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.”