Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Quite the year for Indy rookie, Colton Herta!

I cannot recall a time when I have thought about devoting a whole post to our Buckle-Up blog to just one individual, but now the dust has settled on his first year racing as a pro in the Indy Car series and Colton Herta deserves to bathe in the spotlight one more time this year. Oh yes, wouldn’t you like to know what is being talked about between father and son, above, but there is no denying the family dynamics have swung 180 degrees in a matter of months. No longer Bryan’s son, but now, when it comes to Colton, then it is Bryan who holds the distinction of being referred to as Colton’s dad!

And come a long way, the family has indeed managed to do in an amazingly short period of time. Our good friends, the Kennys, befriended us over coffee at a Starbucks in Simi Valley’s Wood Ranch shopping center. We did not realize at the time how close to royalty this new relationship would take us because at the time, the relationship was borne out of a shared interest in red Corvettes. Both our families drove their respective Corvettes and enjoyed many weekends out in the California desserts doing our best to imitate real race car drivers. Little did we know that it would be Jan Kenny’s grandson that would steal the show in only a few years’ time!
Of course, like every grandmother we know, stories began circulating that young Colton was a karting champ with an instinct for the winners circle. Indeed, as the family tells it, it would be Colton holding down second place during the final laps of his kart races until practically the last corner of the last lap at which point, he simply swooped past the other car to win, giving no opportunity for the car now in second to recover.  It would be a couple of years later, at the road course at Buttonwillow where Colton executed a last lap pass (with a nudge) to win and where Racer magazine reporter Robin Miller called Colton “the little assassin” to which Colton famously responded, on film that was televised, “I won’t always be little!” 

Royalty Check #1

Colton’s dad, Bryan, is indeed close to royalty status among the Indy family. It was Bryan who practically owned Laguna Seca, winning numerous races on that road course. Bryan dominated the Indy Lights series, was crowned champion and went on to win four Indy races. However, he may be best remembered by “the pass” when on his first outing at Laguna Seca and starting from pole, I recall, on the very last lap, Alex Zanardi passed Bryan as they entered Laguna’s famous corkscrew. Now it’s all in the past but for me, completing the pass by leaving the track just doesn’t count, but enough said, the results stand and Bryan’s fame only grew. Through into this Brian’s move to team owner and his choice of driver, Dan Wheldon, giving team Herta its big win in the Indy 500 which a short time later the team repeated, this time with Alexander Rossi as its driver and you see the status level Bryan maintains across the Indy family today.   

The most impressive part of Colton’s early career came shortly after he began driving open wheel race cars – racing in the Skip Barber F2000 series back in 2012 when he was still only 12 years old. Out of the blue and while driving home to Boulder, Margo and I took a call from Colton soliciting our support for an upcoming kart race. Even as he was driving in the Skip Barber series, the opportunity to go karting proved too tempting to resist and all he needed was just a little extra sponsorship money to make it all happen.

So yes, of course we were in and supported him to where his tires that weekend were courtesy of Pyalla Technologies “Track Days” – a reference to our own efforts and to this blog. Were we even thrilled to see our decals on his kart and have referenced many times since! But even then, all those years ago, Colton was fine-tuning his skills when it came to seeking out sponsors and gaining financial backing for his racing pursuits; today, I suspect the funding needed to get decals like those above plastered on his Indy car has gone up immeasurably!

However and here’s the thing; looking at him being “fitted” for his Skip Barber F2000 stead for the winter series 2012 – 2013 and then again back to the photo I shot of him walking to his kart prior to a big race in Las Vegas, he looks like a kid you would expect to find taking swings at a T-Ball game. But his goal of becoming a full-on racer has never wavered and the progress he made at an early age was as remarkable as it was inevitable.

Colton persisted and battled tremendous odds to make it out of karts and into the junior open wheel events. What was his record first up in F2000? With the Skip Barber series, he was very much finding his way and following twelve races he won just once but experienced four podiums. The following year, 2013, stepping up a class to Pacific Formula 1600 he participated in fifteen races, winning ten of them while adding six poles, ten fastest laps and winning the series. Yes, all while still only 13 years of age!
And yet, as you look at the photos included so far, it’s still all so innocent looking; being fitted for that Skip Barber ride, Colton barely looks able to drive such a vehicle let alone take it on track to compete with other drivers much older than him and yes, let alone attacking and winning on unfamiliar tracks. Margo and I have been discussing the age old “nature versus nurture” argument but ultimately it comes down to a very deep desire on the part of Colton to just go out and win. From the earliest exchange we had with Colton his career goals were very simply – to become a full time race car driver and to compete at the highest level.

Margo and I also discussed me writing this post as there were multiple story lines playing out. When he began competing in the F2000 series he had to sit out the first race as he wasn’t old enough to compete and for the remainder of the series, he just didn’t have a competitive car. Remember that, at this stage, there is no free ride and his program was being run on a shoestring, even as he was getting an opportunity to learn tracks that would later set the stage for much greater achievements.

It was during this time that he got an opportunity to fly down to Sepang, Malaysia, for a weekend racing in the AsiaCup Series. This was his international debut and the weekend proved to be a turning point as, in an unfamiliar racecar up against 20 year old racers at mid point in their season, he scored a win and a second on the Saturday followed up by two more podiums Sunday. Apparently, he then told family he needed to buy another bag to bring home the trophies! 

However, what followed can only be called extraordinary. For the following two years and at the tender age of 15 and 16, he left the US for England where he gained a ride with the Carlin group. To put it all in perspective, Colton drove for Carlin Motorsport – the same outfit that nurtured the early development of both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. Not only did he adapt to living by himself in a foreign country, although there were many family visits to help ease the transition, he started winning races; four of the last eight races to finish third overall. 

As for his competition, some of them are becoming better known to the rest of us as he began winning – having turned 16 he won 7 races, took 7 poles and was on the podium 14 times beating out the likes of Lando Norris (currently a McLaren F1 driver) and taking home the winner’s check.   

Royalty Check #2

Returning to the US for 2017 and an Indy Lights campaign, he connected with none other than George Steinbrenner IV – grandson of legendary Yankees baseball team owner, George Steinbrenner. George is a little older than Colton but not by many years and few people realized that the grandson had a real interest in race cars with a number of his relatives competing in the sport.
Colton and George had developed a friendship dating back to Skip Barber days so with George’s help a team was put together and Colton campaigned for two years in Indy Lights, finishing runner-up in the series at the end of 2018. His most memorable month was May, 2018, when he won all three races at the historic Indianapolis Speedway – two on the grand prix road course and yes, the Freedom 100 on the big oval itself!
As the end of 2018 rolled around and the Indy Lights program concluded and Margo and I having already booked the weekend at Sonoma to watch the final Indy race of the year, who just happened to get a ride in the big leagues but Colton! We just happened to time it right to see his very first race in Indy and yes, he was only 18 years old. 

We had parked our RV alongside the Kennys where a Herta compound of sorts had formed and on numerous occasions it wasn’t unusual to walk into Colton lounging on chairs, consuming lots of protein, playing video games and in general being indistinguishable from any other teenager present for the race weekend. And yes, we had the opportunity to be introduced to George as well - before he cut his hair.
A normal teenager that is, until they called for the drivers to participate in meet-the-fans to sign autographs! Yes, it was beginning to get very serious and with the help of George Steinbrenner IV, a deal was cut with Harding team owner to put a team together to race all the Indy races in 2019 – Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Originally, the plan was to field two cars but ultimately it came down to having Colton as their driver and did he deliver!
On the second event of the Indy schedule, a first time appearance at the Course of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, Colton surprised the world to win his first Indy race at 18 years of age! This was only a few weeks after he drove a BMW M8 GTE car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race that is part of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where as one of four drivers he won the GTLM class beating out the Corvettes, Porsches, Ferraris and Ford GTs. And oh yes, he set the fastest time during the race for his class.

What did Bryan Herta have to say following Daytona? “You always worry because that’s the nature of it, right? You have no control so all you can do is worry,” said Bryan Herta to Indy reporters. “But this was just such a huge opportunity for him to be part of this program with BMW RLL, and you know this was just a chance for him to grow and learn to continue to evolve as a race car driver. To win the race was more than you could really dare to dream, so I’m just very happy for him.” As for the win at COTA, it was Bryan talking to Racer again who said, “It’s amazing. Really super proud of him. Colton won the race — feels like Christmas to me.” 

Unfortunately, as for his Indy team during the rest of the year, they simply didn’t have the financial wherewithal to effectively compete with the major teams and he suffered from a number of Did Not Finish (DNF) results – six DNFs meant he only finished 11 races. However much of that was forgotten on the Sunday afternoon of the season’s last race at Laguna Seca where Colton had a perfect weekend. 

Colton had topped the practice time sheets, secured the pole position and, starting from the front led all the laps (except when in the pits for tire changes and gas refueling) to finish the winner. This was at the track where his father Bryan had achieved so much success, but when television asked Colton if the track owners should name some part of the track after the Hertas, Colton responded, “why not all of it!” Tight from the get-go, Colton had to fend off a pack of swarming bees and he did just that much to the chagrin of his fellow racers all waiting for a misstep to be taken. 

In summary for his rookie year, Colton won twice, secured three poles (probably most important of all), had 3 Top 5s, 8 Top 10s and led 144 laps, all as a rookie. He finished runner up in the Indy Rookie stakes and if it wasn’t for the DNFs – the most memorable was his last lap heroics on the Texas Speedway – who knows how the season would have finished. But it does beg the question when so many bonus points are handed out each weekend for things like pole, fastest lap, leading a lap and yes, leading the most laps, shouldn’t a rookie score a few extra points for winning as a rookie and securing poles as a rookie – after all, he only missed out on winning the Indy Rookie prize by 5 points!

Royalty check #3

Enter Mario Andretti. “The kid’s fast,” was one comment Mario told an interviewer after watching Colton become the faster Honda qualifier for the Indy 500. There is no question about the Andretti name or the heritage of the family. Under son Michael, it’s all been arranged. Colton will be a part of the Andretti team racing under the new banner of Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Racing and starting next year while still 19 years old, the future looks very bright for Colton and the entire Herta family.

Bryan Herta continues to be part owner of the Andretti Herta Autosports Indy team, where Bryan fields Marco Andretti so it’s hard not to notice the many connections with racing’s royalty. Whether you consider Bryan or even George part of Indy racing royalty as yet, you cannot deny the presence Mario has whenever he walks into any venue and oh yes, my time in the back seat of a Honda two-seater Indy Car was with Mario behind the wheel. Margo and I have not made any plans yet to see Colton race in person but then again we have never been to Indy so who knows what might transpire late May of 2020. In the meantime, if you lost track of the events and of the wins and podiums, this summary (that doesn’t include his time on track in Malaysia) may be a great ending for this somewhat unusual post!

Perhaps it’s fitting to return to Colton and to Mario when in a recent broadcast Mario left his script to talk about Colton. And potentially, F1 – seriously? I don’t believe that is on the agenda for now as I understand that Colton really likes being at home and having home be his base.

But then again, in racing, nothing is ever set in stone and who knows, maybe we see Colton and Lando going head to head in F1. As 2019 came to a close one thing we can be assured of though, Colton is no longer little!


Jan Kenny said...

What an awesome article to read all of Colton's accomplishments, (which I am SUPER proud of), Grandma or not. He remains focused, humble and motivated to do what he has dreamed of since he was 5 years old. He has sacrificed a lot, living away from the family at a young age, and enduring all of the issues you come across and still keeping up with his school work (online, etc). He is very fortunate to have STRONG family support ..but HE has put ALL of the work in himself. It's funny how it all happened, and not even having a driver's license (until he was 16), luckily there was UBER to get him around as he was and IS too young to rent a car. He has always been able to figure things out on his own and actually presented his "PLAN" of racing in the UK and Europe to his parents and it just all came together. I can't wait to see the long future Colton has in his racing career.
Grandma Jan Kenny

Richard said...

And to think "Grandma" as I was writing this post, COlton was packing his bags and heading to Atlanta for the Petite Le Mans event where again, he will be behind the wheel of the RLL BMW M8 ... Go Colton!