The youth movement in American open-wheel racing is well underway.
With a mass of positive momentum moving American open-wheel racing in the right direction, the nation’s youngest and most daring stars fuel the train that pulls everyone forward. Nashville, Tennessee’s own Josef Newgarden is IndyCar’s reigning champion at 26 years old, and drivers Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are more than capable of challenging the Team Penske driver for years to come.
Even as fans voice their disapproval over the fact that neither Conor Daly or Sage Karam occupy full-time rides, the cupboard is far from bare if you are looking for a young duo to pull for in the coming years.
Enter Colton Herta and George Michael Steinbrenner IV.
The pair combine to form the leading edge of Andretti Steinbrenner Racing, a team that finished their maiden season third in the 2017 Indy Lights championship. After two victories, six poles and seven podium finishes, one could call last year a hot start to both Herta and Steinbrenner IV’s careers.
Herta, 17, is the son of former winner and IndyCar owner Bryan Herta. With a cool demeanor and natural pace on-track, the younger Herta is ascending rapidly through developmental open-wheel ranks.
For Steinbrenner, he is the owner of Andretti Steinbrenner Racing at just a shade over 20 years of age. Not without a recognizable bloodline of his own, George Michael hails from New York Yankees royalty as his grandfather, George, was the team’s owner from 1973 until his death in 2010.
As Herta and Steinbrenner IV each sit in a similar age bracket, they represent the youngest driver/owner pairing in motorsports. While they are currently business partners in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, the two share a much more unique bond than most drivers and owners enjoy.
“It’s a bit less of a team owner/driver relationship because we are kind of the same age,” explained Herta. “It’s more of a friend relationship. I’ve known George since I was 12 and we have always had a passion for racing. He has always loved racing and he’s always been around it.
“He had the chance to jump in and I was coming back from Europe, and he wanted to get together and I thought it was a great idea. Of course, it is a lot easier dealing with a friend than dealing with a team owner.”
Echoing those sentiments, Steinbrenner IV sees the tremendous value in being able to work effectively with a friend on-track.
“First off, I think our similarity in age certainly helps,” said Steinbrenner IV. “You don’t see a lot of driver/owner pairs four years apart… we like a lot of the same things and we understand a lot of the same things, so that certainly helps.”
“I trust him a lot inside the car after growing closer to him. It puts more trust (in) and a little less anxiety (out) when he is in the car. The more you trust someone, it’s like ‘alright, it’s in his hands now’ sort of thing.”
That trust played a key role in the team’s early season success in 2017. With a runner-up finish and a win to cap off the opening weekend at St. Petersburg, the two were off and running.
Through the year, the Indy Lights’ doubleheader weekend format (12 of the 16 championship races were part of doubleheader weekends) played a massive role in the development of Herta as a driver. In four out of the six doubleheader weekends, Herta had a better finishing position in the second race than the first race.
“If you see, most of the pole positions I had – they were on the second day,” said Herta. “Especially for street courses, it’s tough because you’re never going to be able to practice on a street course.”
Speaking on the topic of qualifying, Herta praised the Mazda Road to Indy’s decision to implement separate qualifying sessions for each race during doubleheader weekends – something the series did not feature in 2016.
Riding the momentum of an impressive freshman season in Indy Lights, both Herta and Steinbrenner IV are looking for improvements in 2018 that will leave them on the top step of the podium more often.
Adding to that, a championship is in order for Indy car racing’s young guns.
“We are going to set out right away to compete for the championship,” proclaimed Steinbrenner. “How successful we are in that goal will be how I look back at the season. It’s just straight up work for the championship. We know we can be fast and we know we can win races. It’s just a matter of putting weekends together and getting the trophy.”
For Herta, to put more of those weekends together it includes gaining more experience and running better at certain tracks in an effort to become more of a well-rounded driver.
“For me personally, I feel like the short ovals is where I am going to grow the most,” said Herta. “I don’t have any experience on those apart from (2017), so that’s obviously the biggest thing – going back I’ll know what to expect. I’ll feel a little bit more comfortable.”
So what is the end gain in all of this for two rising stars under the age of 25? On the edge of Indy Lights graduation, the duo is beginning to line their sights on the Verizon IndyCar Series.
When asked what Steinbrenner Racing would look like in a perfect scenario in five years, Steinbrenner IV had an emphatic response: “The five-year plan is to hopefully be four years in as an IndyCar program, and preferably with Colton still as the driver of the car.
“Of course, that would take a lot of work on our part because Colton is a special talent,” Steinbrenner IV continued. “Keeping special talents is a fairly difficult thing to do, but, five years down the line that is the best-case scenario: to be an established IndyCar program of four seasons with Colton preferably still in the car, and competing for race wins and Indianapolis 500 wins.”
In taking stock of his current affiliation with Steinbrenner Racing and his father’s professional interests with Andretti Autosport, the younger Herta has gotten to view the inner workings of some incredibly well-run organizations. That has helped him paint a picture of where he would want to develop and settle in as an IndyCar driver.
“I think for sure I would want to be with Andretti coming into these next few years,” Herta explained. “Obviously Penske has been the dominant force these last few years, but Penske downscaling to three cars and Andretti has four. They have been really quick in preseason testing and the drivers are really good right now.
“The cars have been really good, you have three teammates when you’re running there, which no other team can say right now. It’s just super strong, I think it’s going to go back to the old Andretti days when Dad was running for them. It’s the powerhouse team right now.”
In moving to IndyCar, Steinbrenner Racing would most likely align itself with Andretti Autosport moving forward in a similar fashion as the partnership the two entities currently enjoy in Indy Lights.
That seems to be crucial in keeping the immense talent that Herta possesses, as he is keen to stay in the Andretti family after seeing the resources available to their drivers.
However the end result plays out, the focus currently is on 2018 and Andretti Steinbrenner Racing’s assault on the Indy Lights championship. Look for Herta to get off to a hot start once again in St. Petersburg and then learn from the few mistakes he made throughout 2017 as this year’s campaign progresses.
For Steinbrenner IV, he will be busy hammering away at the business side of the sport. Understanding that it takes bigger checks to race in IndyCar than it does in the Mazda Road to Indy, George Michael plans to increase his professional reach in 2018 to align the team with an IndyCar debut in 2019.
Need a reason to watch the Indy Lights championship in 2018? Are you a Helio Castroneves fan looking for your next favorite full-time driver? Do you enjoy supporting American talent in IndyCar?
Then get behind these guys, because they are the future of the sport – and they may just conquer it together.
Images courtesy of the Mazda Road to Indy.