“That was a phenomenal save. That was a crash that didn’t happen.” – NBC broadcaster Leigh Diffey
Veteran broadcaster Leigh Diffey and former driver James Hinchcliffe were describing a battle for the lead early in last year’s GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course when Colton Herta’s No. 26 Gainbridge Honda lost traction on a wet surface. Then Herta’s adventure kept going, and the excitement in the television voices increased.
By the time Herta got the car’s nose repointed, his steering wheel had completely crossed over through Turn 8, a slide that didn’t need slow motion to be appreciated.
“That was ‘Tokyo Drift,’” said Diffey, a reference to “The Fast and the Furious” movie by that name. “That was unbelievable.”
Hinchcliffe could appreciate the heart-stopping nature of the moment, although he said he had never experienced such a pronounced slide.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “That was handwork that was footwork, that was everything he could do … there was nothing left.”
A year later, people are still talking about it. Surprisingly, Herta said he can still feel the sensation of chasing the car.
“I’ve never had (that) feeling in the car – ever – or been able to remember a feeling from a specific time in racing, especially one from a year ago,” he said. “I can tell you exactly how everything felt when it happened.”
That was the fourth lap, and it became the race’s signature moment. In a bid to overcome a disappointing 14th-place qualifying position, Andretti Autosport had opted to pit Herta two laps earlier, giving him new slick Firestone Firehawks as the track was beginning to dry from what INDYCAR officials deemed “a wet start,” meaning all drivers were required to begin the race on grooved rain tires.
The team’s decision was smart because Herta gained track position as the rest of the field came to pit road a lap later to change to the slick tires. Herta also had the benefit of having an extra lap to get heat in those tires, and he was running second to Pato O’Ward as the cars cycled through their stops.
The exchange was indeed thrilling. O’Ward was trying to hustle his car through the middle portion of the circuit but challenged by the lack of heat in his new tires. Meanwhile, Herta was charging.
As O’Ward and Herta drove off Turn 7, the sharp left-hander behind the IMS Museum, Herta’s aggression lost out. The car wiggled briefly, then began the long slide that seemed to last forever. Herta’s rear end captured the moment.
“We talk about how we feel everything through our butts,” he said. “I still have that same feeling, I can feel that motion, which I’ve never been able to feel in any moment of my career, like, remember it so clearly.
“So, it was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Obviously, we’ve all seen it a whole bunch of times now. I hope I don’t have to replicate it again because it definitely wasn’t the fastest way to go through that corner.”
Herta’s tires were back to full grip by the exit of Turn 9, allowing him to refocus on O’Ward, who was still not up to speed. As they transitioned through Turn 10, Herta was at full song, easily overtaking O’Ward.
“I was using the brake and the throttle to balance the car,” Herta said of trying to save the slide. “We talk about cars kind of on a pendulum, so when you hit the brakes the front (of the car) moves forward (and) the rear moves up. When you hit the throttle, it puts a little bit more weight on the rear.
“It was a little bit of footwork, obviously a lot of handwork. And also, of course, a little bit of luck.”
There would still be drama to come given the rain that shortened the race by 10 laps, but Herta didn’t have as much of it as he did on Lap 4. He went on to lead 50 laps and score the seventh victory of his career.
“It’s hard to remember (much else about the race) because so much was going on in that one,” he said. “If I nitpick, I would prefer a little bit of an easier time and hopefully a win that’s a little more straightforward.
“It was an interesting race, a lot going on (with) split (pit) strategies almost the whole time. Guys were not sure if they could be on wet (tires) or slicks. Luckily, we made those calls better than everybody else (and) we were able to take the win there.”
Another opportunity to win comes Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). The GMR Grand Prix is the fifth race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, and Herta again will be among the favorites to reach Victory Lane given that he also ran well in last year’s Gallagher Grand Prix on the same 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit. He was leading on Lap 42 when his gearbox broke as he ran over curbing in Turn 8.
“We’ve always had great cars there,” Herta said. “Most of the time we’ve been in contention for at least a podium. It’s a place that I feel very comfortable (at).”
Even sliding through a corner.