INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Sam Schmidt confirms interest in Colton Herta, McLaren

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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.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”