IndyCar’s Colton Herta reflects on 2019 COTA win and sim racing career

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The fifth race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is Saturday’s AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas. Colton Herta made history in the real event when the then-18-year-old became the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history.

That March 24, 2019 victory was six days short of his 19th birthday.

If the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had not halted the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, it would have been the site of Sunday’s next race for IndyCar.

Instead, the virtual IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be at virtual COTA Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the IndyCar on NBC booth once again on the call.

Herta was a rookie sensation in IndyCar last year. The youngster was able to take advantage of Will Power’s late-race misfortune for his first career victory.

His second career victory in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca was a better indication of his immense talent.

“At COTA, I was able to capitalize on other’s mistakes,” Herta told NBCSports.com. “At Laguna, I was in control.

“The biggest thing was saving fuel and saving tires. At Portland in the race before Monterey, I qualified on the pole and dropped back on the Firestone Red tires. Tire deg was a problem for me last year. I sorted it out by Laguna.

“There were a few things we worked on at Laguna Seca to help me sort that problem out. Usually, we’ll take a set to half-stint before needing to save tires. I made a big jump this year, but I still lack some of that to the veterans.”

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

If his COTA win was “beginner’s luck,” was Herta’s win at Laguna Seca a “veteran’s race?”

“I wouldn’t classify myself anywhere near a veteran,” Herta quipped. “It was a really good drive at Laguna. I think it showed the maturity building throughout the year in myself and in the team. It takes a lot to win an IndyCar race, it takes a perfect day, and everyone has to be on point. There were a lot of days when we weren’t.

“To finally get it right was amazing.”

In the virtual world, big things were expected from Herta, according to rival gaming executive Darren Cox of Torque Esports.

That company stages “The Race – All Star Competition” on the R Factor gaming platform, which is different than iRacing. Herta finished 10th in the “The Race” on March 15. That was the second highest-finishing professional behind seventh-place Felix Rosenqvist of IndyCar’s Chip Ganassi Racing.

That following week, Herta had computer failure.

Instead of a race against virtual competition, Herta was racing against time to find computer parts.

“It really sucked because I was really looking forward to it,” Herta told NBCSports.com. “I have it all sorted now. It was so hard to get stuff right now because of the COVID-19 stuff, but I was able to get it running again.

“The fan was starting to go, so my PC was overheating. It didn’t do any more damage because I caught it in time. But it was a fan on the motherboard.

“It might have gotten me behind on the first weekend. Since then, that has not been an issue.”

He finished just in time to participate in the March 28 American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but completed just 10 laps.

He has one top 10 in four IndyCar iRacing Challenge starts, a best of seventh at Barber Motorsports Park. Herta has two more races to up his virtual game in the series — Saturday at COTA and May 2 at a TBA “dream track.”

“It’s harder to drive in iRacing than it is on the R Factor,” Herta said. “I also think I made some mistakes in other races, like at Barber and Watkins Glen. I qualified dead last at Watkins Glen and got taken out at the start. At Michigan, we were quick as well and I tried to avoid the wrecks, but Josef Newgarden spun out right in front of me.”

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Herta enjoys racing against legendary drivers from other racing series in the virtual realm. Drivers that have competed in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge include seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, two-time NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch, NASCAR fan favorite and NBC Sports broadcaster Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Another “special guest” from another top racing series with experience at COTA is expected to be announced by IndyCar and NBC Sports later this week.

“I think it is really cool,” Herta said. “They are legends in their whole right in the racing community. It’s really cool to see guys are interested in running different disciplines and trying different stuff.

“It’s cool to see and it’s cool to see how well they have done, too. People are open to driving different disciplines now. Today, things are more lenient, and drivers have more say. You see guys driving the Indy 500 and the Dakar stuff. It’s cool to see that.”

Herta’s lifestyle has not changed much since the shutdown. He continues to train and play video games, just like many 20-year olds. He still lives at home with his parents, although he isn’t able to practice with his band, “The Zibs” because of social distancing.

Once real racing returns, with the hopes of a June 6 race at Texas Motor Speedway, Herta will continue his development in the NTT IndyCar Series.

“Realistically, if I cut out the mistakes, I would like to be in a championship position at the end of the year,” Herta said. “I would like to show up at the last race and have a theoretical chance at a championship.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500