Ease Up on the Lofty Expectations

Much has been written this week about Colton Herta being the sure-fire, can’t-miss start for the NTT IndyCar Series. We might want to pump the brakes on that a little bit. I’m not saying that because I have doubts about the talented eighteen year-old kid, who becomes a nineteen year-old kid on Saturday. I say that because regardless of his upcoming birthday, he is still a kid.

That’s a ton of pressure to pile on the shoulders of a teenager, regardless of how mature he is. When I think back to when I was a nineteen year-old, it’s a wonder I survived – much less was able to function as a semi-adult. All I thought about were girls and beer, and not necessarily in that order. Eighteen was the legal drinking age in Tennessee back then. The way we abused that privilege is the reason it was raised to twenty-one a few years later – we couldn’t handle it.

Is winning as a teenage rookie in the NTT IndyCar Series a blessing or a curse? Recent history would suggest the latter. It’s popular to say that Graham Rahal won his first-ever IndyCar race at the age of nineteen, but that’s ignoring the fact that he drove an entire season in Champ Car the previous year as an eighteen year-old. Still, he won a race as a teenager and unrealistic expectations were thrust upon him, partially because his father was a successful driver. It was assumed the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Rahal’s win as a teenager came in the second race of the 2008 season, but it was his IndyCar debut. He was touted as “a can’t miss star of the future”, but Rahal drove in another 124 races before collecting his second win – an epic race at Fontana in 2015. Graham Rahal is now thirty. He has a total of six IndyCar wins on his resume, along with three poles. He has had a solid career and is considered one of the better drivers in the paddock; but so far his career has not reached the “can’t miss” star status that was hoisted upon him by the bandwagon jumpers.

Two years before Rahal won as a teenager, Marco Andretti was a rookie that came within a last ditch-effort from Sam Hornish of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a nineteen year-old. Later that summer at Sonoma, Andretti did collect his first win as a teenager. His name and the fact that he was driving in top-notch equipment caused everyone to anoint the shy Andretti as a younger version of his famous father and grandfather. Marco earned his second victory at Iowa in 2011. Eight years later in his fourteenth IndyCar season, he is still chasing his third.

Scoring a win in a rookie season does not guarantee success. In fact, some of the biggest names in IndyCar history went winless in their rookie campaigns. AJ Foyt was a rookie in 1957, but didn’t earn his first victory until 1960 – the year of his first championship. His nemesis, Mario Andretti, also went winless in his rookie season of 1964. It was the same for his son, Michael, twenty years later.

Other notable names who had winless rookie seasons, but went on to IndyCar stardom include Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Rick Mears, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Johnny Rutherford, Rodger Ward, Sam Hornish and Greg Moore. If you’ll notice, out of the fifteen drivers I just mentioned that had winless rookie seasons – twelve of them went on to win the Indianapolis 500, and eight of them won it multiple times.

Besides the aforementioned Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti, other drivers that won as a rookie went on to have solid to disappointing careers – such as Jimmy Davies, Teo Fabi and Tomas Scheckter.

But that’s not to say that being a winner in your first season brings a curse to your career, either. Not everyone who wins in their first IndyCar season fails to fulfill the expectations that come with early success. Some of the drivers that won as a rookie went on to have legendary careers; such as Scott Dixon, Danny Sullivan (who actually drove in two races prior to his full rookie year in 1984), Al Unser, Sébastien Bourdais, Juan Montoya (who won seven races as a rookie in 1998 – a record), Ryan Hunter-Reay, Nigel Mansell (does he really count?) and Gordon Johncock.

So what can we decipher from all of this? Not a thing. Winning as a rookie doesn’t guarantee success, nor does it curse your career. It means you’ve got a win to your credit and that’s about it.

But I wish people would not place such high expectations on Colton Herta. Winning his first race after starting only three races is a remarkable accomplishment. The fact that he is eighteen makes it even more remarkable. Standing atop a podium at that age is heady stuff. Most teenagers wouldn’t have the mental capacity to handle that. I say that because I think I was a fairly typical teenager and I couldn’t have. And when I say typical, the translation of that is knucklehead.

The worst thing about heaping expectations on a young driver after they have won a race, is that if he or she fails to replicate those results soon – those that were anointing them as the next big thing are the first ones to turn on them.

Although I’ve said some unkind things abut Marco Andretti’s driving career in the past, I cannot begin to imagine how miserable it is to be Marco, the racer. Now, Marco the person lives a very good life. He has a beautiful young wife, he is wealthy, seemingly well-liked among his peers and lives a life that most of us only dream about.

But Marco, the racer, was born into a family where his grandfather is a living racing  legend. Marco’s father, Michael, followed his father into racing and became quite an accomplished championship driver in his own right. Marco has chosen to become a third-generation driver in the family business and is perceived as a flop. He appears to be adored within his own family, but you know deep down that it has to eat him alive inside that he has failed to live up to that famous family name. I keep hoping that the light bulb will go off and Marco will eventually have that break-though season; but heading into his fourteenth season, that is beginning to look unlikely.

Colton Herta doesn’t have that big of a legacy to live up to as Marco or Graham Rahal. His father, Bryan, never won the Indianapolis 500 or an IndyCar Championship; but he was a good driver and has four wins to his credit.

But throughout this past week, articles, tweets and Facebook posts have all been written that proclaim Herta as the star of the future. Without going back and reading the post I wrote after his win on Sunday, I’m sure I was guilty of the same. I hope everyone is right, and I’d like to see Herta win more races this season as the start of an outstanding career.

But let’s all take a step back and ease up on young Herta and not place the weight of the world on these young shoulders. Let’s ease up on these lofty and practically unattainable expectations. Remember, he’s just a kid. Let’s let him be one.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Ease Up on the Lofty Expectations”

  1. “Pump the brakes” sounds like one of those phrases that would make one of George’s hated phrases articles. 😀 I prefer “hit the binders” myself.

    Personally, I don’t have high expectations for Colton. But I do have high hopes and I look forward to seeing his career unfold.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    One size fits all…….. ? ?

    I have the possible impression that Colton does not fit the race driver criteria ‘mold’ and that winning this past Sunday was an exception.

    So therefore, he has an uphill battle to fit into the racing series, as a winning driver, based upon todays thinking?

    An informative article with Josef Newgarden……. During his interview following Colton’s win at COTA, Newgarden mentioned that Colton followed the same intense career training path in England and Europe that he (Josef) followed.

    Newgarden implied that he now has competition………….

  3. 100% agree . Even with a early season win I will what till after the Month of May before I give my overall rating of a rookie in the Indycar series .

  4. I agree, for some reason we need to anoint everyone with hype or as the GOAT lately. Let’s just see how it plays out. Kid will probably be really good but who knows.

    PS sorry about the Vols, they just didn’t look good and I am sad about that.

  5. I think we should let Colton have his glory for this race and see what he does for the subsequent races. No, this is not the second coming, but it sure is an achievement.

  6. “But I wish people would not place such high expectations on Colton Herta.” high expectations drive revenue and ticket sales and TV ratings.

  7. Well, Colton Herta’s performance was pretty huge for his 3rd race – and at a new circuit at that.
    This is quite an achievement, for which the reigning “Freedom 100” champion now deservedly sits in 2nd place in this year’s NTT IndyCar Series driver championship points.
    Being up there and in the hunt early on during the season is usually very good for a contender’s eventual championship run. At least, it’s a much better place to be in than to have to be catching up later. That’s as strong a start to a rookie campaign as can be.
    But seeing his crew guys celebrate after the victory has been the icing on the cake, especially considering how much that team struggled last year. Now, they can be sure they’ve got a competitive package right there.
    And the media hype may just be a little similar to the kind of press that other sportsmen by the name of Steinbrenner are getting.

  8. Perhaps I did a poor job in communicating my meaning here, because it seems that most people have missed the point I was trying to make. I am not saying that this achievement was no big deal, nor am I trying to minimize Colton Herta’s talent. I am saying let’s not set him up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations. Because, if Herta goes to Barber next weekend and lays an egg – I know those that were singing his praises the week before, will be the ones dogging him the loudest when he comes back down to earth. That’s not fair to him. That’s what I was trying to say on Friday. Based on the comments, that’s not how it was received. That’s on me for not saying it better. – GP

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