DETROIT – NTT IndyCar Series rookie driver Colton Herta learns race courses quicker than youngsters do video games.
That's because he uses race simulators to polish his immense talents before he arrives at a track.
Well, almost always, but not every time.
Herta, who turned 19 a week after becoming the youngest race winner in Indy car history, didn't have a chance to prepare much for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader at the Raceway at Belle Isle temporary street course this weekend.
It didn't, however, stop the driver of the No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda from qualifying fifth Saturday for the first of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit races. Herta achieved his fourth top-five start of the season despite the handicap of being handed a drive-through penalty for speeding on pit lane during the qualifying session.
CHEVROLET DETROIT GRAND PRIX: Race 1 start tire selection
The Harding Steinbrenner Racing driver blasted around the 2.35-mile Belle Isle circuit in 1 minute, 14.8811 seconds (112.979 mph). Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport took the NTT P1 Award for pole position with a lap at 1:14.1989.
"We didn't do a sim before Detroit," said Herta, whose father and former Indy car racer Bryan Herta was born in the Detroit suburb of Warren. "We normally spent quite a bit of time on the simulator."
On March 24, Herta won the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, at the age of 18 years, 259 days. It was an early sign that the talented teen seems to have no problem coming to grips, so to speak, with new tracks. It’s a skill that makes him immediately competitive wherever he races.
The Belle Isle course is notoriously tough and bumpy, but Herta nailed it in qualifying.
"I'm not really sure why, but we seem to be able to nail tracks right away and be right on the pace," said Herta, who honed his open-wheel skills in Europe before returning to North America and racing the pact two years in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. "I guess I just have the ability to go fast right out of the gate. I just have a good feeling for natural grip.
“Us young guys do a lot of sim work. The programs have gotten so good, but I didn't get any in before Detroit."
Herta described his performance Friday in practice as "sloppy,” but his crew made changes overnight and Herta was much happier with the car for qualifying.
"Friday didn't really represent what we are doing," he said.
For someone his young age in such a hard-fought, competitive race series, Herta has the ability to shake things off quickly -- like his 33rd-place finish in last weekend's Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge after he'd also qualified fifth. Herta’s car suffered a mechanical failure and was done after just three of 200 laps, his third last-place result in the four races since the COTA win.
"Indy was frustrating, but it was out of my control," said Herta. "You have to put it behind you, move on. We know what it feels like to win, and we want more."
Since he’s already tastes victory in the NTT IndyCar Series, Herta can’t wait to get back to the top step of the podium.
"It just makes you hungrier," he said. "It's a double-edged sword. Every time you don't win, it sucks because you know what it feels like to win."
Starting fifth in Saturday afternoon’s race puts Herta in an excellent position to challenge for a win again. With family members still living in the area, he’d like nothing more – but he takes nothing for granted.
"Detroit is a tough city and so is the racetrack on Belle Isle," said Herta. "The track is a handful. The bumps are pretty extreme, but I've enjoyed it so far. I'd like to win both races, but we'll take a couple top-fives, too.”
Race 1 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix airs live at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Race 2 airs at the same time on the same outlets on Sunday.