Colton Herta at Indy 500 rookie luncheon

INDIANAPOLIS – He’s been fast all season in the NTT IndyCar Series, so it was no surprise that Colton Herta was honored Tuesday as the fastest rookie qualifier for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at the American Dairy Association’s 45th annual Fastest Rookie Luncheon.

The 19-year-old from California, who became the youngest Indy car race winner in history at Circuit of The Americas in March (when he was 18 years, 259 days old) qualified fifth on Sunday for the Indy 500 with a four-lap averaged of 229.086 mph in the No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda. He heads up a field of six talented rookies who will take the green flag in Sunday’s race.

“It was a little hectic,” Herta admitted when describing the feeling driving wide open into Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in qualifying for the first time.

“It wasn’t super easy at the beginning to get your conscience to say this is what we need to be doing. Once you kind of go through Turn 1 flat for the first time, it makes it a lot easier. Then you kind of know what to expect.”

Harding Steinbrenner Racing co-owner George Steinbrenner IV was just as nervous watching Herta’s run on the 2.5-mile superspeedway from pit lane.

“It’s the scariest two and a half minutes in sports – qualifying for Indy 500,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s nerve-wracking. Your driver’s on the total edge of possibilities of what you can do with the car for 10 miles. It’s a scary thing, but it was a relief when he crossed for the checkered flag and saw that we had firmly planted ourselves in the middle of the second row was a good feeling.”

Jordan King milks cow at Indy 500 rookie lunchHerta will be joined on the grid by fellow rookies Marcus Ericsson of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (13th), Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing (23rd), Jordan King of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (26th), Ben Hanley of DragonSpeed (27th) and Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing (29th). The rookies also had the opportunity to test their skills at milking a cow, as King shows in the photo at right.

Herta told the luncheon crowd that one thing this group of rookies has in common is that they are not accustomed to launching into a turn at 235 mph just yet. Ericsson followed Herta’s statement, saying, “It’s just been (totally) different from anything you’ve ever done before.”

“Until you’ve tried it yourself, you really don’t understand how it is,” added Ericsson, driver of the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. “To turn over 235 mph into a corner, you have to be flat (on the accelerator) and you have to trust that grip. It’s a difficult thing, for sure.”

King, driver of the No. 42 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, joked that he had the gas pedal moved closer to him in the car so the temptation to lift off would be harder.

Herta received a commemorative poster, plaque and a check for $5,000 from the American Dairy Association for being the fastest rookie. His name was engraved on a trophy with the 44 previous winners that will be on display at the IMS Museum.

“It’s really cool,” said Herta. “It means a lot. It means even more that I will be on that trophy for a long time.”

The qualifying effort only adds to the increasing expectations that the young team has. Steinbrenner said the team is keeping expectations where they need to be.

“Internally, our expectations are still solidly planted and Colton’s, too,” said Steinbrenner, himself a rookie Indianapolis 500 car owner after spending the past two years running Herta in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. “He goes out (and) he knows he can be fast, but he also understands, as he said up on the stage, this place can bite you in the butt real quick around here. It’s so difficult to put 500 miles together, 200 laps.

“It’s managing our expectations. Keeping them planted … (keeping) ourselves grounded.”

Ten rookies have won the previous 102 Indianapolis 500s, the last time by Alexander Rossi in 2016. Drivers have a choice of what type of milk they want to drink in victory circle if they win – whole, 2 percent or skim. Herta chose whole milk in case he becomes the 11th rookie winner but hasn’t planned what he would do with it.

“I’ll probably drink a little bit of it and see what happens,” he said. Depends on how thirsty I am.”

The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 11 a.m. ET Sunday.