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INDYCAR

Herta aims for ‘youngest IndyCar winner’ record

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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.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida