December 15, 2016.
That was the day two iconic sports names announced a unification to form Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, which would compete with second-generation driver Colton Herta as the pilot in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top tier of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.
With the 2017 season officially in the books, the team’s inaugural campaign was an unquestionable success. Driving the No. 98 Deltro Energy Mazda Dallara IL-15, Herta earned two wins and seven pole positions on his way to third in the championship standings. It was quite an achievement considering Herta wasn’t even 17 years old when he became the youngest winner in Indy Lights history on the season-opening weekend in March.
For team co-owner George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of legendary longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the maiden season in racing was a huge step in his quest to become an integral part of the sport. The decision to partner with Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti was a calculated decision in that progression.
“One of the reasons I partnered with Andretti is I knew that there really wouldn’t be a better place for me to learn everything that I needed to learn to become an owner in the series,” said Steinbrenner IV.
“How they do things over there, how efficient they are and how they work with their sponsors and partners, it was the perfect learning platform. And the Mazda Road to Indy, as it is for the drivers, is a great steppingstone for owners as well. So it was kind of just the perfect storm for learning to become a successful owner.”
At just 21 himself, Steinbrenner knows his last name is synonymous with winning. Even so, there was amazement when Herta rolled into victory lane in just the second race of the season on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
“That was definitely the moment that stood out,” said Steinbrenner, who spent much of his time growing up in the area with the Yankees hosting their spring training in Tampa. “It was so unexpected to win so early and, to get it in what is essentially my hometown race in St. Pete, it was something special. It’s a race that I’ve gone to for the past 10 years or so, so it was really something special for me.”
Steinbrenner admitted how much the camaraderie of the paddock caught him by surprise and how much “blood, sweat and tears go into every race,” something not equal to the level of other sports he has observed. Steinbrenner also cited how much growth he saw from Herta as the season wore on.
“He’s always had the speed, but as it is with a lot of drivers, he’s learned a lot from his mistakes,” said Steinbrenner. “He’s matured a lot over even the past eight or nine months, since the beginning of the season. It’s good to see that and he’s grown stronger with each mistake he makes or each bad weekend we had.
“It gives us a good feeling moving forward onto next season and beyond.”
The team co-owner also noticed tremendous growth out of himself as well.
“I think just dealing with sponsors and partners, it was something that I never really had any exposure to,” said Steinbrenner. “I learned a lot from even just sitting around Andretti hospitality. You can see partners and sponsors all talking with each other business to business. I learned the greater spectrum of what is the business of INDYCAR. It’s more than just the billboard on the car, a 200 mph billboard. It’s more than that.”
Steinbrenner made it no secret that he plans to one day own a team that will compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But he is in no immediate rush and only looks to do so when the moment is right.
“We’re planning on making the jump whenever we all think we’re ready. Whether that’s 2019, 2020, we’re not sure yet,” he said. “We know for sure that in 2018 we’ll be in the Indy Lights series.
“As far as after moving to (the Verizon IndyCar Series), keeping a team in Indy Lights and the Mazda Road to Indy is something I enjoy. If it’s possible to keep it and logistical, then I would love to.”