Sam Schmidt confirms interest in Colton Herta, McLaren

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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STEAM CORNERS, Ohio – Sam Schmidt has confirmed to NBC Sports.com that he has interest in 19-year-old driver Colton Herta joining his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Schmidt also revealed he has spoken to Zak Brown of McLaren about joining forces for a full-time IndyCar Series team in the future, but he would have to become a Chevrolet team for that to happen.

Now that Alexander Rossi has made his decision to stay with Andretti Autosport for at least the next three seasons, plus an option year, the focus shifts to Herta, who is in his first season with Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“We are very interested in Colton Herta,” Schmidt told NBCSports.com. “He is a very talented, young driver.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens“I’ve heard that they (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) have an option as well as Michael Andretti. Now that the Alexander Rossi contract has been announced, who knows where that goes.

“Right now, we have another year on James Hinchcliffe’s contract. Marcus Ericsson has said numerous times he wants to come back to our team. Right now, we are vetting that out fully to see where that stands for now, because we aren’t running more than two cars next year.

“Right now, from what I’ve heard they have options on Colton and Mike Harding is going to do everything he can to keep him in the seat. There is lots of speculation there.”

The interest in Herta is increasing because Harding Steinbrenner Racing is underfunded. Team president Brian Barnhart told NBCSports.com at Iowa that the team needs to find either an additional sponsor or an additional team owner to invest in the Honda-powered team.

Team owner Michael Andretti is also involved because he owns part of Herta’s contract and uses Harding Steinbrenner Racing as a partnership team in IndyCar. That team has an engineering alliance with Andretti Technologies, and many of Herta’s crewmembers came from Andretti Autosport.

“I have some control of Colton’s contract,” Andretti told NBCSports.com. “It’s complicated, put it that way. If it stays in the family, I have control. If things fall apart, then everybody loses control. The goal is to keep it all going somehow. Unfortunately, the sponsorship they had is not coming through, and that is putting a lot of pressure on Mike Harding.

“We’re trying to help them. I consider them friends – the Hardings and the Steinbrenners. We have to figure out how to help our friends, and that is what we are trying to do to keep him in our family.

“Obviously, we want to figure out how to keep him in our family. We want Colton to remain in our family. I was really happy we were able to do what we did. The goal is to keep it going. We’ve been watching and focusing on it to see if we can help. We will continue to work with Mike and the Steinbrenner’s to figure out what we can do in the future.”

Team Penske president Tim Cindric told NBCSports.com that Alexander Rossi’s agent and father, Pieter, had approached the team earlier this season to see if it had interest in the 27-year-old driver.

“We told him to reconnect with us after May,” Cindric told NBCSports.com. “When we told them, it would be in a fourth car, they weren’t interested in being part of four cars.”

But does Team Penske have an interest in signing Herta?

“We’re not running four cars,” Cindric said. “That’s the end of that discussion.”

Andretti believes there are many teams in the IndyCar paddock that have interest in youngest driver ever to win an NTT IndyCar Series race when he won at Circuit of the Americas on March 24.

“You have a lot of others interested in him like Sam Schmidt and Ed Carpenter,” Andretti said. “I’ve even heard a few F1 teams are interested in him. There is a lot of interest because the kid is really good. That is great.

“But it’s our job to keep him in the family.”

Schmidt’s team was also interested in Rossi but realized if the money he had to offer was close to what Andretti could spend, he would stay with Andretti.

“Any driver that has a great situation with his engineer and his team, if they could get close on the money, I’m sure he would have rather stayed there than upset the apple cart,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also spoke about McLaren’s interest in partnering with his team, which would once again be complicated because Arrow Schmidt Peterson is a Honda team, and Honda Japan does not want to do any future business with McLaren after an acrimonious split with McLaren F1 in 2017.

“Again, we have another year on our contract with Honda,” Schmidt said. “The company has stated perfectly clear they can’t be associated with (McLaren CEO) Zak Brown or McLaren, so I think that alienates us from that program.”

Andretti was offered a lucrative proposal by Brown to have McLaren join forces with Andretti Autosport and was about to switch from Honda to Chevrolet. But first-year Honda Performance Development president Ted Klaus convinced Andretti to stay with Honda, which in turn allowed Andretti to re-sign Rossi.

Honda plans on making Rossi its lead test driver when IndyCar goes to the 2.4-liter engine formula in 2021.

“We had to look at all of that, including McLaren,” Andretti said. “It’s going to suck if I see McLaren out there with another team because we worked so hard to make that happen. Zak and I are really close and wanted to make it work. We are partners in Australia. It will be really awkward if he makes it work somewhere else.

“I think a lot still has to happen for McLaren to come over, but they are not quitters. What happened at Indianapolis in May is going to make them more determined than ever. That is their mentality.

“Unfortunately, it won’t happen with us because they can’t work together with Honda. That means they would have to come in with a Chevy team.”

Young Herta has done a tremendous job isolating himself from the rumors and speculation and getting on with his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series. He is currently 14th in the standings with four races remaining this season. He is coming off an eighth-place finish in last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

“It’s always nice that there are people interested in me,” Herta told NBCSports.com “If something bad happens, there is potential for somebody else to give me a ride, which is nice. But I’m pretty happy where I’m at, at the moment.

“As long as you have a good car, you don’t think about that. I’ve had a good car most of the time.

“It gives confidence, not only for the actual race team but the marketing and PR department. All these other teams are fully funded, and we are running up front with them. Thanks to NBC, we have gotten great exposure at all of the races. PT (Paul Tracy) and Townsend Bell and Leigh Diffey and the broadcast group have done a tremendous job covering us. They have told me firsthand about that and that’s nice.

“Mike Harding and George Michael Steinbrenner, IV both made an investment in the team early on, so it didn’t really affect us. Luckily, we had Capstone Turbine jump on board as a co-primary and then as a primary the past two weekends is nice. Hopefully, they can keep going with us.”

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”