Not 'your regular rookie,' Herta leads INDYCAR Spring Training opening day

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AUSTIN, Texas — Colton Herta didn’t look or sound like the normal NTT IndyCar Series newcomer. Though only 18, Herta isn’t your regular rookie.

The son of longtime Indy car driver and now team co-owner Bryan Herta proved again on Tuesday that this racing stage isn’t too overwhelming. He drove his No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda to the top of the speed chart after two INDYCAR Spring Training test sessions at Circuit of The Americas.

INDYCAR SPRING TRAINING: Session 1 results; Session 2 results; Combined results

“It’s hard not to get excited, your first day ever out on track, and (Herta) puts it P1 in front of all the guys you grew up watching, in front of champions and race winners,” said Harding Steinbrenner Racing co-owner George Michael Steinbrenner IV, who at 22 is the youngest owner in series history.

Herta’s quickest lap of 1 minute, 46.6258 seconds (115.132 mph), in the last of two practice sessions for the day on the 3.41-mile permanent road course, was well ahead of Team Penske’s Will Power (1:47.1044, 114.617 mph) and Helio Castroneves (1:47.6949, 113.989 mph).

After Herta led the first session earlier in the day, he joined Swedish rookies Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist as well as American rookie Santino Ferrucci for a lunchtime media availability to talk about their first impressions of COTA and the series.

Herta was the kid with the long hair. Calm and cool, he was the only one chewing gum.

“Part of it is I’ve grown up around this,” Herta said with a shrug of his laid-back attitude and lack of jitters moving up to what many regard as the most competitive racing series in the world. “I know a lot of the mechanics at the track. I know most of the drivers. Yeah, I guess I’ve been around the media for a while, too.

“It eases it a bit because I consider a lot of these people here as my friends. Yeah, it’s kind of like going to lunch with your friends. You don’t get nervous doing that, do you?”

The unflappable one, second in the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship, has already faced an unexpected deviation from the plan to race with Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward this season at HSR. The 19-year-old O’Ward was granted a release from the team on Monday.

Whereas Herta and O’Ward counted on pushing each other as Andretti Autosport teammates in Indy Lights, Herta will now rely upon the connection to the Andretti team, which includes his father as co-owner of the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco Andretti and Curb-Agajanian Honda driven by Marco Andretti. Andretti Technologies announced on Tuesday a partnership to provide HSR with engineering and developmental support this season.

“We’ll share setups and they’ll help us out when we need it,” Colton Herta said. “Anything we find, we can help them. Anything they find, they can help us. It will make both of the programs stronger, for sure.”

Herta made his NTT IndyCar Series debut for Harding Racing in the 2018 season finale with a 20th-place finish in the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma. He understands now the importance of qualifying stronger on one-laps runs. Herta might be comfortable in his new surroundings, but he is well aware of a steep learning curve – even with Tuesday’s promising showing.

“You look at guys like Rosenqvist, who’s in his mid-20s, and Ericsson, who has been in Formula 1 for the past four years, obviously they have more experience than I do, but not in the American market,” Herta said. “I’ve grown up around this sport. I’d like to think I know how it works. But there’s still a lot for me to learn.”

As much as he can enjoy a track walk and pick the brain of his father, Colton Herta reiterates that Bryan is co-owner for another team. Aside from the technology agreement between teams, father and son are, in fact, competitors.

“Right now, we get to work together a little bit, but we’re also kind of competing against each other in a way, too,” Colton said, “so we want to beat each other a little bit. It should be fun.”

As for family loyalties, the son says his mother, Janette, favors him.

“She wants me to beat him, no doubt,” Colton said. “She’s always on my side.”

What made Tuesday more special was Herta family residing in Texas were at the track to see his No. 88 Honda top the scoring pylon. As much as that was personally satisfying, the level-headed Herta downplayed the significance of the accomplishment.

“Everybody is just getting up to speed,” he said. “Setups are pretty varied right now and everybody is just trying to find the sweet spot. Yeah, we still went quickest and super proud about it, but not really surprised, I guess. To be quickest is pretty cool.”

While Bryan’s focus is on Marco Andretti, who ended up 16th out of 25 cars, the understated father couldn’t help but be a bit proud of the son.

“I’m as surprised as everybody that they had such a great day,” Bryan said, “but I’m really happy for him.”

Following the completion of INDYCAR Spring Training on Wednesday, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

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