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).
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.