ST. PETERSBURG — Owning a sports team was probably inevitable for George Steinbrenner IV.
How could the grandson of The Boss not become a boss himself?
But not even the younger Steinbrenner envisioned this.
At age 22, the Clearwater Central Catholic alumnus will make his IndyCar debut in Sunday’s season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing. He’s the youngest owner in series history and, by his own account, years ahead of schedule.
And he’s doing it his way. Where his late grandfather was domineering and intimidating during his reign as the Yankees’ owner, the younger Steinbrenner is more down-to-earth and inquisitive. He considers his driver, rising star Colton Herta, more of a friend than an employee.
So forget the name. Steinbrenner isn’t The Boss.
More like The Kid.
“You talk to that kid, he is so damn smart,” said Herta, himself a kid at only 18. “The stuff that he knows is just incredible.”
And Steinbrenner knows it all because he has been around racing almost as much as baseball.
His stepdad, Sean Jones, raced. His cousin, Tony Renna, did, too, until his fatal crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003. And his uncle, Chris Simmons, is the lead engineer for five-time series champion Scott Dixon.
“I’ve known him since he was a little boy,” Dixon said. “He’s a great kid.”
The Kid has been making the half-hour drive from his family’s Clearwater home to the Grand Prix for more than a decade, and his hometown race played two key roles in his rapid ascent to ownership.
The first was fostering a natural love for the sport. When Steinbrenner was younger, he thought it was cool to see racecars speeding around the streets he knew so well. He was captivated by the cut-throat competition — 24 cars, one winner — and strategies.
Steinbrenner never had the urge to drive after his cousin’s tragic death. By age 12, he zeroed in on owning a team.
[ RELATED: View a gallery of photos from the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg ]
“I thought we had baseball covered pretty well, so maybe I’d go to my other passion that I have in the sports world and jump right into it,” Steinbrenner said.
He was able to do it in part because of a connection he made at the Grand Prix.
The 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course is where he first met Bryan Herta, the car owner for Dan Wheldon’s 2011 Indianapolis 500 win. A few months later, Steinbrenner was introduced to Bryan Herta’s son, Colton.
“We clicked really well,” Colton Herta said. “We hung out quite a bit, and our relationship grew.”
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The relationship grew so much that Steinbrenner dropped out of Stetson University after one semester in 2016 to take an internship on Bryan Herta’s RallyCross team.
Steinbrenner did a lot of grunt work: mopping floors, filling coolers, carrying helmets and answering phones. But he also got to learn the day-to-day operations he hadn’t seen as a fan. What goes on in engineering meetings? How does everything get to the track? What needs to happen during weekdays to win on the weekend?
Steinbrenner figured he would spend another few years learning those logistics before pursuing his own team. Then he found out Colton Herta wasn’t happy with his career in Europe and was thinking about coming back to the U.S. to make a run at IndyCar.
“We sort of looked at each other,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ve got the same dream. Why not chase it together?”
So they did.
Herta returned home, and Steinbrenner fast-tracked his ownership plan. Steinbrenner teamed with powerhouse Andretti Autosport to give Herta a ride in Indy Lights, IndyCar’s Triple-A series. Herta won at the 2017 Grand Prix en route to a rookie-of-the-year season, then finished second in the series last year to set up a jump to the big league.
“He was going to make the leap regardless, because he was ready,” Steinbrenner said. “We were ready to go with him.”
They joined Harding Racing, a second-year team with a solid staff (including former series race director Brian Barnhart and two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser. Jr.) but room to grow under Steinbrenner.
Their development has been bumpy at times. Securing sponsors has been hard, even for a businessman named Steinbrenner. Last month, the team had to drop its plans for running a second car with Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward.
But it has also been filled with promise. Their No. 88 Honda was quick during testing and the fourth fastest Friday.
Despite the early speed, the inexperienced team is keeping expectations for its first race and first season in perspective. Long-term, however, Steinbrenner wants to become a perennial championship contender, like Andretti, Team Penske or the Steinbrenners’ other sports franchise.
“We’ll always be linked to the Yankees,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s just a matter of growing our brand in a different sport.”
And making a name for himself —not as The Boss’ grandson, but as The Kid.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.