AUSTIN, Texas – On Thursday night, 18-year-old Colton Herta and his father, Bryan, had dinner with Marco Andretti and his wife, Marta Krupa, at a local Mexican restaurant less than a half-mile from the main entrance to Circuit of the Americas.
Back in 2006, Andretti held the record as the youngest driver to win a major racing at the age of 19 years, 167 days. Graham Rahal lowered that record when he drove to victory in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at age 19 years, 93 days.
Herta turns 19 on March 30 and has 98 more days to claim the record for ‘youngest IndyCar winner’ if he should score a victory in the next three months.
“Yes, I will be coming for that record,” Herta told NBC Sports.com on Friday.
But young Herta’s experience in Friday’s first practice session went up in flames when his Honda engine had an internal parts failure near the end of the first NTT IndyCar Series practice session at Circuit of the Americas.
Herta was the second fastest driver in the first practice session for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic with a fast time of 1:48.7939 around the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course for a speed of 112.980 miles per hour. With 18 minutes left in the session, however, Herta’s Honda seized up and dumped oil on the track. The rookie driver for Harding Steinbrenner Racing was penalized five minutes for bringing out the red flag, but that didn’t matter as his team had to replace the engine.
Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden was the fastest driver in the opening session with a lap at 1:48.6567 (112.837 mph). Newgarden won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10.
“The car was really good,” Herta told NBC Sports.com. “I think everybody in the paddock knew it was going to be really good from the preseason test in February. In these low-grip situations we were fast in testing. We knew when the track was low grip, we would be fast.
“Unfortunately, the engine let go. That hampered our practice but honestly, first session, people aren’t going to be running that much any way with one set of tires, so it wasn’t a huge loss.”
Herta said the engine started to “give up” going through Turns 5. By the time he got to Turn 8, the engine “seized and locked the rears and just spun out.”
It was the first time in Herta’s career that he had ever had a blown engine in a race car.
“I have no clue how long it takes to swap engines,” Herta laughed. “Like I said, it’s better that it happened now than later when we are trying to go for track time.”
Herta is the only driver at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, but that team has a technical alliance with Andretti Technologies. That means engineering information and data can be shared between Andretti’s four drivers including Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Zach Veach, Marco Andretti and Herta.
“I think a lot of the Andretti cars moved over to our setup on the second day of preseason testing and then we found even more speed. The Andretti cars are moving to our setup, so we have a lot of data from this place. My team and car did some really good things setup wise.”
Herta started 11thand finished eighth in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, but his rookie drive was overlooked when another rookie driver, 27-year-old Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, finished fourth and led 31 laps in the race.
“It was overshadowed by Felix because he finished better than me, but we had pace to run in the top five at the end,” Herta said. “We were fast but made some mistakes. I slapped the wall in Turn 3 on a restart and that moved me back in positions all the way to 18th. But we made it back to eighth just on pure pace and good strategy.”
Herta’s co-team owner is 22-year-old George Michael Steinbrenner, IV – the grandson of former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the son of Hank Steinbrenner, co-owner of the Yankees with his brother Hal.
“It’s always unfortunate to have a failure like that, but we know we have the pace here from the test and we showed we still have it from the first part of that session,” Steinbrenner said. “Looking forward now to later Friday afternoon and getting the car back on track and keep moving forward.
“Any type of failure is always disappointing. It didn’t happen in the race, we have a lot of work to do, but we’ll be ready.”
Steinbrenner believes his team and Herta match the challenges that come at COTA. It’s also a new venue for all drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, so a team that is able to find the right setup the soonest can benefit the most. So far, that is Herta.
If he can find the winning setup over the next three months, Herta can become the youngest winner in IndyCar history.
“Colton has shown the pace so far, it’s a matter of putting it together,” Steinbrenner said. “It would be an interesting record to break.”