Colton Herta blasts Rahal teams after contact with Scott McLaughlin in Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS — Andretti Autosport driver Colton Herta was angry with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after he narrowly averted a heavy crash during the opening minutes of Indy 500 practice Thursday.

About five hours later, IndyCar officials penalized Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing by benching its cars for the first 30 minutes of the critical “Fast Friday” practice that sets up qualifying.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been green Thursday for only a moment at the noon start of a six-hour practice when the yellow flag flew after Herta’s No. 26 Dallara-Honda made light contact with Team Penske rookie Scott McLaughlin’s much slower No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet while squeezing around the outside of Turn 4. Herta’s car also scraped the outside wall with its right side.

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Herta was forced to the outside because Simona De Silvestro and McLaughlin occupied the inside two lanes and were under braking because the RLL Racing trio of Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato and Santino Ferrucci had slowed for an apparent photo opportunity at the Yard of Bricks finish line.

“It turns out going three-wide for a photo op during IndyCar practice isn’t an ideal situation,” Herta told IndyCar Radio after viewing replays of the incident. “They’re going 100 mph on the front straight while guys are running 220. Whoever is in charge of that at Rahal is a complete idiot and just risking everybody’s life out there for the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.

“Luckily, we got away with it easy. The car should be OK. I just pancaked the wall lightly and luckily wasn’t able to take out Scott. We’ll make sure the car is OK. I’m not mad at Scott and Simona. It’s those Rahal guys that completely ruined everything. It’s crazy.”

It was the beginning of an eventful day for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as Ferrucci sustained a minor injury to his left leg in a crash about four hours later.

Asked by NBC Sports for comment about the contact been Herta and McLaughlin, IndyCar officials said they were evaluating and reviewing the incident. During the Peacock broadcast, IndyCar official Kevin Blanch was shown on camera telling Penske team members in McLaughlin’s pit that the series apparently was unaware of the RLL photo.

NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee reported late Thursday afternoon that IndyCar would penalize the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers for “improper conduct” by holding them off track the first 30 minutes of the “Fast Friday” practice (which will mark the debut of the turbo boost that teams are permitted for qualifying).

IndyCar vice president of communications Dave First later confirmed the penalty.

Herta called the punishment “appropriate” and suggested IndyCar might consider allotting time to schedule future photos.

“I understand what they were trying to do,” said Herta, who voiced his displeasure directly to the Rahal team. “It probably just wasn’t the right place and time. Hopefully, we learn from it, and I’m ready to focus on (Friday).”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner Bob Rahal wasn’t pleased with the penalty, telling the Associated Press that “we’re going to miss 30 minutes of practice, you mean for what Roger did the day before, or Roger’s team I should say? That’s disappointing.”

Team Penske, which is owned by Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar owner Roger Penske, had posed its cars for a similar four-abreast photo during the installation laps of Tuesday’s opening practice.

During the Peackcock coverage of practice, IndyCar steward Max Papis told NBC Sports announcer Leigh Diffey that the incident shouldn’t have happened.

After some minor repairs, Herta was back on track about an hour later.

“The most important thing is this is our main car,” Herta said. “It’s the car we’ve prepped for Indy. It’s our fast car. And it didn’t get hurt too bad.”

During an interview with NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch, Herta initially seemed angry with McLaughlin and De Silvestro because “I’m coming around the corner doing 220, and these idiots are doing 170. I don’t know what the hell their goal was there. I’m just glad we were able to keep the car in a little bit of one piece. Just baffles me that they’re going side by side at 170 mph taking up the whole track. It’s crazy.”

Colton Herta makes light contact with the Turn 4 wall while squeezing past Scott McLaughlin, who was slowing to avoid the three Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars side by side ahead of him (Peacock).

But after a cordial chat between the drivers in pit lane, Colton Herta gave McLaughin a pat on the shoulder. Bryan Herta, Colton’s father and strategist, also had a friendly conversation with John Bouslog, McLaughlin’s strategist at Penske.

“I think the Rahal dudes were trying to get a nice little photo there,” McLaughlin told Welch in an interview. “Colton came really quick, was coming fast, and I just checked up in front of him. It’s hard to check up around here. Just had no idea. Apologized to him, he apologized back to me, so a bit of a 50-50 thing.

“I really don’t know what exactly happened. It was the first lap of the morning, and I was just trying to get around and do some pit stop practice. At least the car is very fast. Chevy fast all week. Just a little bit of miscommunication between everyone.”

McLaughlin’s said the fright front of his car wasn’t damaged in the incident. Colton Herta said he had no choice but to put the right side of his car against the wall.

“It happened so fast, I didn’t think I could get to the left,” Herta said. “I saw a little bit of a lane and was hoping Scott’s spotter would tell him, and he did right at the last second. He probably moved over half a car length, and it was just enough for me to scrape by against the wall and bobble between him and the wall.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.