Herta (far left) and Telitz (center) aren't just rivals on the track. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta, Telitz rivalry in Indy Lights has Yankees, Red Sox DNA embedded

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Today marks the first time the New York Yankees (11-7) and Boston Red Sox (11-8) square off in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, 7 p.m. ET tonight at Fenway Park.

Back down on the farm, however, they’ve already battled twice this year in St. Petersburg and Birmingham, Ala.

The tangential connection that manages to see this lede weave into a racing story comes courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ proverbial triple-A affiliate, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and two of its top young American prospects: Colton Herta and Aaron Telitz.

Herta’s Yankees connection is well-documented, if not directly related to his own family roots, as Bryan Herta’s son is only 17 years old and hails from Valencia, Calif.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing team principal George Michael Steinbrenner IV (pictured above), just 20, is the grandson of the iconic owner of the New York Yankees; he’s the son of Hank Steinbrenner, part-owner and co-chairman of the Yankees now. George Michael’s mother was a cousin of the late Tony Renna, a talented up-and-comer who died in 2003. Renna’s teammate in Indy Lights in the 1990s was Chris Simmons, who’s now Scott Dixon’s race engineer in IndyCar. George Michael’s stepfather is Sean Jones, Bryan Herta’s long-time friend and business partner. It’s confusing at first glance, but when you put the pieces together there’s a huge passion and amount of racing blood for these families.

Herta in St. Petersburg, near the adopted winter hometown for the Yankees of Tampa. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He drives the No. 98 Deltro Energy Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing and while his car isn’t exactly painted in pinstripes, it’s blue and white.

Birchwood, Wisc.’s Telitz, 25, by contrast, has a lesser known but direct family lineage with the Boston Red Sox. His great grandfather was Fred Thomas, a third baseman for the Red Sox, who was on the 1918 World Series-winning team – the last Red Sox team to win it all before the team broke its 86-year drought in 2004 (the Yankees oh so happily won 26 of their 27 World Championships between 1923 and 2000 during this period).

Thomas was born in Milwaukee and was more known for a couple things he did beyond playing on the diamond itself. While on furlough from the Navy, Thomas coined the idea of playing the National Anthem at sporting events. Telitz explains it more in an April 2015 blog he wrote after winning the 2013 Team USA Scholarship, which also has a further explanation about Thomas’ and the National Anthem from ESPN.com linked within that blog.

BOSTON, MA – MAY 22: Members of all four branches of the United States military stand on the field for a pregame ceremoiney before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox on May 22, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Before this series, the two teams haven’t played at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Thomas founded a resort in Northern Wisconsin in 1924; the Fred Thomas Resort stands proud today more than 80 years later, and it’s one of several associate partners (Rice Lake Weighing Systems primary among them) you can see on Telitz’s car this year. In no small coincidence, it helps that Telitz’s No. 9 Soul Red Mazda for Belardi Auto Racing isn’t that different a shade of red from the Boston Red Sox colors.

Telitz’s Soul Red isn’t much different from Red Sox red. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Among the cool items Telitz notes from his great grandfather’s lineage is that he had a “real life The Sandlot situation” come to life with one of the mementos from that 1918 World Series.

“Because of Fred, my Grandpa was always interested in what the Red Sox were doing. So they watched quite often,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “In 2004 when they won the World Series, I watched it with my whole family. We get mementos from Red Sox all the time and that year, they sent us an American flag, in honor of Fred’s service to the country.

“One of the funny things from 1918 was that Fred had two game balls and had everyone on the team sign them. He took them back home with him to Birchwood. They sat in the main lodge of the resort in a basket, and kids used to be able to play baseball with them… as they had no idea these’d be worth anything. Eventually my Grandpa did save one of them and put it in a case and our family. I think the other one got lost!

“It was a real-life Sandlot situation. But back then it wasn’t a big deal! Then it became, oh, it’s a huge deal.”

Telitz’s family has Red Sox roots. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With Telitz having the Red Sox connection, finding out Herta – and more importantly, the Steinbrenners – were coming to Indy Lights this year as well, it was hard for him not to be excited about that. It would also rekindle a rivalry the two started to have on their own in their rookie season of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2014, when Telitz won a race for ArmsUp Motorsports while Herta, then 14, scored a couple top-five finishes in a learning year.

“When I heard the Steinbrenners were coming in I was like, that’s so cool!” Telitz laughed. “It’s funny; Colton doesn’t exactly have a real connection, whereas I’m a direct descendent of the third baseman that won the 1918 World Series. So now here we are, and our paths have crossed again.”

Herta won Indy Lights’ 400th race Sunday at Barber. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Lest Herta be one to let the friendly jab come at him without a comeback, young “Hertamania 2.0” was quick with a comedic rebuttal.

“Well he’s running the red car, and I’m running a blue and white car. So, it’s kind of similar in that point as well. I think, just like many years before, we’ll see the Yankees emerge victorious over the Red Sox!” Herta laughed. “But no, I didn’t know that (about Aaron)! That’s actually really cool to see the baseball connections coming into racing.”

Herta expanded on his own upbringing and how the longtime Dodgers fan has adopted a different shade of blue.

“As a child, I grew up watching the Dodgers, with living just 40 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles,” he said. “Being the home team, that’s who I was always rooted for and growing up, that’s who my dad rooted for as well. I wasn’t as a child, but I’ve grown to be a Yankees fan this year.

“I’ve been able to go to quite a few Spring Training games, and have been fortunate to go behind the scenes with the Yankees and it’s really impressive. Plus, obviously, I kind of have to like them – I’m driving for their team! It’s not a bad team to like, they win a lot!”

On the scoreboard in Indy Lights this year, where the big league prize to graduate to IndyCar is $1 million from Mazda as an advancement scholarship for three races, Herta has won twice – including Sunday’s 400th race in Indy Lights history at Barber Motorsports Park – while Telitz can always say he beat Herta to winning in his series debut, as he dominated the season opener from St. Petersburg. Herta leads the points with 101 while Telitz sits fourth on 74.

So, it’s play ball between these two drivers with likely baseball’s most iconic rivalry as an intriguing subplot for the rest of the year.

BOSTON – JULY 24: Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees walks to first base with hitting coach Don Mattingly #23 after a fight with Jason Varitek #33 of the Boston Red Sox in the third inning after Rodriguez was hit by a pitch by pitcher Bronson Arroyo on July 24, 2004 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Both Rodriguez and Jason Varitek of the Red Sox were ejected from the game. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500