By Road to Indy
Driving for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, rookie Colton Herta is the youngest driver in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field, but he enters the final two races of the season tied for second place in the standings with series veteran Santi Urrutia and within mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser.
Colton Herta has been in the spotlight from the moment he set foot in a go-kart at age 5. So the pressure the 17-year-old Californian finds himself under now, locked in a battle for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship, is nothing new. But what is new are the stakes: a Mazda scholarship that promises entry into three Verizon IndyCar series events in 2018 (including the Indianapolis 500) and the chance to add to the lore already attached to the Herta name in American open-wheel racing.
Herta is also well-versed in the pressure that comes along with being the son of 1993 Indy Lights champion, former INDYCAR driver and two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner Bryan Herta. But this season in Indy Lights, only his second year on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, has established Herta as a formidable opponent in his own right as he took a victory at the season opening weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla. – in only his second Indy Lights race. Herta was thrust into the championship conversation even as the realization struck that, should he win the title, he would be too young to compete in an Indy car at St. Pete in 2018.
His racing exploits are well-documented: a highly successful karting career, a season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the decision to make his own name in Europe at age 14 with European open-wheel powerhouse Carlin, two years racing European formula cars and the return to America this season with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing. Herta entered the Indy Lights championship this season with good friend George Michael Steinbrenner IV and backing from Michael Andretti’s eponymous team, as the duo set about a two-year plan to graduate to the top step of American open-wheel racing.
That plan nearly went out the window in March, as Herta outstripped even his own expectations by winning the second race of the year from pole position.
“It did change the mindset a little bit,” Herta admits. “We felt as though we were really in the championship fight at that point. The goal every weekend was to win races and do the best we could and get the most points, but it’s always been a two-year plan in the back of my mind – though if we do win it, it would be pretty hard to say no to that million dollars!
“I’ve never done a second year in any series that I’ve run,” Herta continued. “It’s actually easier because you know what to expect. I had never been on many of the tracks we raced on this year, so it would help to come back for a second year – knowing what to expect from the tires as the race goes on and knowing what you want from the car going into the race. That’s why you usually see second-year drivers win the championship.”
With two victories, Herta stands tied for second in the title chase, 42 points behind leader Kyle Kaiser, with two races remaining. He leads the series in number of pole positions earned (six) and is third with total podiums (five). Herta is proud of the way the team has come back from difficulties they encountered through the season, and of the relationship he has developed with teammates Dalton Kellett, Nico Jamin and Ryan Norman.
“It’s been tough but we always bounced back. We only had half of qualifying session one at Road America because we had a mechanical issue but in qualifying two we finished on pole. I’d never been to Road America before but we learned quickly and got up to speed quickly, so that was the most clutch moment of the year for us. The team has great resources as well, being an IndyCar team. It’s an Indy Lights team with an IndyCar approach. And I’ve had a ton of fun and help this year from my teammates. I was lucky enough to have three experienced drivers as teammates – this helped the development of the car and it helped me as well, because we always had good data to look at.”
Herta appreciates the resources that come with the Andretti umbrella. Not only does he have Michael and Mario Andretti available for advice and counsel, he has team principal Steinbrenner, whose family businesses include a successful thoroughbred horse racing farm and stable and, oh yes, those legendary New York Yankees.
“Michael helps me a lot, helping me stay focused. He obviously knows what he’s doing and he knows what he’s talking about. He and Mario both have been super helpful to me, getting my mindset in the right place. George Michael as well. We were really good friends before so it’s awesome to be working together now. Before the season started, we went down to the Steinbrenner horse farm in Ocala. It was cool to spend the weekend down there, and it was great bonding time. He’s in Indy now so I stay there whenever I’m at the shop. He’s learning a lot but he has a huge input. He’s been doing a great job and he’s always there for support. He really puts his heart into it.”
But when it comes to advice, Herta knows he has one of the best in his corner. With maturity has come the increasing appreciation for what his dad Bryan and mom Janette have done to help him get to this point.
“They’ve been so supportive my whole career, giving up a lot of stuff to be there for me. I’m very thankful. But this year, they’ve stepped back a bit. The team handles most of my stuff, and I’m old enough now to take care of myself. I’m responsible enough now to know what I need to do. But my dad knows what’s going on so if he sees anything that needs to be fixed, or that I’m doing wrong, he’ll comment on it. But when I go home, it’s back to normal child life.”
Flights. Racetracks. Homework. Such is the life of a young race car driver who is trying to balance it all. For Herta, the light at the end of the tunnel is quickly approaching, as he gets ready to complete high school and turn his complete focus to his racing future.
“It’s tough, especially with training twice a day. I do my school online and I try to do as much as I can before the race weekend so I don’t have to worry about school work when I’m there. I’m looking forward to getting my GED and graduating from high school.”