Colton Herta

HOMESTEAD, Florida – No longer a rookie sensation, Colton Herta is now one of the veterans.

The second-generation racer burst onto the scene last year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, scoring two wins, seven podiums and a series-high seven poles on his way to third the championship.

With a full offseason to prepare for 2018, the 17-year-old Californian got to work during annual spring training, which kicked off Friday with oval testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He made his presence known quickly, vaulting to the top of the timesheets in the morning session (and second-best overall on the day) by his fourth lap with a pace of 186.810 mph (28.6173 seconds) around the 1.485-mile oval.

“The standout thing was that I set my quickest lap time on my first run,” said Herta, driver of the No. 98 Mazda/Dallara IL-15 for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing.

Colton Herta and Bryan Herta“Obviously, just super comfortable, and that’s something I couldn’t do last year. I didn’t have the expectation of the grip level or know the tracks quite as well (a year ago). Whereas now I can go out, (the fourth) lap was my quickest lap of the day. That had some to do with temperatures as they were a bit cooler, but I was super comfortable in the car right away and know what to expect out of it as well.”

Ultimately, he attributed getting acclimated so quickly to the one thing absent from his arsenal a season ago.

“I think it’s just experience,” said Herta. “I had a lack of it last year going against my two main championship rivals, Santi Urruita and Kyle (Kaiser), who had two years on me and past experience in the Mazda Road to Indy. I think the main thing with experience is they knew what to expect from the car in different conditions, they had been to the tracks.

“That’s what I have on a lot of people now this year. I know what to expect. I know what I need the car to do on the weekends in track conditions.”

There is the added benefit of having three Andretti Autosport teammates, including a new one in Rolex 24 at Daytona class winner Pato O’Ward. Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman return to the team in 2018.

“Yeah, it’s a little different with Nico (Jamin) gone, but I think Pato gives good feedback, so he can do well,” said Herta. “I think Dalton and Ryan (who turned the best overall lap Friday at 187.170 mph) have a lot to prove and they are quick, but it’s just about consistency. On a test day, they bring a lot of data into the team as well, so the more cars you have, the more data you have and the better off your guys are going to be.”

Like most athletes, Herta works physically and mentally tweaking and improving his game, which includes trying a various set of on- and off-track activities. He was announced Friday as a test and reserve driver for BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“I think it’s always good to have hobbies to mentally prepare,” Herta said. “Fitness keeps you in race mode, but hobbies are great. I like to golf. Obviously, I’m still in school so I’m busy with that, too. You try and drive stuff as much as you can, even if it’s different cars.

“I’ve been in a few different cars during the offseason just to keep the brain sharp and keeping the right foot sharp.”

Indy Lights drivers are idle until the final day of Mazda Road to Indy spring training, when they take on Homestead’s road course on Monday. In the meantime, the lower two rungs of the MRTI ladder – the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda – are conducting two days of testing on the road course today and Sunday.

The season-opening weekend for all three MRTI levels takes place March 9-11 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Each series will put on two races that weekend.