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Herta Hoping for Long Day in Car at Indy in First Season with Andretti Autosport
Note: This continues a series of feature stories focused on competitors in the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and GMR Grand Prix this May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Stories will appear at IMS.com on Tuesdays and Thursdays through May.

Colton Herta’s adjustment to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES was stunning and swift as a rookie in 2019.

He won two races, the first rookie winner in the series since Alexander Rossi’s shock victory in the 2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. He won three pole positions, the first rookie to achieve that feat since Danica Patrick in 2005. He became the youngest winner in series history with his victory in March at Circuit of the Americas, just six days shy of his 19th birthday.

California native Herta ended up seventh in points with the small Harding Steinbrenner Racing team, falling just five points short of Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist, who drives for championship-winning Chip Ganassi Racing.

The 2019 season was a transformation for Herta, who rocketed to stardom in his first year at the top level after finishing runner-up in Indy Lights in 2018.

Well, except for one thing: He spent nearly all of Indianapolis 500 Race Day as a spectator. It’s a role he was familiar with since childhood while watching his father, Bryan Herta, drive in the race and then own race teams that competed in it.

Herta qualified a stunning fifth in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda last May at Indy, the top rookie and the only first-year driver to make the Fast Nine Shootout. But that promising start ended after just three laps when Herta slowed on course and was eliminated from the race with a mechanical problem, credited with last place.

“The biggest surprise is that I got to watch another Indy 500,” Herta said. “Out on Lap 3. I was used to that bit of it. I wasn’t used to the driving bit. It was really cool up to that point.”

Herta has a very good chance of making amends this May 24 for his short Race Day last year. One, he has more experience. Two, he has moved to become the fifth full-time driver on the powerful Andretti Autosport team this season, bringing much of the scrappy crew and infrastructure from Harding Steinbrenner that helped him produce a rookie season for the ages.

The transition into Andretti Autosport should be smoother for Herta than for many other drivers.

One, Harding Steinbrenner had a technical relationship with Andretti Technologies last year, as Andretti supplied engineering support for the season.

Two, there are plenty of familiar faces at Andretti for Herta. His father drove for the team in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES from 2003-06 when it was known as Andretti Green Racing, and Colton raced for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing in Indy Lights in 2017 and 2018, winning a total of six races and 10 poles.

“It definitely makes it easier,” Herta said of driving for a prominent team like Andretti. “You have a lot more cars to work with, a lot more budget to work with. It was pretty impressive what we did as a small team (last year with Harding Steinbrenner).

“There are a lot more people around at the factory and a lot more things that we can do setup-wise with the car. For me, the transition is pretty smooth because I knew everybody from Andretti from when my dad was running there and my two years in Indy Lights with them. It seems to be going smoothly for everyone.”

Herta’s confidence was boosted by a composed, veteran-like drive to victory in the season finale last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The Harding Steinbrenner team forced Herta to practice on tires for an entire tread lifespan that weekend so he could fast-track his growing knowledge of tire management, something new to him since there are no scheduled tire changes in Indy Lights. Same with fuel management.

“I think tire degradation was a big problem for me last year,” Herta said. “I think I sorted it out by Laguna. I still have some improvement to make on saving fuel.

“I definitely wouldn’t classify myself anywhere near a veteran. It was a really good drive in Laguna, and it just showed the maturity building through the year for myself and the team.”

The team is much bigger this year, as Harding Steinbrenner was a feisty, one-car operation in 2019. Now Herta is part of a five-driver lineup with Andretti Autosport.

Having four teammates will provide more data and more setup ideas. Having four teammates with the skills of Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach also will give Herta nowhere to hide. Four performance barometers will measure him constantly.

“You always want to be your teammate,” Herta said. “That’s the goal. It’s tough because there are some really good drivers on the team.

“It’s not a huge ask. I think I was on pace with them last year, pretty much everywhere. The immaturity in the races was the biggest problem. It’s a big step up. They’re really long races from what I’ve done before. Managing the tires, managing the fuel. I’ve never had to save fuel in a car before, and I did a lot of that last year. So, there’s a lot to pick up on.”

Finishing atop the Scoring Pylon for Andretti Autosport in the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 24 would achieve Herta’s goal of topping his teammates in the biggest race in the world. It also would deliver a much larger paycheck than his offseason pursuit.

Herta plays drums in a Southern California punk rock band called The Zibs. The band, consisting of Herta and his friends, plays gigs year-round, but the demands of the racing season force the band to schedule most of its shows during the INDYCAR offseason, with nearly 10 dates during this offseason.

Playing drums provides Herta with a fun outlet but a lot less pocket change than the $2 million-plus prize that the Indy 500 winner will make this year.

“We make $250 a night, split between four people, and then we have to pay for gas and food, so you end up with about $30,” Herta said.

Visit IMS.com or the IMS Ticket Office for tickets to the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, GMR Grand Prix and all other Month of May activities at IMS.
 
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