• Herta Leads A Group of Uncommon Rookies in 2019

    Words: David Barr (@daveabarr)

    As we head into the second race of the INDYCAR season, one thing is for certain. This rookie class of drivers is deep, talented and fearless.

    The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was led by Formula 3 and Swedish import Felix Rosenqvist for 31-laps and two of other debutants finished in the top-10 with Colton Herta getting the checkered flag in the eighth spot and fellow American first-year driver Santino Ferrucci right behind him in ninth.

    “There is no doubt this is a very talented group,” Herta said. “So many of these guys have come from other types of racing. They were all professional racecar drivers before hopping into an INDYCAR so they are rookies to INDYCAR only.”

    The one essential component for success that strikes you when you watch Herta, Rosenqvist and the other first-year pilots is the fact that they are so patient. One would think that the energy and anticipation of the first race of the season would be one where emotions are at an all-time high, yet these drivers worked with the group, giving and taking what the course and drivers around them offered.

    “I don’t know if that can be learned other than by racing and crashing some cars,” Herta said with a laugh. “Thank goodness I haven’t crashed many times but when you look around the paddock there are so many teams with veteran drivers and crew alongside that you learn so much just from the advice you get in your ear and from just talking strategy.”

    A big “ear influence” for Herta is Al Unser Jr. The INDYCAR Hall of Famer has always been impressed by the driver of the #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing machine but the other rookies in this year’s class have also caught his eye.

    “I was really impressed by the entire rookie class at St. Pete,” Unser said from Austin, Texas. “The thing that you have to remember about Colton is that like Michael (Andretti) and I – he has been groomed his entire life to be a racecar driver. I remember sitting beside him in Florida while he was doing an interview and he was asked how long he has been racing. His answer was since he was six-years old. I get that because I was nine! He is a rookie outside of the car but when he puts that helmet on – he is far from a first-year driver.”

    One of the big differences for Herta coming from Indy Lights to now is the amount of completeness that is encountered on the track. That feeling of speed and the constant feeling that someone is pushing you all the time is something that you have to get used to and comfortable with quickly.

    “The racing is a lot closer and you’re running against guys who have been at it at this level for 15-years,” commented Herta after arriving in Texas for the INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of the Americas. “The mental part of this is so important. It’s very easy to self-doubt. Thinking to yourself man this guy is coming and here is a corner and I can’t physically pull this off. Having a very strong mental game is many times just as important as having a great racecar. It can ruin you if you don’t. It’s why I take some breaks from racing for a couple of days when I can to refocus, relax and regenerate.”

    With the added interest and just the shear competitiveness in INDYCAR comes added scrutiny as well. The pressure to win and get to the podium is the goal of every team.

    “The pressure and anticipation of winning were there for me when I was a rookie (1982),” Unser reminisced.  “I led several races, but mechanical failures and fuel management were the reasons we didn’t win multiple times out. We led a lot of races my rookie year. It’s no different for Colton or Pato (O’Ward), Rosenqvist, Ericsson or anyone else. It’s a great class especially Colton and Pato. They are the stars of this field.”

    This weekend racing at COTA will be ultra-competitive as is every week in INDYCAR but the confidence that Herta continues to acquire after a top 10-finish in week one and the way in which he tested in Austin (P1 in three sessions and P2 in the other) in February gives this uncommon rookie a true confidence of a great result. Since 2007 (Ryan Hunter-Reay), there has been only one American to win Rookie of the Year honors and that was Alexander Rossi in 2016. Herta looks to take another step toward that honor Sunday in Texas in the inaugural INDYCAR Classic.