Slow Cooking: Herta Uses Unique Tire Strategy To Cash In

  • Racing News
Colton Herta

Colton Herta was the entertainment in Sunday’s made-for-television event at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California.

As reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou drove away from the field in the Sprint for the Purse finale of The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge, the driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda kept viewers glued in the last half of the main event.

Herta and strategist Rob Edwards chose a unique strategy for the 20-lap race, doubling down on fresher tires to score big money. The plan mostly worked, although the Andretti Global w/Curb-Agajanian team headed home with only $100,000 for a fourth-place finish. Palou got $500,000 for the win.

Still, it was quite the day for Herta, whose fastest qualifying lap Saturday ranked 21st among the 27 participating cars. That forced him to start 11th in his 14-car Sunday heat race.

“I didn’t get the lap (in qualifying) and just made a mess of it,” Herta said. “We started (the heat race) way further back than we should have.”

Herta advanced to the 12-car feature by finishing sixth in his heat race. Then, he and Edwards gambled with a strategy that many in the paddock had kicked around. They decided to start the first part of the feature as slowly as possible.

The main event had been divided into 10-lap segments, and Herta immediately did everything he could to preserve his Firestone Firehawks as they weren’t going to be allowed to be changed at intermission. With each lap, Herta drifted farther behind, finishing a full minute behind Palou’s leading pace. That was agonizing for him.

Normally, such a strategy would be inexcusable, but Herta and Edwards knew it was their best chance to reach one of the best-paying, top-five finishing positions.

“We were talking about it,” Herta said of the team’s planning. “On pure pace, maybe we could move up six spots, at most, (and that’s) if we get a little lucky and cars have some problems. But if we save the tires, we might be able to get a little more.

“So, that’s what we went for and obviously the tire (degradation) is pretty big (at this track), so we were able to pick off everybody on the way up (to fourth).”

Herta caught a break when two Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers – Graham Rahal (throttle issues) and Pietro Fittipaldi (disqualified for improper fueling) – didn’t take the green flag for the 10-lap shootout. Herta immediately gained another position when another RLL car – for Christian Lundgaard -- was penalized for improper service in a closed pit.

Starting ninth and just four positions from the larger payouts, Herta quickly passed Agustin Canapino of Juncos Hollinger Racing for eighth place. When Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden went wide amid a battle for sixth, Herta swiped two more positions. Soon after, he got inside Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Linus Lundqvist for fifth.

Herta’s final gained position was at the expense of Marcus Armstrong, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver in his second series season. Armstrong didn’t, or couldn’t, put up a fight, but it probably didn’t matter the way Herta was charging.

“Yeah, I didn’t care,” Herta said of his aggressive approach. “It was feast or famine, and I was hungry. So, the Gainbridge Honda ate today.”

There were no points on the line in this all-star race, but pride was, and Herta has that in spades.

“(Fourth place) is not too bad from where we started,” he said.

Herta acknowledged that watching his car loaf around the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course in those first 10 laps of the feature was painful, but at least it offered some intrigue in the late going. Would the strategy work? Could it?

“(People) wanted to see 12 cars going at it,” Herta said. “But you had that in the last half.

“For us (to) move up into the top five we had to do something different. I think our strategy worked. It was cool … a lot of fun.”