In one of the seminal moments in modern IndyCar racing, the family of the most iconic sports franchise in American history is teaming up with Mike Harding and Michael Andretti to run two of the most promising drivers on four wheels.
RACER.com has been sitting on this story for a month at the behest of the new team, but later this afternoon it will become official when Harding Steinbrenner Racing introduces Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta as full-timers on the 2019 IndyCar circuit in a press conference at Yankee Stadium.
The team will be based in Harding’s shop on Main Street in Speedway, rely on Andretti’s technical expertise, and be powered by Chevrolet. George Michael Steinbrenner IV, the 22-year-old son of New York Yankees part-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner who has fielded an Indy Lights car for Herta the past two seasons with Andretti Autosports, is moving up and will be the youngest car owner in IndyCar racing history.
“Walking around paddock as a kid, it was always cool to see Scott Dixon or Will Power ride by on their scooters, but anytime Roger Penske or Michael Andretti would come by that’s who I wanted to be, that’s what I wanted to do,” said Steinbrenner, whose interest was fueled by following the late Tony Renna in his early days.
“We took Colton under our wing, and I thought we could make the jump, and knew it wouldn’t be too long, and everything worked out perfectly. To have a new, passionate team like Harding Racing to partner with these two talented kids is just exciting. And we hope to give these grizzled veterans a run for their money.”
Brian Barnhart, team president for Harding Racing, has been around for four decades and knows how tough today’s competition is and how long it takes new teams to make an impression. That’s why he started working on putting Andretti and Harding together several months ago.
“I’ve got more respect for Michael Andretti than anyone in this paddock, and I thought if we were going to take the next step we had to form a relationship with an established team,” he said.
“We knew Michael was placeholder for Colton because of his relationship with Bryan, and it didn’t look like there was going to be a seat for him in 2019. So we signed him, and then got Pato. To have two talented teenagers to build with is just something that’s so appealing to Mike [Harding] and everyone else on this team.”
Harding, the Indianapolis paving contractor who began his team in 2017 with an impressive four-race stint with Gabby Chaves, had a rough sophomore season without a lot of technical resources or any sponsorship.
“I thought sponsorship was going to be easy and it’s not, so I’ve learned a lot in the past two years,” said Harding last weekend at Sonoma. “Getting to know George has been great because, he’s got a lot of passion and good ideas. And Michael and I are good friends, so it’s such a good match for us.
“Our two drivers are the future of IndyCar, and I think they’re both going to be superstars, and they’ve got me more committed and excited than I’ve ever been about IndyCar racing.”
O’Ward stood the IndyCar paddock on its ear last weekend at Sonoma when he qualified fifth-fastest out of 25 on his debut, and then finished ninth in the race.
“I feel very fortunate because it’s not often an Indy Lights driver gets to go right into IndyCar full-time,” said the personable 19-year-old Mexican, who won nine Lights races in 2018. “Without Michael and Mike I wouldn’t here, and if you told me I’d be racing an IndyCar by 2018, I would not have believed you.
“Colton and I pushed each other hard all season, and it made us better. We won almost every race, and I think as rookies we will continue to work together and the group we have behind us is very strong.”
Herta is a second-generation driver whose father Bryan is supportive but largely hands-off, and has watched his son go from skateboards to becoming a savvy racer at age 18 with the Steinbrenner’s support.
“It’s been amazing to get to know George, Hank and his family has been very supportive of my ambitions,” said Herta, who won four times in 2018 and ran 20th in his IndyCar debut last Sunday. “I’m super happy to make the jump with Steinbrenner name, and Mike Harding as well.
“It’s cool to call yourself an IndyCar driver, but I don’t think it will probably sink in until the first practice next year at St. Pete.”
Hank Steinbrenner is a gearhead from way back who sponsored Daryl Gywnn’s top fuel car in NHRA, loved Formula 1 in the 1960s and 1970s, and is gung-ho about his son’s entry into IndyCar.
“George has done very well, he’s very passionate about IndyCar and I’m very proud of him,” said Steinbrenner. “Mike and Chevy like him a lot. [I was] walking down pit road at one of races last year, and other drivers and mechanics come up to him, ‘Hey George’, and they could care less who I was, and this is one of the happiest days of my life.
“Our two kids are great with the kind of talent like Max Verstappen, and we’re going to keep them.”
At his initial press conference in Indianapolis back in 2016, Hank said he wasn’t going to write a big check for George’s team, but that he would definitely use his numerous baseball connections to help find sponsors and business-to-business relationships.
“We’ve got lots of possibilities for sponsorship, lot of potential,” continued Steinbrenner. “Pepsi is a big sponsor, and Ford, Toyota and Audi, three of our largest and best, but unfortunately they’re not in IndyCar right now. And we have some Mexican interest with Pato, so we’re talking to those people as well. We will definitely go after some our of core sponsors, and some of them would be a good fit.”
The most enlightening thing about the elder Steinbrenner is his passion for IndyCars. He gave IndyCar a resounding vote of confidence in 2016, and he wants IndyCar to succeed.
“I always loved drag racing, but Indianapolis was special to me,” he said. “I can still remember Bobby Unser’s sponsor was Bardahl, and the three greatest sporting events in the world are the World Cup, Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500.
“I still can’t believe Daytona gets a 5.1 rating and Indy only gets 3.4, because IndyCar is so much more exciting but we’ve got to get back to when Indy was king and we’re going to try our best to help make that happen.”