DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Ever since “The Pass” at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 1996, Alex Zanardi and Bryan Herta have been linked in the book of motorsports history.
A new chapter is being written this weekend as Colton Herta, Bryan’s son and a rookie this season for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, is a teammate to Zanardi for the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race that began Saturday afternoon.
Zanardi and Herta are driving for BMW Team RLL in the GT Le Mans class. Zanardi, 52, is among the drivers in the No. 24 BMW M8. Herta, 18, is in the sister No. 25 BMW M8. The team is co-owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, who was Bryan Herta’s car owner when Zanardi made the daring last-lap pass through the Corkscrew more than 22 years ago to win the memorable Indy car race at Laguna Seca. Rahal hosted the sports car team's eight drivers for a cookout on the eve of the race (shown above, with Colton Herta next to Rahal on the left).
Colton Herta (shown below with his mother, Janette, and father) is making his debut in a pure GT car, having driven open-wheel machines almost exclusively to this point of his blossoming career. The 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires runner-up knows opportunities to race for a factory team are rare. Colton’s father said it’s quite a statement for a manufacturer to entrust his son, especially with a high-profile driver like Zanardi on the team.
“I think (Colton) and I were both very excited when we found out that Alex was going to be driving for the team. He and I obviously had history, not all of it was good,” Bryan Herta said with a light chuckle, “but I have to say that I have incredible admiration for him for what he’s accomplished since his accident.”
Zanardi’s story is well documented since he lost both legs in an accident at the Lausitzring in Germany in September 2001. Zanardi has won gold medals in handcycling at the Paralympics and returned to motorsports, winning races in the World Touring Car Championship using a BMW modified for his use.
Zanardi said he was proud to race with the second-generation Herta at the Rolex 24, adding he wasn’t sure he’d be able to maintain the youngster’s pace.
“It’s very likely that Colton will do a better job than I will be able to do for BMW over the course of a 24-hour race because he’s a very talented kid,” Zanardi, the two-time CART champion, said. “I met with Bryan earlier and he told me about a race that they did together at Laguna Seca, an eight-hour (touring car) race where he was very, very angry with himself because Colton was so much faster than him and he knew what he had to do to go faster. But he couldn’t and this is a little bit the same for me, where sometimes the lack of experience I have doesn’t allow me to grab all the speed that is available.”
Colton said he benefited in preparation for this weekend just by listening to Zanardi, adding it will also help for when he gets behind the wheel of an Indy car for the first race of the season on the streets of St. Petersburg on March 10.
“He’s a really good person to have as a teammate because of his info off the track,” Colton said. “How he explains the car is very good and it’s something that I can always work on and he’s obviously been doing it for a while. That’s something I pull from him quite a bit.
“I have a very experienced team, but then they expect a lot from me because all the guys are very experienced,” the younger Herta said. “I’m just going to take it piece by piece. Obviously, they don’t have me doing anything too tough. (I’m) the fourth driver here, so I’m just going to do my stints that I need to do and they’re in pretty cautious areas. I’m not ending the race or anything, and I’ll hand it back over to the professionals when that needs to happen.”
Many racing fans fail to remember that, two years after “The Pass,” Bryan Herta turned the tables on Zanardi, holding him off at Laguna Seca to collect the first of what would be four career Indy car wins. Now co-owner of the No. 98 Honda driven by Marco Andretti in the NTT IndyCar Series, Herta would be tempted out of retirement if he had the opportunity to race again with his son and team with the legendary Zanardi.
“Oh, that would be amazing, but I don’t think that will ever happen,” he said. “I would do that in a second, but it would take something like that to make me want to come back out. I think there’s a better chance of cows flying than that happening.”
The Hertas did team for the eight-hour race in October at Laguna Seca, but Bryan admitted it just reinforced the knowledge that his best place now is on the pit stand and not behind the wheel.
“I had a great time, but it made me realize that I’m much better off being out of the car now,” Bryan said. “It was a lot harder than I remember it used to be.”
WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca returns to the Indy car schedule for the first time in 15 years in 2019. The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will close the 17-race season on Sept. 22.
Rolex 24 update: At 7:21 a.m. ET Sunday, the race was red-flagged due to heavy rain and unsafe conditions on the track from pooling water. Rain was first reported at about 5:45 a.m. and a full-course caution came out at 6:04, lasting until the red flag was ordered by stewards.
At the time, Fernando Alonso was leading in the No. 10 Cadillac DPi from Wayne Taylor Racing, with the Team Penske Acuras on the lead lap in second and third place. Herta was in the No. 25 BMW M8 at the time of the red flag, running in sixth in GTLM but still on the same lap as the class leader.
Zanardi was behind the wheel of the No. 24 BMW M8 but 18 laps off the pace in his class. His first stint on Saturday was delayed when he couldn't get the electronics to function on his specially prepared steering wheel with hand controls. The team went to a backup steering wheel that also didn't work. Zanardi was about to get out of the car when it suddenly worked and he ran his stint.
Later, during a pit stop, the steering column sustained damage when Zanardi was pushing the steering wheel into place as the car was being lowered from the airjacks. The time spent for repairs put the No. 24 laps down.
The Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs, which include NTT IndyCar Series regulars Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais among the drivers of the two cars, sat in third and fifth in GTLM. Former Indy car driver AJ Allmendinger was leading in GT Daytona in one of the Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian entries. The Meyer Shank sister car with former Indy car drivers Simona de Silvestro, Katherine Legge and Ana Beatriz was seventh in class but on the same lap as the leader.
The Rolex 24 is scheduled to end at approximately 2:35 p.m. Sunday.