IndyCar

Indy Lights’ 1-2 finishers O’Ward, Herta to make IndyCar debuts Sunday at Sonoma

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The future for Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta begins in this weekend’s IndyCar season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.

O’Ward, who just won the Indy Lights championship at the age of 19, and Herta, who at 18 finished a close second to O’Ward, are ready to make the big step to open wheel racing’s premier series in the U.S.

Even though they’re both signed to Andretti Autosport, both drivers will find themselves behind the wheel this weekend in one-off starts for Harding Racing, with Andretti Autosport’s full blessing.

“Clearly, Pato and Colton demonstrated a ton of potential, some great racing craft, a lot of speed for the Andretti Autosport Indy Lights team, certainly caught our eye on that,” Harding Racing president Brian Barnhart said during a Monday media teleconference. “So in addition to Gabby (Chaves) and Conor (Daly), we focused on trying to give some of the up-and-coming young talent a test.

“We were able to do Colton’s test at Portland the first week of August, and after Pato secured the championship, we ran him last Thursday at Sonoma. Both of them were very successful days. I’m really impressed by the maturity of both the kids. At 18 and 19 years old, they really demonstrated a high level of maturity with their thought processes, their feedback, their car control. Both of them did an excellent job.”

Admittedly, the two young drivers have a long learning curve in advancing from Indy Lights to IndyCar.

“They’ll be longer races than anything they’ve ever done,” Barnhart said. “They’ll be involved in pit stops, which they haven’t done in an Indy Lights car.

“So the physicality of the car itself, the loads and the forces combined with the length of the race and the pit stops is going to be a physically and mentally challenging weekend for them. But I think they’re both going to be up to the task.

“Harding Racing really believes in the future of these kids, and I think they’ve both earned an opportunity to make their debut this weekend, and we’re excited about it.”

Not putting the cart before the horsepower, so to speak, but this weekend will serve as a dress rehearsal for 2019 for both drivers. Neither plans on returning to Indy Lights next season.

By winning the Indy Lights championship, O’Ward — a native of Monterrey, Mexico — received a $1 million dollar Mazda Road to Indy scholarship that guarantees him three IndyCar starts next season, including the Indianapolis 500.

“I don’t look at myself (going back to) Indy Lights,” said O’Ward, who won nine races and a series record poles, as well as series Rookie of the Year honors. “I feel like I’m ready for the IndyCar Series, and I feel like I’d do a good job there.

“So I’m going to be working really hard to get something together for possibly a full-season ride for the next couple years. I think that would be ideal.

“You know, if you would have asked me, ‘Hey, do you see yourself in an IndyCar in the end of 2018?’ Honestly, I would have told you ‘no.’ The goal has always been to get to the IndyCar Series, but after this fantastic year that we had and this amazing opportunity that Harding and Team Chevy have given me, I want to make the most out of it, and I couldn’t be more excited for my debut, honestly.”

Herta, meanwhile, son of former IndyCar driver and Andretti Autosport minority owner Bryan Herta, is hoping to put together a multi-race package for himself next season.

“I think we’re both in similar situations where we’re ready to move up and kind of just focused on this weekend, but during the off-season try and get a full ride,” Herta said. “But if not, try and do a few races, try and at least do the (Indy) 500, something of that nature, just kind of get experience in IndyCar, try and get some good results and maybe a door will open.”

Herta, who earned four wins in Indy Lights this season, tested six weeks ago at Portland International Raceway, site of the most recent IndyCar race last weekend.

“It seems like a century,” Herta said of that Portland test. “Once you get a little taste of IndyCar, it’s hard to go back to any other car. It’s such a nice car, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yeah, super excited for this weekend. Really looking forward to it.”

When the green flag falls to start Sunday’s race, Herta will also achieve a milestone, becoming the fourth-youngest driver to race in IndyCar.

Barnhart will be keeping a dutiful eye on both drivers this weekend, particularly in Sunday’s IndyCar season finale. While both drivers are signed to Andretti Autosport, there potentially could be a partnership between AA and Harding Racing to allow at least one of those two drivers to race for Harding next season.

“We’re certainly interested,” Barnhart said when asked by NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk. “We’ve been happy with the assistance we’ve received from the Andretti group. Mike Harding, our owner, has a very good relationship with Michael (Andretti), and we tried to be very transparent and began this process this summer when we were interested in at least getting the two guys an opportunity to test in the car.

“Before we even reached out to Colton or to Pato, Mike and I went straight to Michael and told him of our interest and certainly didn’t want to cross any boundaries there without being transparent and open to Michael about what we were looking to do. He was nothing but supportive and has helped facilitate with a lot of the equipment and some of the pieces and parts to make it happen, and he’s been very cooperative in getting the track time on there.

“We’re very thankful to Andretti Autosport and Michael Andretti for what they’ve been able to do. They did a great job, obviously, with Colton and Pato in their Lights cars this year running 1 and 2 in the championship there.

“I don’t know, I can’t speak to a lot of what the future could hold on it. We’re certainly focused on this weekend and then trying to identify what we can do to maximize Harding Racing’s plans next year.

“Ultimately as we’ve said all along, we would love to be a two-car team, and a lot of that will be budget driven, and if we can make that happen, we think that’s our ultimate goal.”

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Dean Wilson’s life as a privateer reconnects the rider to his roots

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One of the added benefits of subscribing to NBC Sports Gold is the in-depth interviews from each Saturday’s action. Last week between the first and second rounds of qualification for the Glendale Supercross race, a relaxed and confident Dean Wilson joined Race Day Live’s Daniel Blair and Jim Holley to review his fourth-place finish in the season opener and his mindset moving forward.

Losing factory support from Rockstar / Husqvarna at the end of 2018 was not exactly what Wilson had in mind, but after getting off to a great start in the first two races this season, it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

The life of a privateer is not exactly relaxed, but it affords a rider the opportunity to call his own shots. For Wilson, it is also a way to reconnect with the grassroots feel that attracted him to Supercross in the first place.

“I think that’s what I like,” Wilson said on Race Day Live. “I think that’s the environment and atmosphere I like – it’s just more low key. At Anaheim I, you would think I was local racing at Glen Helen. I had a Sprinter and I had another trailer just to chill in, do my spins. It was so cold I had a little propane heater to warm me up. But I like that. That’s what works for me.”

MORE: Dean Wilson’s Cinderella story at Anaheim 

The program Wilson was able to put together during the offseason produced back-to back top 10s – a much better start to the 2019 season than he experienced last year.

In 2018, Wilson did not score a top 10 until his fourth feature at San Diego. His first top five would not come until late March in Indianapolis.

This year Wilson got the hole shot and led 14 laps at Anaheim in the opener before finishing fourth. Last week in Glendale, he finished eighth.

“What was going through my head was ‘it’s about time; it’s about five years too late to lead some laps here,’ ” Wilson described his emotion as he led at Anaheim. “It was nice because I did a lot of work in the off-season and my starts were really good. The thing is I haven’t over-analyzed my starts and practice.”

At Anaheim I, Wilson struggled with visibility as his goggles began to get fouled by mud. A once comfortable lead was eroded by Justin Barcia. With pressure from behind, Wilson made a minor mistake that was then compounded by lapped traffic.

“I was leading my laps; I was just trying to hit my marks. I was doing really well until I made a couple of mistakes. I couldn’t hit that middle double, double … the rut was getting real chewed out, but I was already on the right side where you couldn’t double the middle part so you had to go roll, roll, roll – and Barcia was already on me.”

Wilson’s pair of top 10s was enough to keep him fifth in the standings, three points behind Glendale’s winner Blake Baggett.

For more, watch the video above.

Next Race: Anaheim II Jan. 19, 11 p.m., NBCSN

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