Ryan: An IndyCar star is born on the streets of St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Felix Rosenqvist hopped on a pit wall along the runway of the Albert Whitted Airport, rubbed a very sore right shoulder and patiently took every question.

After turning in the most impressive drive of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie appropriately was sitting in a place known for takeoffs, yet it seemed (with a growing group of arriving reporters) as if he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

He certainly seems to be already entrenched in the NTT IndyCar Series, which likely witnessed the debut of a future star with Rosenqvvist’s eye-popping fourth-place finish on the 1.8-mile street circuit.

“Yeah, I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t on the podium, but still, it’s been a great day and a dream start to my IndyCar career,” the native of Malmo, Sweden, said after leading 31 laps of 110 laps. “It’s a shame we couldn’t get Chip Ganassi the first win since Dario (Franchitti) here (at St. Petersburg) but maybe next year.”

Franchitti delivered a win for Ganassi at St. Pete in 2011, which opened the last of his three consecutive championship seasons in the No. 10 before his 2013 retirement. Since Franchitti’s departure, the team had managed only one victory in the car that’s the primary complement to five-time series champion Scott Dixon.

Beyond just being another highly competitive title contender for IndyCar to build around in its next generation of big names, Rosenqvist could become the long-term answer that team owner Chip Ganassi has been seeking.

“I thought he did a great job,” Ganassi said. “You couldn’t ask for much more and for a kid who’s never driven an Indy car in a race before, all the sort of restarts and in and out of the pits and stops and all that, I think all in all, it was a solid day.

“You always hope that a guy is good like that when you bring him on. Obviously he showed the (talent) whether in preseason testing or things we’ve done before, but you really never know for sure.”

It took all of one corner for Rosenqvist to announce his presence to the IndyCar elite. Starting alongside Dixon after qualifying an impressive third, he made a power move past race winner Josef Newgarden to take second entering Turn 1.

In the same place on Lap 24, Rosenqvist locked up his brakes in a plume of white smoke while diving underneath Power and wresting the lead away from the defending Indianapolis 500 winner whom many consider to be the greatest street and road course driver of all time.

“I didn’t really know how it’s going to be until I hit the brakes,” he said with the classically delightful nonchalance of a European racer. “I hit them early but just couldn’t stop. Yeah, it was a good move.”

Felix Rosenqvist finished fourth in his IndyCar debut Sunday. (IndyCar photo by Chris Owens)

None of it was surprising to Dixon, who confidently has predicted his new teammates would wow the series quickly and often since Ganassi announced his signing late last season

“I was surprised he didn’t go for the lead in the first corner,” Dixon said with a laugh. “I knew he was going to be aggressive, and that’s what you’ve got to do, man. You got to come in and get after it. He did.

“It was cool to see that. He showed Will and Josef what’s up, which was a good little chuckle there. He’s fast, man. He’s got a lot of experience for a young guy and has raced so many different things. He’s a smart kid and is going to go a long way.”

Rosenqvist, 27, has had success in lower rungs of the racing ladder, posting three victories in Formula E over the past two seasons while also running in myriad sports car and touring series. He won the 2015 European Formula 3 championship with 13 victories, 24 podiums and 16 pole positions in 33 races.

He is managed by Stefan Johansson, a former Swedish F1 driver who also works with Dixon. That made Rosenqvist a natural fit at Ganassi, which has used him as a test driver for a few years.

With a diverse and experienced background despite his age, Rosenqvist has brought some “outside the box” ideas to Ganassi, Dixon said, while also raising the level of competition in a way that’s been missing from the powerhouse team’s other car.

“For his first go, he did a hell of a job,” Dixon said of Rosenqvist, who paced Friday’s opening practice at St. Pete. “It’s nice to have some real intra-team competition. I’m going to enjoy it for the rest of the season.

“Not just for me but for everybody, man. It lifts the whole team’s morale. Now we’ve got two dogs in the fight. It’s kind of nice.”

It’ll be tougher, though, on the competition, which already is respectful and wary of Rosenqvist’s prowess.

“He’s a rookie, but he’s obviously going to be really strong and has done a good job,” Power said.

Said Newgarden, who spun his tires at the start to give Rosenqvist the opening: “He’s going to be a very strong competitor. He’s going to give Scott a run for his money and he’s going to give all of us a run for our money. We want to see the greatest talent in the world running with us and I think you have one of the best in him. Yeah, it’s going to be tough to beat him.

“He wasn’t overzealous, but he’s a very experienced driver. He’s a rookie, but he’s driven just about anything you can drive outside of an IndyCar. He’s very, very good, very, very talented and I’ve watched him in all forms of racing whether it’s DTM or Formula E, anything. He’s very, very good at managing his car. I thought he was just perfect. Wasn’t too aggressive and he wasn’t too timid.”

There were a few mistakes. Rosenqvist, who is accustomed to shorter races, still is getting acclimated to getting in and out of the pits, and his first stop was less than optimal. While exiting on his second stop, he nearly was squeezed into the wall by Power (who had the right of way) while trying to maintain his track position. Rosenqvist somehow managed to save the car with some steering gymnastics.

“Yeah, I didn’t really know what was the rule,” he said. “I thought (Power) would give the room, and his spotter would clear and tell him I was there, but obviously not. It was a near-miss there. A near moment, but yeah. That’s also something to learn. My spotter told me I was clear, or maybe I heard wrong.

“It was just one of those scary moments, and I had to really step on the brakes to not hit him. It was fun racing against him. He’s one of my big idols. It was really cool just being around him for a lot of the race. I’ve always been an admirer of his driving, especially in qualifying. And Scott. And Tony (Kanaan). All these guys.

“It’s going to take some hours, but I think when I’m on the plane back home, I think I’m going to have a smile on my face.”

And probably a lingering pain in his arm. Over the last 20 laps, Rosenqvist’s right arm began “fading” because the seat pinched his shoulder, which cost him any shot at catching Power to make the podium.

“I think there was a bit more in it,” he said. “A good enough package to win the race. I can work on things.”

He’s displayed the commitment to improvement. Though he still keeps a residence in Monaco, Rosenqvist is renting an apartment in Indianapolis to stay connected to Ganassi’s IndyCar headquarters (“There are a lot of things to go through, and it’s easier to do it at the shop than phone or emails”). Though he still is mulling a permanent move to America, he said he has no aspirations to return to Europe and chase a Formula One career.

Could IndyCar be a long-term home?

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I love being in Chip Ganassi Racing. NTT Data is looking after me well and trusts in my abilities. Yeah. It’s just a great place to be right now.

“I feel settled in already here.”

That was more than evident Sunday.

And probably will be for years to come.

Felix Rosenqvist led 31 laps Sunday at St. Petersburg (IndyCar photo by Chris Owens).

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.