Will Colton Herta Produce a Super Season?

As I watched Super Bowl LIV the other night, it occurred to me how much the two young careers of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and IndyCar’s next superstar Colton Herta parallel each other. Think I’m crazy? Take a look.

They are both technically in their third year – Mahomes just finished up his third NFL season this past weekend, while Herta is just beginning his third year as a driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. Some will say he is entering his second season, but remember – Herta made his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in 2018, where he finished a forgettable twentieth for Harding Racing.

Herta was completely overshadowed that weekend by his Harding teammate, Pato O’Ward, who qualified fifth and finished ninth. What few realized at the time was that O’Ward had been given dampers from Andretti Autosport, while Herta was running the standard shocks that Harding had been using all season.

The rookie season of Mahomes was just about as obscure as Herta’s. After a standout junior season at Texas Tech, Mahomes entered the NFL Draft and was taken tenth in the first round by Kansas City. Like Herta, Mahomes had one start in his rookie season – against Denver in the final game of the regular season. He threw one interception and no touchdowns, yet he had impressed coaches enough in practice to trade away Alex Smith in the offseason and make Mahomes the starting QB in only his second season.

Despite his lackluster performance in his debut at Sonoma in 2018, Herta was signed for the full 2019 season with the newly renamed Harding Steinbrenner Racing along with teammate Pato O’Ward. Even though O’Ward had the much more impressive debut at Sonoma, it was O’Ward who was the odd man out when the team encountered financial difficulty prior to the 2019 season.

As the slated fulltime starter in only and with only one prior start heading into his second year, Mahomes did not disappoint. He won the MVP, while leading the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game. All that separated the Chiefs from the Super Bowl a year ago was an ill-timed off-sides penalty that gave Tom Brady one more chance. It wasn’t Mahomes that messed up, it was someone else on his team.

After winning in only his second start of the 2019 season at COTA, Colton Herta ran into a buzz-saw that saw him score four DNFs in a row immediately after that win at COTA. Two of the four he was at least partially responsible for, but the other two were due to issues out of his direct control. He won the pole at Road America and won the season-finale at Laguna Seca. It was that string of DNFs that prevented Herta from winning the IndyCar Rookie of the Year that was eventually taken by Felix Rosenqvist.

As we now know, Mahomes had another stellar season in Year Three that culminated with him hoisting the Lombardy Trophy on Sunday night at the young age of twenty-four, along with being named Super Bowl MVP. He did not play all that well for fifty-five minutes, but in the last five minutes of the game he did what all of the great ones do – he rose to the occasion and did what he had to do to win.

What will Year Three look like for Colton Herta? So far, it looks promising. He is now an official member of Andretti Autosport, instead of with a small budget team that only had an association with Andretti. There is some debate as to how much of an Andretti car the Harding Steinbrenner entry was last year, but this year there is no such question. He is part of a five-car armada that also includes Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Zach Veach and Marco Andretti. He also gets the benefit of being in-house with his father, Bryan Herta, who is part-owner in Marco’s car.

There is a theory that Herta set the bar too high as a fulltime rookie and that he has set himself up for failure for 2020. Well, the pressure is certainly on him to perform. He has the best equipment and belongs to one of the best teams in the business. He knows all of the tracks (except for Richmond) and all of the nuances for driving an Indy car. He will be on an even playing field with all teams and drivers adjusting to the new aero screen this season. There are no excuses for Herta failing to perform in 2020.

But one of the traits of Herta that drew praise from everyone last season is that the pressure doesn’t seem to get to him. He still seems a little awkward out of the cockpit as he comes across as very shy and unpolished in interviews. But inside the cockpit, the kid seems unflappable – and yes, he is still a kid. He’s a teenager that will not turn twenty until the end of March.

Will Colton Herta and Patrick Mahomes keep up this torrid pace as they go from young athletes and enter their prime? Will either experience a letdown where they show signs of being mere mortals? It’s an unfair comparison between stick-and-ball sports, where one of two teams wins each week, and racing where only one of a couple of dozen can win. But both had exceptional seasons in the second overall seasons and first as a fulltime starter, and Mahomes won a Super Bowl in his third season.

Can Colton Herta match Mahomes in Season Three, by either drinking milk in May or hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup in September? We’re about to find out. The green flag flies at St. Petersburg in exactly forty days. I can’t wait!

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Will Colton Herta Produce a Super Season?”

  1. I’ll remember the O’Ward comment which is basically if you don’t have Andretti or Penske shocks, driver comparisons are useless.

    It’s time for a ‘best of the rest’ category for the have-nots….. or …. spec shocks for the field.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Herta may or may not match his two victories from last season, but he will likely finish higher in the championship this season if he can simply cut down on DNFs. I would expect him to be a major threat for pole position at most tracks, especially the natural terrain road courses.

  3. The milk is certainly within reach, especially considering that Herta has won the Freedom 100 before. I guess the sport’s fanbase would love that, too.

    It is likely that Herta is going to win a race again in 2020. It could be this one or another.

  4. Mahomes and Herta – nice comparison, George. I haven’t paid this much attention or watched this much NFL football in eons. I love to watch Patrick scramble.

    Colton also was extremely impressive in 2019 and so mature in his outlook and ability to give feedback to his engineers. Not all of his DNFs last season was his doing. He was a very good qualifier and I think that will continue. He is very capable of winning more races in 2020. I am ready for IC racing.

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