INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Young Herta’s Indy 500 performance leaves veterans amazed

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INDIANAPOLIS – There are two types of conditions race drivers fear when it comes to qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 – a hot surface and wind.

Colton Herta, 19, had no fear of either when he made the first of his two qualification attempts in Saturday’s Indianapolis 500 time trials.

The hotter the track, the harder it is for the race car to maintain grip. The windier the conditions, the more difficult it is to keep control of the car.

At 2:14 p.m. ET on Saturday, the temperatures were in the high 80s with gusty winds.

No problem for Herta, as he went out and ran a four-lap average of 229.033 mph to put him firmly in the “Fast Nine Shootout,” scheduled to run today for the Indy 500 pole, weather permitting.

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Other cars and drivers, though, would move into the “Fast Nine”, and Herta knew he had more speed in his No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda. He was down to eighth place in the “Fast Nine”, and there were other drivers waiting for the final hour, when track conditions are better suited for grip and speed.

Herta didn’t want to wait and returned for a second attempt beginning at 4:44 p.m., when it was still quite hot.

The kid ran even faster, with a four-lap average at 229.478 mph and moved from eighth to fifth in the “Fast Nine.”

One of the first to congratulate Herta was his father, Bryan. As a team owner, he has won the Indianapolis 500 twice, including the late Dan Wheldon’s win in the 100th anniversary race in 2011 and the 100th Running with Alexander Rossi in 2016.

Herta is in charge of Marco Andretti’s car at Andretti Autosport.

As a driver, Bryan Herta competed in five Indy 500s with a best finish of third in 2005.

“He has respect for this place,” Bryan Herta told NBCSports.com on pit lane after his son’s run. “Maybe he doesn’t fear it, but he respects it, and that is all that you need.

“I’m off the charts when it comes to pride. I’ve been here on a hot, windy day, fully trimmed out. I know how hard it is to put four laps together. And he did it twice under the most harrowing conditions that we’ve had in qualifying here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’m very, very proud of him. When I talk to him, he doesn’t seem like a rookie. At no point did I ever feel he was over his head with this. You can win this race from anywhere, but he’s doing all the right things. He has a great shot.”

Some may call it a case of “He doesn’t know, what he doesn’t know.” But young Herta has unbelievable talent and poise for a driver who just turned 19.

“Middle of the second row isn’t bad if it rains Sunday,” Colton Herta told NBCSports.com. “It was tough on both runs because of the conditions. The last run we made; the car was more trimmed. But the first one, the car was glued down to the track despite the fact the track was hotter. It counteracted how hot the track was. It wasn’t terrible, actually.”

Young Herta believes his Harding Steinbrenner team has prepared a good race setup for next Sunday’s 103rd Running. Starting in the middle of Row 2 is a great starting position.

“It’s possible to win from anywhere; but it definitely helps when you start up front,” Herta said. “I knew we could probably make the Fast Nine if we did it perfect. I didn’t think we were going to be fifth. I thought maybe seventh, eighth, ninth was more realistic. It kind of blew my mind.

“We trimmed it on that last run and just kind of went for it, and yeah, the car was even a little better than it was on my first run.”

Troy Ruttman is the youngest Indy 500 winner in history; he won the 1952 race at age 22. Herta believes he has a great chance to break that record.

With his win in the IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas on March 24, he was just a week short of his 19th birthday.

“I have a few chances to get the record (for youngest Indy 500 winner),” Herta said. “I’ll be trying this year, for sure.

“If we don’t, we’ll have three more chances after that.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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Honda Photo
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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500