Roger Penske keeps ‘looking out the windshield’ during impressive run

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With a victory Sunday in its 2019 season opener, Roger Penske’s IndyCar team staved off extinction.

“I think the sports car (team) is getting dropped now,” Will Power deadpanned.

No, the IMSA team – the only arm of Team Penske’s auto racing juggernaut that is “winless” this season (through one race) – won’t be shuttered if it fails to take the checkered flag in the 12 Hours of Sebring next weekend (on the NBC Sports App, CNBC and NBCSN).

But Josef Newgarden’s triumph in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg continued an incredible roll across two continents, myriad states and four diverse series. Over a seven-day span, Team Penske notched two wins in the Australian Supercars series and wins in the NASCAR Cup Series (with Joey Logano) and IndyCar.

“It adds a level of intensity, because you see everyone else in the organization,” Newgarden said. “They are all doing well. You don’t want to be the one group that’s not doing well. At the same time, if we weren’t doing well, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“We’re going to yo-yo up and down from a performance standpoint within our organization, but you don’t want to be that one group that’s falling behind. It’s across the board. Whatever Penske puts their efforts in, they are going to make the most of it.”

With the Cup team having won eight of the past 16 races (and nearly getting a victory Sunday from pole-sitter Ryan Blaney to back up consecutive wins by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), it’s obvious what is meant when racing icon Roger Penske and his top lieutenants talk about a positive type of pressure-packed expectations permeating its mammoth shop in Mooresville, N.C., that houses the IMSA, NASCAR and IndyCar teams.

“It’s always great to have so much success on the track, especially to start the season,” Penske said. “We’ve had a strong start with our NASCAR program and locking Brad and Joey into the playoffs.  And getting two early wins with our Supercars program and the new Mustang has been great for our group in Australia.

“Now to come (to St. Petersburg) and have a pole with Will, sweep the front row and win the race with Josef is a great way to start our season on the INDYCAR side with Chevrolet. Next week, we will be at Sebring and try to get our ACURA Team Penske program in victory lane in the historic 12 hours race.

“But we need to keep looking out the windshield.  The competition in all these series is strong and they will keep improving.  So we need to keep pushing. There is a long season ahead of us.”

Roger Penske on his IndyCar teams stand. He calls strategy for Will Power.

It was a busy offseason of personnel shuffling at Team Penske, which lost cornerstone executive Clive Howell to retirement after a four-decade career. The team promoted Ron Ruzewski to managing director, Kyle Moyer to general manager of IndyCar and Jon Bouslog IMSA general manager.

The IndyCar team also went to work on improving its performances on road and street courses, where it trailed the Hondas of Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport last year.

Before winning the pole Saturday at St. Pete, Power cracked that Penske had told him, “Start packing your bags, Power. You’re not strong enough”, but the elite road and street racer wasn’t joking about being at a deficit on those circuits in 2018.

“That was where we suffered the most last year,” he said. “We have a different package (in 2019). Really interested to see where we stack up.”

Both Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, whose Penske Chevrolet was seventh Sunday, said street courses such as St. Pete had been pinpointed by the team over the winter as the most important area of improvement (Power brought Penske his 17th Indy 500 win in 2018 as the team had speed on ovals).

“We worked really closely, the three of us drivers, with our engineers to improve the race cars in the offseason,” Pagenaud said. “It was really awesome, the teamwork that went into it. Team Penske is so humble about it. With that many wins and championships to rethink what they’re doing and to go forward with no contentiousness. It’s cool to be part of that.”

Penske said he feels the camaraderie often while walking through his shop these days. A month ago, Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin and a contingent from Down Under spent a few days building relationsphips with their North Carolina brethren.

“It’s amazing,” said the 82-year-old team owner dubbed “The Captain”. “I walk in, and the first thing the NASCAR guys say is, ‘That’s great what they did in Australia.’ We bring these guys all together. When you’re in the different series, and we’re trying to have the best people we can, we moved a lot of people over from IndyCar to sports cars to back, and we’ll continue to do that. One of the best young guys now doing strategy (on IMSA) was a strategist for me on Helio’s Indy car. He’s doing a hell of a job down there now. So these are the things we’re trying to do.”

It builds a “healthy” rivalry, team president Tim Cindric said. “The IndyCar guys showed up this weekend, and our drivers were like it’s up to us now,” he said. “It spurs them on with that they can’t get too comfortable.”

A recent phone call with Penske, though, reminded Newgarden that’s more about being supportive for the future than worrying about keeping pace with past results.

“We talked about the NASCAR guys,” Newgarden said. “He was really pumped up about where they’re at. For Roger, his mind just goes to where are we going to be at. If we don’t have what we need, we need to get it.

“He’s just a racer and wants to be good across the board.”

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.