INDIANAPOLIS – By all appearances, Colton Herta was his usual unfazed self as the long-haired, fearless driver going faster than any other rookie in Tuesday’s first day of practice for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Not so fast, pardon the pun.
The 19-year-old driver was fifth on the speed chart in his No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda for Harding Steinbrenner Racing with a top lap of 228.284 mph, but how he made it look east on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval was, by his own admission, a bit deceiving.
“I realized today I do not know anything about superspeedway driving,” Herta said. “But I’m learning a lot. I learned a ton today. We just need to get through this week and keep making the car better and keep making the changes, so I can feel what each change does and kind of understand a bit better of what I want.
“On a road course, I know what I want. On this, I have no clue what I want yet. If we just go through all these changes, maybe the car gets a little worse, maybe it gets a little better, but I’ll get more and more comfortable and I’ll be able to see which I like.”
Team co-owner George Steinbrenner IV, team president Brian Barnhart and driver coach Al Unser Jr. came away impressed with how Herta handled himself in adapting to faster speeds than he’s ever run.
“I thought he did great,” Barnhart (shown at left) said. “He got just under 200 miles under his belt. He got the solo car running and a little bit of group running.”
In other words, it was business as usual for someone who hadn’t done this before.
“It didn’t feel like it was anything different from what he hasn’t done for 15 years,” Barnhart said.
To many, the son of former driver/current team co-owner Bryan Herta always seems so calm, cool and collected. He became the NTT IndyCar Series’ youngest winner in history in the season’s second start at the Circuit of The Americas, triumphing at age 18 years, 259 days. Despite misfortune in the past three starts, he’s 13th in the points after five races – all on road or street circuits.
“This is completely different,” Herta said of oval driving. “This is something I don’t know what to do in. On a road course, I know what I’m doing. I’ve done it for a long time. Even if the car is not right, I can find time out of it. I can do different stuff. I’ve never done this before.”
Barnhart and Unser reiterate that the young team is still learning. Co-owner Mike Harding put it together in 2017 and then teamed up last offseason with Steinbrenner, the grandson of the late New York Yankees owner who became the series’ youngest owner at the age of 22.
Herta and Steinbrenner teamed with Andretti Autosport to win six races the past two years in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, so the driver being ahead of the curve doesn’t come as a surprise. Herta swept all three Indy Lights races last May at IMS, two road course events during the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Freedom 100 on the oval.
“It was a really good day, especially our first time out,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ve got a lot more days of these to come, so we’ll see where we’re at by the time qualifying comes around.”
Herta did show his inexperience with a Happy Hour hiccup as he exited the pits too quickly and spun on the pit exit lane at Turn 2. No damage done with the 360-degree spin, other than a flat tire. Another lesson learned.
“We’re still a young team, and it’s great just to be as competitive as we are on the racetrack,” Barnhart said. “We’re going to still have some growing pains as a young team with a young driver. We’ve still got to keep in mind to manage those expectations. This is one hell of a tough series. To be where we are right now, it’s nice to show that competitiveness.”
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Unser added, “I think we’re way ahead of the curve.”
This day was encouraging for the same reason as most other days – Herta continues to be fast. He’s turned quick practice laps everywhere he’s been. So that made Tuesday a positive start.
“If we have good pace, it’s a lot better than running around in 12th all day and finishing 12th and having 12th-place pace,” he said. “I have a lot of years to learn about racing and race craft. If we can be quick anywhere, that’s the biggest thing. A lot of people will tell you it’s a lot easier to make a fast driver slow down than make a slow driver speed up.”
Indy 500 practice continues Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET each day and streams on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying to set the 33-car field is set for Saturday and Sunday. INDYCAR Pass carries Saturday qualifying from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and shares coverage with NBCSN from 5-6 p.m. Sunday’s qualifying to decide the last three spots in the 33-car field and the pole position airs live on NBC from noon-3 p.m.
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26 on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
Tickets for all activities at IMS this month are available at IMS.com.