Herta aims for ‘youngest IndyCar winner’ record

INDYCAR Photo by James Black
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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.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.