The Real Deal

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Every year during the NTT IndyCar Series season finale, there is always a race inside of a race. Sure there is the race up front to see who wins the race, but once the checkered-flag flies – all of our attention is diverted to crowning the series champion and the race-winner is something of an afterthought.

I have been to two season finales – last year at Sonoma and 2013 at Fontana. I can assure you that it is even more the case in person. Victory Lane at Sonoma is kind of tucked behind the main stands and the Media Center. While a few interested spectators were celebrating Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win at Sonoma – the big ceremony was taking place on the big stage they wheeled out onto the main straightaway.

Such was the case again this past Sunday at Laguna Seca. While everyone was focused on Josef Newgarden earning his second IndyCar championship in three seasons, Colton Herta was hoisting his race-winning trophy in front of a few friends and family – and that’s unfortunate.

Since Herta’s win happened on the championship weekend, the historical significance of his win on Sunday was lost in the shuffle. While the Rookie-of-the-Year trophy went to Felix Rosenqvist for accumulating more points than Herta; it was Herta that deserves any accolades that come his way.

I don’t think that what Colton Herta accomplished this season has fully sunk in to a lot of people. Can you name the last time an IndyCar driver won in his rookie season? It was Alexander Rossi, when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. Rossi went on to finish eleventh in points in his rookie season. The previous rookie to win an IndyCar race before Rossi? Carlos Huertas in a downpour at Belle Isle in 2014. Huertas went on to finish twentieth in points and was never heard from again, after driving three races in 2015.

But Colton Herta didn’t just win one race in his rookie campaign – he won two. He also won three poles this season. That performance vaulted him up to finish seventh in points, which is phenomenal for a rookie. The last driver to win two races as an IndyCar rookie was Juan Montoya, twenty years ago in 1999. Actually, Montoya won seven races in his rookie season and also won the CART championship as a rookie. But to even be compared in the same breath with Montoya’s rookie season is remarkable.

I have a few racing friends that a year ago thought that there was way too much hype over Colton Herta moving into IndyCar for 2019. They thought that Patricio O’Ward was a far superior driver, based on his winning the Indy Lights championship. They thought that Herta was getting undeserved praise simply because he was the son of former IndyCar driver Brian Herta. They told me that it wouldn’t take long for O’Ward to overshadow Herta on the newly formed Harding Steinbrenner Racing (HSR) in 2019.

As we all know, we never got to see that pairing at HSR this season. The team hit financial woes during the offseason and Pato O’Ward could see the writing on the wall. Herta was the one with ties to George Steinbrenner IV, and if there was to be an odd man out, it would be O’Ward and not Herta. O’Ward asked for, and was granted his release before the season started. O’Ward drove a few races for Carlin and did a respectable job, but when an opportunity arose in Japan’s Super Formula, he jumped at it.

But with or without O’Ward in the series, Herta did an outstanding job. He barely missed out on Rookie-of-the-Year honors, losing the title to Rosenqvist by only five points. Unfortunately for him, after he won at COTA back in March, Herta went on streak of placing dead-last in the next four races – including finishing thirty-third in the Indianapolis 500, which was another double-points race. Double-points also means double-penalty for a bad race

But after the April and May swoon for Herta, he righted the ship somewhat. He had two twelfth-place finishes at Belle Isle, before crashing out with Scott Dixon at Texas. But in the last eight races, Herta had six Top-Ten finishes including Sunday’s win. He did this while driving for a small team that was semi-connected to Andretti Autosport, but was still not fully a part of them.

Next season, Herta will be a full Andretti driver in a fifth car. Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV will still be involved with most of the old HSR crew, but funding will no longer be a concern in the Andretti stable. Colton Herta can simply focus on racing, with all of the resources of Andretti Autosport. It probably doesn’t hurt that his father is also a part of the team.

When the race was over Sunday, I texted one of my skeptical friends and asked if he still thinks Herta is overrated. He replied “He’s still young, but he’s impressive.” I think that’s an understatement.

I tend to be one to take a wait and see approach with young drivers. I remember I thought Montoya was a flash in the pan after his first few races. But by the end of the season, which ended in a championship – I was convinced.

I am also convinced about Herta and I am now officially on the Colton Herta bandwagon. I think he is now already a serious contender for the 2020 IndyCar championship. Will that be too much pressure to put on a twenty year-old? It’s doubtful. He’s already proven that he can handle the big stage. He’s the real deal.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “The Real Deal”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    One season in and he’s won half as many races as his father did in a whole career…

    It is easy to see why Herta got a lot of folks in the paddock excited, he has remarkable raw speed. This year saw some glimpses of championship-caliber racecraft too. That bodes well for the future, but futures in racing are often not so certain.

  2. I admire how mature Colton is in his approach to racing. He has good rapport with his team, giving them helpful input to better set up his car. I think he is a racer through and through. Can you tell that I am already on his bandwagon as a fan!

  3. Colton Bandwagon Disappointment.
    CBD.
    snake oil .
    a short sell.

  4. I understand the points system, so this is a rhetorical question: I don’t understand how you can win two races in a season and NOT win Rookie of the Year. No matter what.

    There’s a very good chance this will be a trivia question someday.

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