Photo: Stephen King/INDYCAR

Herta and O’Ward’s Journey Hits Summit in Sonoma

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

SONOMA, California — It was a share of laughs and soaking in the greatest opportunity that a racer has worked their heart and soul for – reaching the highest ladder in American open wheel racing. That was the story behind Harding Racing teammates and INDYCAR debutants Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward’s Friday press conference at Sonoma Raceway.

The Road to Indy alumni were teammates at Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights, and just wrapped up an intense championship battle which wrapped up two weeks ago at Portland International Raceway in Oregon. O’Ward was triumphant after clinching the championship in the first race, and later swept the weekend, beating Herta by 44 points.

Their history goes back to when they were kids, competing in karts and climbing the ranks at a similar pace. At one point in their careers, they had separate paths in Europe – competing in different series, with O’Ward running Pro Mazda before Herta. The pair soon resumed their battle in Indy Lights.

Due to this, they both felt their Indy Lights championship battle was tension-free because they’ve brought the best out of each other. O’Ward said he would rather have a teammate like Herta from a reliability standpoint.

“I think it’s really cool,” he said. “I don’t know about him, I couldn’t I didn’t really feel any tension during this year. I thought it was really fun. I thought it was really cool because we’ve been racing karts since — if I remember correctly, since 2009, 2010, I think, and we’ve been — going up the ranks.”

“We didn’t really do some of the Junior Performance together, but we both came to Indy Lights. I think it’s cool that we’re both pushing each other. We’re both trying to get better, and I’d much rather have a strong teammate than to have someone that I won’t really get information out of. I think it’s always good to have someone that pushes you and pushes you to your limits so you can get better and better, and I feel like he’ll feel the same way.

“So I’m excited for this weekend. I know that he’ll get the maximum out of the car just as I’ll try to, and we’ll both keep working towards creating a strong package for qualifying and then for the race.”

Herta acknowledged that their competitive edge will continue. But unlike in similar instances that have resulted in burnt bridges and bad blood, he can continue on with mutual respect for the newly-crowned Indy Lights champion.

“Yeah, it was awesome to have him as a teammate,” Hera said. “We obviously pushed each other really hard. He made me a better driver as well as I think I made him a better driver.

“But yeah, we’ll continue the same rivalry and keep pushing each other. We’re in similar situations coming into this weekend, similar situations in our career. We’re a similar age and both kind of struggling with the same stuff. We’re very comparable, so I think it makes our relationship a little bit different and better.”

Now that they’ve put in the work from the lower ranks, the Harding teammates are focusing on making names for themselves in the IndyCar Series on Sunday.

The 19-year-old had a test session for Harding last Thursday, and realized right away how different the environment is while adapting to a different car, staff personnel and tons of data information. The challenge lied not only in trying to conquer those hurdles, but in getting around the physically demanding 2.385-mile road course with the brand-new No. 8 Chevrolet.

“Still getting into the mix of things, learning the ins and outs of what practices are here, and there’s a lot more cars than what I’m used to in Indy Lights,” he said. “The track position is a little hard to get.

“Didn’t really get a clean lap, maybe because we’re rookies and people don’t really care. But I guess I just — I’ll have to do the same. But it was good. We’re just — it’s a new car. It’s a new team. It’s a lot more people. The amount of people around you and the amount of information that you have to kind of go through is a lot more than what we’re used to. That’s going to be important to learn and just to keep evaluating the next few days. But so far it’s been pretty fun.”

This weekend is a huge step for O’Ward. He hopes that after his IndyCar debut he can represent his home country for years to come, something that the sport hasn’t seen since Adrian Fernandez. He also dreams that someday when the series returns to Mexico, he’ll be racing.

“I think it’s something that a lot of people were looking forward to, including myself, my family and everybody,” O’Ward said. “I think the last strong Mexican name in the series was Fernandez, and hopefully I can give them good results like I did give them this year in Indy Lights.”

“It’s going to be way harder now, but I think with hard work — it’s going to take some time to get used to, but I think this weekend is going to be crucial just to get learning and seat time in the car, especially with pit stops and such a longer race.

“IndyCar kind of wants to go back to Mexico, and it would be cool to represent the country and represent a Mexican driver in the series, obviously, in a home race.”

Ever since he came out of the womb, the son of four-time INDYCAR winner Bryan Herta has dreamed of racing with the elites. It finally sunk in after strapping in his No. 88 Chevrolet that he’s about to live his lifelong dream, and will become the first driver born in the 21st century to compete in the IndyCar Series.

“It’s really cool to finally get your start in IndyCar. I’ve waited 18 years for this. Right out of the womb I was waiting to get into an IndyCar,” Herta said.

“I don’t think it really sunk in until the first practice session, and then you’re like on the grid with all the big boys. You’re going by (Will) Power and (Scott) Dixon and (Sebastien) Bourdais, guys you kind of looked up to when you were growing up and coming up in the ranks, and now you’re trying to beat them. It’s pretty cool in that sense, but yeah, it probably didn’t hit me until I sat in the car getting ready for the first practice.”

Like his teammate, Herta has also seen the difference from what he’s driven in Indy Lights. He’s trying to work on preserving his tires so he can get more laps out of his Harding entry.

“It’s a challenging track. It’s challenging circumstances,” he said. “It’s hard to get the tires to work here, especially when you only have one lap. It’s tough to get on top of that. But just really happy for the opportunity I was given from Harding, Chevy, Firestone, and yeah, super excited to see what this weekend brings.”

Herta added the biggest challenge of driving an INDYCAR is the night and day difference from the Firestone tires — which has two compound tires — and Cooper Tires.

“I think the biggest challenge that we are both going to try and cope with and kind of struggling with at the moment is on the Coopers, you could maybe have six or seven laps on new tires where you can set a lap time down. On this it’s your first lap, second lap,” Herta said.

“So trying to figure out your brake points and when you need to get off the brake and roll the speed and get back on throttle, that’s the toughest part for us right now.”

O’Ward described Sonoma as a learning curve for him as he’s dealing with the physical demands Sonoma has to offer, and trying to figure out where he can push the limit of a more powerful car than he’s used to.

“I think this is a pretty — it’s a pretty physical track as it is, and learning a new, faster, stronger and just all-around better race car than what we’re used to was — I think it’s pretty cool, but it’s really hard at the same time. It’s very physical,” said O’Ward.

“I feel like just the first time you jump in the car and you feel the power, you feel the aero, you feel the tire that is a lot different to the Cooper than we’re used to, it’s pretty difficult to just find the limits.

“I think we’re still getting up to speed and just finding the limits of the tire, of what the car likes, of what we like in the car and just different setups because it’s a totally different car to tune for, but in general it’s just another race car, and we’re just going to have to get used to it just like we did to the lights car, but it’s definitely, definitely, a lot faster.”

The two joked around about Herta putting his sponsors on merchandise instead of his logo like O’Ward before wrapping it up stating the importance of having a teammate, which comes down to their driving styles and the ability of helping the team’s growth.

“It is important to have a veteran teammate, but I also enjoy having a guy like Pato,” said Herta.

“Where we are similar in pace, but we have two different driving styles, which can help a lot, whereas maybe sometimes he’ll be better on the brakes, I’ll be better on the exit, or he’ll be better in a certain style of corner and I’ll be better in a different style of corner, to where that’s like the ultimate teammate, to where you can put together the perfect lap just by looking at each other’s data, and that’s what I think we have right here.”

“I think just pushing each other as much as you can is going to be the best help that you can get. I don’t think there’s really a limit to where we should be,” said O’Ward.

“We’re obviously going to try and race each other and beat each other on the track, but by doing so, we’ll help each other when we get out of the car to keep improving, and at the end of the day, we want to help the team. We’re not just helping ourselves, we want to help everybody that has put their trust, their belief, their hard work in preparing the race cars for us, and that is it.”

O’Ward was the fastest of out of the two on Friday, setting a time of 1:18.007 during the afternoon session, good enough for third quickest in the session and sixth in the combined time sheet. Herta set his fastest lap Friday morning, clocking in at 1:18.826, which was 16th quickest and 20th overall.

Saturday’s final practice was a struggle for the Harding duo, unable to match their lap times and both ended up outside the top-20. O’Ward was 21st with a 1:19.275, and right behind him was Herta at 1:19.434. Qualifying will take place at 6 p.m. EST, as both thrive to set a fast time that’ll grant them a solid starting spot for Sunday’s finale at 6:30 p.m. EST.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.