The general rule for a rookie in any sporting discipline is to develop within a team, but that doesn’t seem to be the theme for Colton Herta in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I think he is developing us,” said Brian Barnhart, president of Harding Steinbrenner Racing and race strategist of the No. 88 Honda driven by Herta.
The jaw-dropping moments from Herta have come early and often, including a memorable first-ever victory in the inaugural INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas in March to become the youngest race winner in Indy car racing history at 18 years, 359 days old. Herta etched his name in the record books once more after he became youngest pole winner in Indy car history at 19 years 83 days when he was the top qualifier for the first time at Road America in June.
While the initial pace was a far cry from the team’s expectations, the second-generation talent has consistently delivered and clearly put his stamp on elevating the program.
“The competitiveness changes everything,” Barnhart said. “The guy's attitude and approach, everybody in this paddock works exceptionally hard, but boy, when you know you've got a chance to be at the front it makes all the hard work that you do worth it in a little easier.
“He has brought the team together. When things aren't going well, you get all kinds of misfires in terms of people and people not getting along, that kind of stuff. So when you are going better and feeling like you've got a chance, it makes a lot of things better from that aspect of it. He's clearly brought that. The expectation, you knew you're going to bring a kid in that OK, it's going to be a learning curve. There are going to be these places that he struggles that he's not going to be on pace, that he's not going to do this or he's not. And there may still be, but we haven't found it yet.
“It doesn't matter if it's been Indianapolis or Texas, street circuits or permanent road courses – the kid is up to the task week in and week out.”
A lot of the credit throughout the process, though, starts at the very beginning. Just two weeks after finishing runner-up in the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship, Herta made his IndyCar debut with the team in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway. Although the finish was an unspectacular 20th, it was a lesson that ignited unrelenting preparation leading into this year.
“From Sonoma in 2018 to getting in the car at COTA in the test in February was an enormous change,” Barnhardt said.
“I think it showed the importance of us running him at Sonoma in 2018 because he then had a better understanding of what he needed to do. He worked on that all winter long and came out better physically, better mentally, all of it. It showed from the very first open test at COTA with him being as quick as he was there and fastest overall. He's carried that on and it's pretty amazing.”
Nathan O’Rourke, lead engineer for Herta, has been impressed with his young driver’s “adaptability” and how “he’s very un-intimidated” regardless of the circuit. While O’Rourke has sat atop the timing stand to engineer standouts like Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe, the one he compares Herta most to is 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and current points leader Josef Newgarden.
“I engineered Newgarden (from 2012-13) and Jeremy (Milless, current lead engineer for Alexander Rossi) was my assistant,” O’Rourke said, recalling his time at Sarah Fisher Hartmann Racing.
“Even at the time, from the very first test we were like, 'Oh man.' You just knew right away this kid is just really good. Colton reminds me a lot of Josef and I think if he sticks with IndyCar, he's going to win lots of races and lots of championships.”
For now, though, the focus is squarely on the present as Herta looks to rectify hit-or-miss results. Perhaps none were more impactful than his first two oval starts, which began with a mechanical issue at the start in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May. That was followed up just two weeks later with a late race incident while battling for second with reigning and five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon during the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in June.
However, everything has started to come together as the team has scored three top-10 finishes in the past four races as Herta looks to make a run for top-rookie honors. The battle is one to keep an eye on as each one of the debutant full-time drivers – Marcus Ericsson, Santino Ferrucci, Herta and Felix Rosenqvist – have career-best results of fourth or better. Currently, consistency has rewarded Rosenqvist as he sits ninth in the overall standings, while Herta is 51 points behind in 14th, sandwiched between Ferrucci and Ericsson.
“The growth that he's showed in such a short period of time is pretty incredible on all aspects of it,” Barnhart said.
“The kid is blindingly fast. We've had a season of kind of like missed opportunities where we've stumbled as a team and he's had some learning experiences, a rookie in the challenging series of IndyCar racing.
“You know, you're going to have those. We just want to focus forward”
The NTT IndyCar Series is next on track with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. Catch the 200-lap race live on NBCSN on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 2:30 p.m.