Colton Herta’s Corkscrew connection to ‘the craziest’ pass in auto racing

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Colton Herta is inextricably linked with one of the most famous passes in auto racing history, even though it happened nearly four years before he was born.

In 1996, Herta’s father, Bryan, was in the lead and just four corners from the first victory of his CART career. Alex Zanardi had other ideas – or really, an idea that no one ever had dreamed of before in navigating the track’s famously treacherous Corkscrew sector.

With a bonsai move that still stirs conversation decades later, Zanardi dove through the dirt to snatch the lead and victory from Herta (at the 1:00 mark of the video below).

WATCH: IndyCar qualifying 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, race 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC

In a neat twist, Herta’s 19-year-old son recently watched a replay of the move with Zanardi, who was his teammate at the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year.

“Obviously, I think it was a ballsy pass,” Colton Herta told NBCSports.com.

And it likely will stand the test of time as a unique moment at a historic racetrack that might never happen again.

In the Sept. 8, 1996 race, the Corkscrew – which is a blind left then right turn with a six-story elevation drop – has undergone alterations over the past two decades. With a different profile, the Corkscrew probably would be much less conducive to a Zanardi-esque pass with the current Dallara (likely incurring significant damage).

Even if it were possible, anyone attempting the move would be sanctioned. IndyCar officials have told drivers this weekend that any car putting four tires below the red and white curbing (as Zanardi did) will be penalized for short-cutting the course (resulting in a nullified lap in practice and qualifying; a time penalty would happen in the race).

Unlike the race 23 years ago (and even more so than the most recent Champ Car race here in 2006), IndyCar now uses a high-tech, high-definition system to monitor on-track infractions (unlike the VHS-type footage that would have been used to review Zanardi’s move, which drew mostly gasps from the paddock for its boldness and hardly any cries of foul).

“It wouldn’t happen today because they wouldn’t allow it,” Colton Herta said. “Back then, I think there was a rule, but it wasn’t enforced because it was such a crazy pass, and obviously last lap, four corners to go, it’s pretty crazy he pulled it off, especially how far back he was, and he didn’t clip the wall on the outside.

“It’s very spectacular and very monumental and should be because it’s one of the craziest passes, if not the craziest in all of motorsport.”

Bryan Herta would find redemption at Laguna Seca, winning the 1998 and ’99 races at the 11-turn, 2.28-mile road course where he started from the front row for five consecutive years from 1995-99.

Colton Herta seemed to have discovered the same magic in a daylong test Thursday for Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series season finale, pacing the 24 drivers with the fastest lap of 1 minute, 10.07 seconds for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

He was a half-second faster than road-course ace Will Power, who was sufficiently impressed to proclaim about Herta that “this bloke fast in the fast corners. That’s where his time is. He’s definitely brave. He’s keeping it on the track.”

That changed in Friday morning’s practice when the No. 88 Honda driver went off three times – the last was a spin in the Corkscrew gravel that ended the session.

“I guess pushing a little bit too hard was the main problem,” Colton Herta said. “Obviously the grip level always changes and you have to drive to that grip level.”

Herta does have the benefit of experience at Laguna Seca, where his first race car victory in Skip Barber in 2012 and also won in a touring car series in 2017, though “none of that translates to the (IndyCar) because it’s so big and fast.”

Of course, he does have some tips from his father (“He did give me a few that I can’t tell you,” Colton joked. “Maybe after the weekend”) as well as those chromosomes.

“Hopefully the genes passed on, and I carry on the Herta name and can be competitive here,” Colton said.

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