Better Indy 500 among Herta's 2020 goals

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Colton Herta’s first-year adjustment to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES was stunning and swift in 2019.

The 19-year-old son of former Indy car driver Bryan Herta won two races, becoming the first series to win a race since Alexander Rossi’s victory in the 2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Herta won three pole positions, becoming the first rookie to achieve that feat since Danica Patrick in 2005. He also became the youngest winner in series history with his victory in March at Circuit of The Americas, just six days shy of his 19th birthday.

Herta finished seventh in the point standings with the small Harding Steinbrenner Racing team, falling just five points short of Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist, who drives for championship-winning Chip Ganassi Racing.

The 2019 season was a transformation for Herta, who rocketed to stardom in his first year at the top level after finishing runner-up in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in 2018.

Well, except for one thing: He spent nearly all of race day at the Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. It’s a role he was familiar with since childhood while watching his father drive in the race and then owning race teams that competed in it. Herta's team won the 500 in 2011 with Dan Wheldon driving.

Herta qualified a stunning fifth in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda last May at Indy, the top rookie and the only first-year driver to make the Fast Nine Shootout. But that promising start ended after just three laps when Herta slowed on course and was eliminated from the race with a mechanical problem, credited with last place.

“The biggest surprise is that I got to watch another Indy 500,” Herta said. “Out on Lap 3. I was used to that bit of it. I wasn’t used to the driving bit. It was really cool up to that point.”

Herta has a very good chance of making amends May 24. One, he has more experience. Two, he has moved to become the fifth full-time driver on the powerful Andretti Autosport team this season, bringing much of the scrappy crew and infrastructure from Harding Steinbrenner that helped him produce a rookie season for the ages.

The transition into Andretti Autosport should be smoother for Herta than for many other drivers.

One, Harding Steinbrenner had a technical relationship with Andretti Technologies last year, as Michael Andretti's group supplied engineering support for the season.

Two, there are plenty of familiar faces at Andretti for Herta. His father drove for the team in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES from 2003-06 when it was known as Andretti Green Racing, and Colton raced for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing in Indy Lights in 2017 and 2018, winning a total of six races and 10 poles.

The team features a former series champion (Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 DHL Honda), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Hunter-Reay and Rossi in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda), and veterans Marco Andretti (No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda) and Zach Veach (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda). One-time 500 pole winner James Hinchcliffe will join the team for three races, including both races at IMS, in the No. 29 Genesys Honda.

“It definitely makes it easier,” Herta said of driving for a prominent team like Andretti. “You have a lot more cars to work with, a lot more budget to work with. It was pretty impressive what we did as a small team (last year with Harding Steinbrenner).

“There are a lot more people around at the factory and a lot more things that we can do setup-wise with the car. For me, the transition is pretty smooth because I knew everybody from Andretti from when my dad was running there and my two years in Indy Lights with them. It seems to be going smoothly for everyone.”

Herta’s confidence was boosted by a composed, veteran-like drive to victory in the season finale last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The Harding Steinbrenner team forced Herta to practice on tires for an entire tread lifespan that weekend so he could fast-track his growing knowledge of tire management, something new to him since there are no scheduled tire changes in Indy Lights. Same with fuel management.

“I think tire degradation was a big problem for me last year,” Herta said. “I think I sorted it out by Laguna. I still have some improvement to make on saving fuel.

“I definitely wouldn’t classify myself anywhere near a veteran. It was a really good drive in Laguna, and it just showed the maturity building through the year for myself and the team.”

The team is much bigger this year, as Harding Steinbrenner was a feisty, one-car operation in 2019. Now Herta is part of a five-driver lineup with Andretti Autosport.

Having four teammates will provide more data and more setup ideas. The veterans with experience also give Herta nowhere to hide; four performance barometers will measure him constantly.

“You always want to be your teammate,” Herta said. “That’s the goal. It’s tough because there are some really good drivers on the team.

“It’s not a huge ask. I think I was on pace with them last year, pretty much everywhere. The immaturity in the races was the biggest problem. It’s a big step up. They’re really long races from what I’ve done before. Managing the tires, managing the fuel. I’ve never had to save fuel in a car before, and I did a lot of that last year. So, there’s a lot to pick up on.”

Finishing atop the scoring pylon on May 24 would certainly achieve Herta’s goal of topping his teammates in the biggest race in the world. It also would deliver a much larger paycheck than his offseason pursuit.

Herta plays drums in a Southern California punk rock band called The Zibs. The band, consisting of Herta and his friends, plays gigs year-round, but the demands of the racing season force the band to schedule most of its shows during the INDYCAR offseason, with nearly 10 dates during this offseason.

Playing drums provides Herta with a fun outlet but a lot less pocket change than the $2 million-plus prize that the Indy 500 winner will make this year.

“We make $250 a night, split between four people, and then we have to pay for gas and food, so you end up with about $30,” Herta said.

The 17-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins March 13-15 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the city streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race airs at 3 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network and on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network.

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