As veteran driver Ed Carpenter waited to see if his qualifying speed would be fast enough for pole position at this year’s Indianapolis 500, he told a reporter the outcome might depend on “this next guy” about to zoom around the track.
The next guy was Colton Herta, a 19-year-old rookie who lives with his parents in Valencia. Herta then drove his race car an average 229.086 mph in his qualifying run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That gave him an impressive fifth starting spot for Sunday’s 103rd running of the race, while Carpenter starts second behind pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud. And the fact that Carpenter, 38, was closely watching the teenager’s run underlined the respect Herta already enjoys among his peers.
Herta has taken the IndyCar series by storm this year. He won only his second race at this level, at the Circuit of the Americas curvy road course in Austin, Texas, in late-March, while he was still 18, thus becoming the series’ youngest winner in history.
“He’s got a big future,” five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said of Herta. “As far as speed and what he’s been able to do, it’s impressive.”
Herta has some experience at the Brickyard, having won here last year in the sport’s second-level series, Indy Lights.
But driving a top-tier Indy car for 500 grueling miles with wily veterans all around him will be “very different from anything I’ve ever done,” Herta told reporters earlier this month.
Herta is from a racing family. His father, Bryan Herta, was a driver who competed in the Indy 500 five times, with a career-best finish of third in 2005, and he’s now a team owner.
Not surprisingly, Colton got the racing bug as a youngster — he’d been with his dad at Indy and other tracks for years — and started by driving go-karts.
As he worked up the racing ladder, he later competed in Europe before returning to join up with his friend George M. Steinbrenner IV, a passionate racing fan and the 22-year-old grandson of the late George M. Steinbrenner, the former New York Yankees owner.
After Herta met the younger Steinbrenner in 2012, “we kind of clicked instantaneously and were really good friends,” Herta said.
Steinbrenner and Indiana businessman Mike Harding formed the IndyCar team Harding Steinbrenner Racing last year and signed Herta to drive this season.
At a news conference earlier this month, Herta was asked if he felt any added pressure given the Steinbrenner family’s sports fame.
“It’s not stressful for me at all because they don’t put any pressure on me to perform,” Herta said. “They know I can be quick. They have a lot of confidence in me.”
There have been other standout rookies at the Indy 500. Helio Castroneves won the first of his three 500s as a rookie in 2001. Alexander Rossi was a rookie when he won in 2016, although he had briefly competed in Formula One.
And Marco Andretti was a 19-year-old rookie when he came within a few hundred yards of winning the 500 before being passed by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
Racing observers say Herta not only is fast but seems born with the steady emotions needed to handle the highest level of motor racing. Herta appears to take it all in stride, as though he’s been doing this for years.
“He’s just like his dad,” Dixon said. “Bryan was always fairly quiet but extremely talented and very fast.”
“You just have to keep a level head,” Colton Herta said at a rookies’ luncheon last week. Although his team has “a lot of experienced guys around, and this helps,” he said, “you don’t want to get into this thing being so confident that you’re think you’re going to win and then get blown away.”
“This is something that’s still fairly new to me,” Herta said. “Just trying to learn as much as I can.”
The experienced guys around him include Brian Barnhart, a former IndyCar competition official, and the Harding Steinbrenner crew consistently has prepared fast cars for Herta. On Sunday, they’ll also need flawless pit stops, the proper fuel strategy and a patient driver if Herta hopes to reach Victory Lane.
Castroneves, who’s attempting to become only the fourth driver in history to win the 500 four times, last week summed up what Herta, or any driver, needs to win the 500.
“It’s a team,” Castroneves told reporters. “It’s not the driver. If you don’t have a good team supporting you, giving you the opportunity and the tools to put yourself in position to win, you won’t be able.
“So you’ve got to be patient,” Castroneves said, “and you’ve got to respect this place because this place changes every lap.”
The younger Herta “knows that he’s a rookie and knows he’s going to make a few mistakes here and there,” Dixon said. “But he’s very talented. You’ve got to make the results speak for themselves.”