There are many people who have played a role in 20-year-old Colton Herta’s NTT IndyCar Series career. Hank Steinbrenner was one of them.
Steinbrenner, the co-owner and co-chairman of the New York Yankees, died Tuesday in Clearwater Beach, Florida, after a lengthy illness unrelated to COVID-19. He was 63.
One of his children, son George Michael Steinbrenner IV, is a team principal at Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport. The two are featured in the photo above with George to the left and Hank to the right before an IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park.
Once an aspiring racer, young Steinbrenner struck up a friendship with Herta early in their teen years and has gone on to the highest level of open-wheel racing in North America.
Herta, whose father, Bryan, is a former IndyCar Series race winner and current team co-owner at Andretti Autosport, met Hank Steinbrenner when he was 14. Because of his son’s interest in taking Herta to IndyCar, Hank Steinbrenner helped back the effort.
But unlike his own father, the legendary George Steinbrenner, Hank preferred to remain out of the spotlight. George Steinbrenner was one of the most visible and outspoken team owners in professional sports history. He revived the New York Yankees in the 1970s and owned the team until he died in 2010.
By then, Hank and his younger brother, Hal, were in charge of continuing the Yankees tradition in Major League Baseball.
Naturally, Colton met Hank Steinbrenner at a baseball game in 2014 through a connection with Sean Jones, George Steinbrenner IV’s stepfather who raced against Bryan Herta in the late 1980s.
“I went to a spring training game in Tampa during St. Pete weekend,” Colton told NBCSports.com in an exclusive interview Tuesday night. “I was in USF2000 and was too young to be racing. I was at a game Friday night and that is when I first met him.
“Similar to what he was like at the race track, he was like that at the baseball game, too. He was in the suite having a good time with his family. He was a great guy and I really enjoyed the time that we had. I was lucky enough to spend time with him.
“It helped with how much George liked me and wanted to do something with me. He saw the speed. The Yankee tradition of winning, he wanted to carry that into racing. That was a big thing to put on my shoulders. I wanted to do the best or him and the company and for George.”
Hank was interested in his son’s passion for racing. When George Michael Steinbrenner, IV wanted a career as a racing team owner instead of entering the family’s baseball business, Hank wanted his son to learn it on his own. He would help his son any way he could, but Hank wanted young George to learn the sports business the hard way.
“That was very important,” Bryan Herta told NBCSports.com. “What I saw from Hank personally is he was about two things – family and winning. In that order.
“George was really the one that pushed and wants to do this. His father was happy to stay in the background and support him. That’s true with George’s entire family. They are all deeply involved but are happy to let George be the face of this.
“If anything, the fact that Hank was willing to take a step back and let it be George’s thing. People didn’t often know when Hank was there. Hank would literally rent a motorhome and camp outside of Turn 12 at Road America. He didn’t even often come to the paddock or was seen but was there supporting.
“Hank was a passionate race fan. He was a huge Jimmy Clark fan from years ago. He would often talk about Jimmy Clark and his exploits. Also, he had his own partnership in Darrell Gwynn’s drag racing team. His father was a partner in Pat Patrick’s IndyCar team at one time. There is great family history in motorsports and IndyCar in the Steinbrenner family.
“It’s a loss for all of us, it really is.”
Hank Steinbrenner had a deep interest in auto racing. He was partners with Darrell Gwynn’s NHRA drag racing team. His father, the legendary Yankees owner, was team owner Pat Patrick’s partner on an Indy 500 team in the 1970s.
Hank’s favorite driver was the late, great Jim Clark.
“He knew a lot about racing,” Colton said of Hank. “He knew a lot about what it takes to run the business side of racing. His love of IndyCar was impressive. He knew the facts, watched Rick Mears and the guys racing in the 1980s. He knew a lot and I would not have expected anything less.
“It comes down to his passion for motorsport. Hank was an IndyCar guy growing up in the 1970s and really enjoyed watching IndyCar racing. He was supportive to George and what he wanted to do and didn’t take the limelight away from what George was doing. He was there to support us and was a fan of the sport.”
Hank Steinbrenner knew the right distance to take in helping his son learn the professional sports business.
“He never forced his presence on the IndyCar paddock, but he was obviously deeply involved in the sport and had a real passion for it through his son George,” Bryan Herta recalled. “Also, he was deeply instrumental in furthering Colton’s career. He is somebody I admired and respected and feel a great sense of loss for the Steinbrenner family right now.”
Colton Herta got to talk to Hank Steinbrenner on April 2, his 63rd birthday.
“I always knew when it was his birthday, but it was just a few days after mine,” said Colton, whose birthday is March 30. “It’s all positive stuff that I look back on and the memories of him. Thinking of the Steinbrenner family as a whole, I can’t imagine what they are going through and what George and Julia and Jacqueline and John are going through. It’s a tough time.
“Hank always believed in George, and he always believed in me. For that reason, I liked to stay loyal to them. It means a lot for what he did for my career.
“This is obviously terrible news.”
Earlier in the day, Hank’s son, George, IV, issued a statement on his father’s passing:
“Ever since I can remember, my dad has always been my biggest supporter. He taught me determination, confidence and the desire to win above all else. Being a massive racing fan himself, when I sought to start a racing team, he stood in my corner the whole way. I will forever be grateful for all the lessons he taught me. I look forward to the day we are able to return to the track and race to win in his honor. Until then, my heart is with my family, our race team and the entire Yankees organization.”