeling he experiences when he turns off Georgetown Road, passes through the tunnel beneath the front stretch and sees the pagoda rising above Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“A lot of tradition,” Steinbrenner says with a grin. “It’s not any different. I’ve been involved with teams or had a backstage view in both places. They’re both massively historic, significant places and here, this is the biggest motorsports event in the world.”

Now, Steinbrenner is right in the middle of it.

The 22-year-old son of Yankees chairman Hank Steinbrenner joined Indiana businessman Mike Harding late last year as a partner in Harding Steinbrenner Racing. And while their young team is still overshadowed by behemoths such as Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport, they’ve already reached victory lane once this season and Colton Herta has them starting fifth in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

It has been a meteoric ride for a youngster who grew up dreaming not of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera but of Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, the guys Steinbrenner is trying to beat these days.

“He wasn’t born with a silver spoon,” Harding says, sitting in his spacious office overlooking the race shop, just down the road from the speedway. “His family is going to make him work for everything he gets, and that is how it should be.”

Yankee Stadium and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are both places where dreams are made — and dashed. And the reality, Harding said, is that Steinbrenner could have pursued his dreams at either one. After all, he’s the grandson of “The Boss,” George Steinbrenner III, who bought the Yankees in 1973 and turned a storied franchise into a modern sports and entertainment juggernaut.

Steinbrenner admits to loving baseball, but the tug of motorsports was stronger.

His favorite driver growing up was close family friend Tony Renna, who died in a testing crash at Indianapolis in 2003. The Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekends was a tradition throughout his childhood.

He also has a family connection to racing: His uncle is Chris Simmons, a championship-winning race engineer for Chip Ganassi, and his stepfather, Sean Jones, has been involved in racing for years.

“It’s just something I’ve always grown up admiring,” Steinbrenner said, “and being at the speedway, admiring the tradition not only the race but the hour before the race: the emotion, the spectacle. I’ll always try to soak in as much as I can before we get busy.”

The easy assumption is that Steinbrenner brings money to the team, given the vast wealth his family has accumulated over the years, and that much of what he’s accomplished has been due to his name.

The name helps, he admits. But those around him quickly strike down those suppositions.

“He’s quiet. He’s thoughtful. He’s young, but I mean that primarily in the positive way, that he is savvy to culture that dinosaurs like me aren’t tuned into,” said Mark Miles, the chairman of Hulman & Co., which owns the speedway. “He grew up in a serious business, a sports business environment, so he has all those perspectives. He wants to win. He’s serious.”

He’s also willing to work for it. Steinbrenner got his start in motorsports by mopping floors and filling coolers in the RallyCross shop of Herta’s father, Bryan.

But when that grunt work was done, Steinbrenner would sit in on meetings with engineers, listen to calls with sponsors, and learn the inner workings of team ownership.

He tried the college route, briefly attending Stetson University. But with gasoline pumping through his veins, Steinbrenner decided to take the plunge and move to Indianapolis. Steinbrenner set up an Indy Lights program — basically a Triple-A IndyCar operation — with help from Andretti Autosport, and he put Herta in the driver’s seat. They won six races over two years, accomplishing everything they could.

“Both of us are trying to differentiate from our fathers,” Herta said. “I’m sure it’s a much larger scale for him, but for a long time, it was ‘Bryan’s son,’ and now it’s becoming ‘Colten’s dad.’ You have to respect the fact that he wants to make a name for himself in something else.”

The next step for them, quite naturally, was a full-time shot at IndyCar.

Steinbrenner joined up with Harding, who had fielded cars for the Indy 500 the past couple years, and built out the team with experienced minds. Longtime IndyCar executive Brian Barnhart helps run the operation, and two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. is lending his expertise.

“He’s a guy, just like the other owners — we’re not doing this to be decent,” said the 19-year-old Herta. “He wants to be at the top of his game, and be known as someone who is winning. The Yankees are known for winning. We’re building to that point, too.”

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