Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward relish new Rolex 24 relationship: ‘We always push each other’


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The Rolex 24 at Daytona pairing of IndyCar stars Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward is intriguing in giving two championship rivals an inside peek at each other’s superstar talent.

During driver debriefs and data downloads at Daytona International Speedway, Herta and O’Ward should gain a fuller appreciation of the trade secrets in their driving styles – though they already had a fairly good idea.

As Andretti Autosport teammates in the Indy Lights series four years ago, the two drivers who both have been mentioned as prime candidates for Formula One learned much about what makes the other so good.

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“I probably already know most of what’s going to happen,” Herta said about the dynamic lineup during a news conference last month, immediately drawing a laugh from O’Ward. “Pato’s going to want a much looser car than everybody else, and then we’re going to have to meet somewhere in the middle.”

Could Herta handle a car tailored to O’Ward’s famous preference for a level of twitchy oversteer that requires razor-sharp reflexes through the corners?

“I could if I had to, but I don’t think I’d want to for 24 hours,” Herta, 21, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “But if that’s the general consensus of the team and that’s what most of the guys want, you just have to suck it up and do what’s better for the team.”

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Especially with a Rolex trophy potentially in the grasp of the No. 81 ORECA.

The DragonSpeed USA car finished third in the LMP2 class last year after consecutive victories in 2019-20 at Daytona. Devlin DeFrancesco and veteran amateur Eric Lux will return from the 2021 podium team, and Herta (GTLM with BMW in 2019) and O’Ward (Prototype Challenge in ’17) also are class-winning Rolex 24 veterans.

Though a whirlwind deal to form the lineup was completed in only a few weeks (and was brokered in part by George Steinbrenner IV, who once co-owned the IndyCar team that had planned to team Herta and O’Ward in ’19), there’s optimism about winning the LMP2 category with a bright yellow and orange car that O’Ward has dubbed “Team Highlighter.”

“The Steinbrenners reached out to my dad, and I said, ‘Yeah, if Colton is going to do it, count me in,’ ” O’Ward, 22, told NBC Sports. “I truly think we have a shot. And I think more than that, it’s just going to be really enjoyable. It’s going to be really enjoyable with guys that I compete against on a regular basis in IndyCar. And it’s just a different atmosphere. It’s very laid-back, very chill compared to what we’re used to.

“The team has proven to be race winners here, and I think the driver lineup ain’t too bad, either. I think if we all do our job, not get too ahead of ourselves, just go through our plan, we’ll be in good shape.”

Said Herta: “It did come together quite quickly, really fast. Devlin asked me if I wanted to do it. They had extra seats, and I was super interested. It was super cool once I learned that Pato was doing it as well. I hadn’t been teammates with him for a long time, and it would be cool to reconnect.

“I’ve been racing against him since 2010 in go-karts, and I’ve always kind of followed his career when we were doing different things. So it’s cool that we’ve come back on the same path. I got to know him really well in Indy Lights. I think we both learned a lot off each other that elevated our performance as we jumped into IndyCar, so it’ll be cool to continue that.”

Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco shared the podium of this go-kart race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (DragonSpeed USA).

It’s also a reunion of sorts with DeFrancesco, who will be a rookie teammate to Herta at Andretti in the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series. The trio has fond recollections of racing together in national go-kart events dating to 2008, sometimes sharing podiums.

“I have great memories with those two,” DeFrancesco told NBC Sports. “We’re childhood friends and now to be not only teammates for the Rolex 24 in a competitive team and a great car with a shot, but to race against each other in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s kind of crazy how things have progressed since then.

“It was always a dream back then, and the dream has now become a reality. I think it’s great and definitely a special time in my life, and I’m sure theirs as well.”

The return to sports cars is special for O’Ward, who notched seven victories in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2017, because of the chance to team with Herta on the same car for the first time.

Devlin DeFrancesco, a rookie in IndyCar this season, will drive again for DragonSpeed after a third last season in LMP2 (IMSA).

“For Colton and I, it’s always been push each other,” O’Ward said. “Push each other, push each other, push each other. Keep pushing each other. I feel like that naturally raises both of our games. Both of you have to step up every single time if you want to beat the other guy, and I feel like that’s elevated us in our careers and the way we do things, the way we extract things from the car. It’s probably the best way in order to speed up or make yourself better. Just have someone who is really, really pushing you and testing you in every aspect and seeing where you can get better and seeing where you’re stronger. And where he might catch up and get better, then you need to find different ways to beat him.

“Yeah, this this is awesome, because for me, this is like joining forces. So everything that we’ve been pushing each other, now we get to join in together, and I feel like that’s going to make a really strong team. It’s going to make everything so much more enjoyable and competitive but a very friendly and very healthy way of being competitive and truly, at the end of the day, you want your teammates to win, because that means you’re winning, too.”

O’Ward also fully expects that he will be making as many setup compromises as his teammates, meaning they might not be wrangling a loose car around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course throughout the night.

“Honestly, I always let my teammates set up the car and drove whatever I was given,” O’Ward said of his IMSA experience. “I really enjoy trying to adapt myself into things that maybe aren’t what I specifically want for that fast lap, and I think that just makes you better. You exercise the craft of adaptability and exercise the different ways that you can drive the car. You figure out and learn different ways of driving a car to the limit and extracting the lap time out of it.

“So for me, I’m just looking forward to having fun with the guys, giving my input on what the car is doing, but I’m not going to be picky. If it’s going to be understeer-y, I’ll drive it understeer-y and find a way to go fast, and if it’s oversteer-y, I’ll find a way to go fast, no problem.”

Pato O’Ward talks with Elton Julian, owner of the DragonSpeed USA No. 81 ORECA, during the Roar before the Rolex 24 (IMSA).

Herta, who has driven the past three Rolex 24s in the GT classes, remains contracted to BMW, which could have him in its plans for the new LMDh premier class next season. That means gaining prototype experience this year is crucial, which he expects will mean leaning heavily on O’Ward’s expertise in a class that also will include an entry co-driven by IndyCar winner Rinus VeeKay.

“(The prototype) has a lot of unknowns for me from driving-wise, and it’s different because we’re not actually competing directly against each other,” Herta said. “We both want each other to do good, whereas when you’re teammates (on opposing cars), you definitely want to beat them. So that was the goal at Andretti when we were in Indy Lights. It’s very different now, going over data, talking about the car and deciding what’s actually best in a different manner than when you’re teammates that are competing against each other.

“It’ll be cool to see how much he’s grown since Indy Lights driving-wise and feedback-wise. Obviously he’s a very quick driver, so we’ll see that in the data and be able to compare against him in my driving, but also just to see all the elements of what’s changed in between the last few years we haven’t been teammates.”

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”