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

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

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”