IndyCar records aren’t broken every day, and quite honestly, I never really thought I’d see the day Graham Rahal’s record of being the youngest winner in IndyCar history would be broken. But Colton Herta, the 18-year phenom son of former driver and current team owner Bryan Herta, made history yesterday at the Circuit of the Americas, going to Victory Lane in only his third career IndyCar start.
Many words have been written about the younger Herta by writers far more gifted that me, but what we witnessed yesterday at COTA was truly astounding. Herta might have inherited the lead at the misfortune of Will Power near the end of the race, but make no mistake about it — Colton Herta did not luck into this win. Colton Herta drove his butt off, never put a wheel wrong all weekend, was fast from the moment the car unloaded on Friday, and put himself in the perfect position to take advantage of Power’s misfortune. This win was well earned by Herta.
Of course, perhaps an even bigger story than the win for Herta was the win for Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, the fledging team with few sponsorship dollars but a cadre of IndyCar veterans who stand up to about any team in the paddock. Led by team president Brian Barnhart (yes, that Brian Barnhart) with Nathan O’Rourke as engineer and Al Unser, Jr., as the driving coach, this team of veterans has shown to be punching way above their weight class thus far this season. And quite honestly, their success goes back to the 2018 season finale when they got their first taste of the technical alliance forged with Andretti Autosport. Since that alliance came to fruition, HSR has been near the top of the speed charts in nearly every off season test and official session of the 2019 season.
While it remains to be seen if HSR can continue their success when the series eventually makes its way to the high-speed ovals at Indianapolis, Texas, and Pocono, I really see no reason why they will not continue to have success on the road and street courses. St. Petersburg and COTA are vastly different, and yet HSR has been strong in both settings. Barber Motorsports Park will present a different type of challenge from COTA, but Long Beach is not massively dissimilar from St. Pete. I look for continued good results from Herta and HSR at both tracks before the series heads into the Month of May at Indianapolis.
What remains to be seen is how the fast start to HSR’s 2019 season will affect the search for sponsorship. If every there was a time for INDYCAR to get their marketing train into high gear, it is now. Colton Herta is young, well spoken American kid that just beat some of the best drivers in the world who have been perfecting their craft for 20 years. His team is partially owned by the grandson of one of the most famous names in sport’s history. This kid should be a key figure (not the only figure though) in INDYCAR’s marketing efforts going forward. INDYCAR has been hoping for many years that the next generation of stars would be led by Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. It seems like those two may be chasing young Herta for the time being though.
Power’s day goes from bad to worse
When COTA offered $100,000 for a driver to win the race from the pole, the immediate odds-on favorite to take home the big prize was Will Power. Anytime Indy cars turn left and right during a race weekend, you have to always put Will Power’s name on the short list of drivers favorited to win the pole. And once that green flag drops, Power’s pretty darn good then as well.
Sure enough, Power put his #12 Verizon Chevrolet on pole on Saturday afternoon in a thrilling qualifying session. And once again, Power dominated the race with relative ease for the first 45 laps of Sunday’s race. And then it all went wrong.
After Colton Herta made his final pit stop on lap 44, the yellow flag came out almost immediately before Will Power, Alexander Rossi, and Scott Dixon decided to pit. That put Herta, who had been in second place behind Power most of the day but never more than a few seconds out of the lead, at the top of the queue.
As if Power’s luck getting caught out by the yellow flag wasn’t bad enough, Power’s day went from not-winning-but-possibly-at-least-salvageable to disastrous when an apparent drive shaft failure left his car running in the pit box with no drive to exit. It was then lights out for the 2014 INDYCAR Champion. He would finish a very disappointing 24th after leading the first 45 laps of the 60-lap race.
But c’mon, Will…
Being frustrated at his sudden change in fortune was absolutely understandable, but Will Power, for the second time in two races, took a tact that I think I would have avoided had I been in his shoes. Instead of accepting the bad luck (at least in terms of the yellow flag timing) as a part of racing that tends to even itself out over time, Power seemed to again throw his team under the bus during a TV interview. And not just anyone from his Verizon #12 team. He threw his strategist – none other than Roger Penske himself – under the bus.
At St. Pete, Power insinuated (at best) or outright called out Penske for abruptly calling him to pit lane when it appeared the track would go yellow for Sebastien Bourdais’s blown engine. When it didn’t, Power fell several spots as a result of his early pit stop though in the end, Power still finished on a three-stop strategy and should have had time to recover if he truly had a dominant and race-winning car. After the race, Power publicly questioned Penske’s decision making and more-or-less placed blame at Roger’s feet for Will not ending up in Victory Lane.
Yesterday at COTA, Power again was caught out by strategy, though ironically this time it was because he stayed out on track too long rather than pitting too early. After Herta had pitted on Lap 44, Penske again made the choice to keep Power on track for a few more laps, presumably so Power would need to take on less fuel on his final stop and have fewer laps to run on the delicate red-sidewalled Firestone Firehawk tires. Everyone in the facility knew that Power was at risk of seeing his race ruined if a yellow flag came out. And sure enough, before Power could make it to pit road, the yellow flag flew when Felix Rosenqvist found the inside barrier and came to a stop directly in the pit entrance. Power suffered a severe setback as a result, but his day would still have been salvageable.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), once the drive shaft on Power’s car snapped, the issue of the yellow flag and closing of pit lane became moot. His day was over regardless of whether he was first or last. But then Power took to the airwaves to express his displeasure yet again, both with INDYCAR rules and Mr. Penske himself.
First, Power called out INDYCAR’s rules by saying, “I hate the way this series does this ‘pits closed’ BS. You can be the best guy out there, lead all day, and the yellow can fall and someone can just fall into a lottery. It’s the only series in the world that does it this way, and it needs to change.”
Fair enough. Except Power failed to recognize one critical factor in this case. The damaged car of Felix Rosenqvist was sitting directly in the entrance to pit road. With Rosenqvist’s disabled car and a slew of AMR Safety Team members on the entrance to pit road, it would have been unconscionable and irresponsible for INDYCAR to have allowed any cars to pit regardless of the pit road rules at that time. Power’s goose was cooked because the team took the risk to keep him on track after the final pit window had opened and exposed him to just such a possibility. This was not INDYCAR’s fault.
Beyond that, though, Power’s willingness to again through his team’s strategy out as a factor that kept him from the lead was again cringe-worthy for me (again recognizing that if the yellow flag didn’t get him, the drive shaft would have).
Immediately following his comments about INDYCAR’s rules, Power followed up by saying, “Absolutely, I would have been keen to pit early.” Taken on its own as written text, the quotation seems fairly innocuous. However, taken in context, and especially after questioning The Captain at St. Pete, it felt like a subtle jab and Will once again saying, “I’m doing all I can do. The Team needs to do better.”
Perhaps I’m just reading a bit too much into this. I fully admit that is possible. However, if you’ve got a guy like Roger Penske on your pit box, a man with 17 Indianapolis 500 victories among his more than 200 IndyCar wins and 15 national championships, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt in these situations and recognize he very much knows what he’s doing. Even now into his 83rd year, Mr. Penske is as sharp and as aware of racing situations as anyone on pit road. I feel very confident that he has won his drivers more than a handful of races on his strategic decisions during races, so if a couple times his decisions have backfired, I still think Penske and Power have benefited many more times than they’ve suffered.
To be fair to Power, though, he did have a pretty dominant car and was on his way to winning a bonus $100,000 from COTA. He had just gone from the lead of the race to the sidelines when Marty Snider spoke with him only seconds removed from his car. I would probably be upset as well. But don’t take that opportunity to trash an INDYCAR rule that had no effect on this situation. And certainly don’t throw your boss and the most successful man in auto racing history under the bus by saying you’d have done it different.
Pato O’Ward does teammate no favors
I’ve written previously about how much talent Pato O’Ward has and how I think he is really going to be a force in IndyCar for years to come. Like Colton Herta, O’Ward is a graduate of Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights program and looks to be a certain future IndyCar champion. Young, fast, articulate, and mature, O’Ward seems to have everything he needs to be very successful for many years to come. Everything, that is, except a big sponsor.
O’Ward’s car this weekend was adorned by mostly blank sidepods as his deal with Carlin Racing came together fairly/very late in the offseason. Near the end of the race Sunday, I was watching O’Ward’s mostly-blank, Top 10-running car when I suddenly remembered he was driving for Carlin. Then I thought, “Doesn’t Carlin have another car? Oh yeah, Max Chilton. Is Chilton even driving in this race?”
Looking at the box score, Chilton finished 21st, ahead of only Power, Rosenqvist, and Zach Veach (who suffered damage in an opening lap incident with Graham Rahal). That follows an noncompetitive 16th place finish at St. Petersburg two weeks ago. In 2018, Chilton failed to score a single Top 10 finish with the new (to the NTT IndyCar Series) Carlin en route to a 19th-place season finish. His two years with Ganassi weren’t much better with no Top 10s in 2016 and six such results in 2017, leading to a career best 11th in the final 2017 standings.
The odds are very good that Carlin will eventually get IndyCar figured out and will be in competition for race wins, perhaps even series championships, in time. They have been successful at every level and in every series they’ve competed in around the world. They are just too good of an organization to be mid-pack (at best) every week in IndyCar. However, Carlin will not get there with Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball behind the wheel. That’s harsh, but that’s fact.
While it’s easy to say Carlin needs to hire O’Ward full time and find another experienced driver to match him with, playing with other people’s money is always much easier than playing with your own. The obvious elephant in the room here is that Chilton is funded by Gallagher and his father, Grahame, is a co-owner of Carlin. Much like Marco Andretti, the seat seems to be securely his as long as he cares to have it.
With such a stellar performance by O’Ward at COTA, one has to wonder how long it will be until Trevor Carlin or another team owner puts him into a full-time ride and builds a team around him. It’s hard to say that O’Ward is ready to be a leading driver yet, but he may well be. As we have seen with Herta at HSR, just because these kids are young and inexperienced in the Big Cars doesn’t mean they don’t have a wealth of experience in other formulae that makes them well suited for leading an IndyCar effort. It’s a real shame that O’Ward’s situation at HSR forced him out of the ride as Herta’s teammate, but HSR’s loss could very well be Carlin’s gift.
By the way… the half lap battle between Pato O’Ward and Graham Rahal might have been some of the hardest, cleanest, most exciting road course racing I’ve seen in ages! Just in case you want to watch it again, here it is below. There was more to the battle than this short clip shows, but this is a good sample of excellent, respectful racing.
Track limits… DRINK!
I’ve heard all I need to hear about Track Limits, so this section will hopefully be shorter. In short, I see both sides of the argument, and while I don’t like to see drivers completely disregard the painted track limits, if it’s paved and there is no disincentive to using additional real estate, it may as well be fair game.
COTA isn’t the only track where track limits come into play, but it certainly seems the drivers exploited the track limits moreso this weekend than just about any other weekend I can recall. By the time the race got underway Sunday, drivers were 5-10 car widths (or more) outside the track in Turn 19 (I think it was) and ran out there pretty much the entire race.
Personally, I believe the track should be the track, and if the white line defines that track, there there needs to be some disincentive to driving so far off track. Originally I had thought that painting the paved areas beyond the painted line to make them super slick or adding a bunch of the “sausage bumps” would be a good way to reduce the attraction of driving in that area. Then it was pointed out that they are technically runoff areas and making a car that may be out of control unable to stop defeats the purpose of said runoff areas. Very fair point.
But what about going in the opposite direction? What if instead of making the runoff areas super slick, COTA instead made them ridiculously abrasive in such a way that the pavement seriously abused the tires? I’m not talking about putting out spike strips, but there is a high-friction pavement surface treatment made with an aggregate called calcined bauxite that would cause serious tire degradation with repeated use. This surface treatment is often used by highway departments on dangerous curves where vehicle slide offs are common. While driving on this pavement once or twice likely wouldn’t damage a tire, repeated use of the area would absolutely have a detrimental effect on the tires and would introduce a real risk vs reward factor for drivers choosing to stray so far from the marked track limits. Hopefully COTA will give it some consideration in future years.
Texas Motor Speedway acts like jealous older brother
If there was ever any hope of Texas Motor Speedway and COTA playing nice together for the benefit of IndyCar racing and of each other, those hopes were squashed this weekend. I certainly never had the slightest hope that TMS would take over the marketing responsibilities for COTA’s race on the IndyCar schedule, but I had (naively) hoped that TMS would at least give the NTT IndyCar Series a bit of publicity for the race that was only about 3 hours away.
As it was, the Texas Motor Speedway Twitter account never even mentioned IndyCar throughout the entire weekend until about 9:00 pm on Sunday night when they posted a congratulatory message to Colton Herta. Meanwhile, it was all hands on deck to promote and give all the coverage they could to the NASCAR races at Martinsville Speedway throughout the weekend.
Eddie Gossage has made it well known over the past several years that he did not want IndyCar running at COTA. He even went so far, on a few occasions, to give IndyCar the “it’s them or me” ultimatum. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed (and INDYCAR likely gave Gossage a reduced sanctioning fee) allowing IndyCar to race at Texas’s two most popular racing venues.
Nonetheless, it was clearly obvious throughout the weekend that Texas Motor Speedway, who has long claimed to be IndyCar’s second home, had no intention whatsoever of shining even the dimmest light on the open-wheel series’s debut in Austin, a 220-mile drive from Gossage’s playground. It’s understandable that TMS is in NASCAR mode these days as they play host to the series next weekend at the site north of Fort Worth, and the track needs to make a hard push to sell as many tickets as they can to that race right away.
However, I’d be very curious to know which race is more detrimental to TMS selling tickets — NASCAR’s second race at Texas or IndyCar racing in Austin? To put it another way, does attendance for next week’s NASCAR race suffer because there is another NASCAR race in November more than June’s IndyCar race will suffer because of a road course event in Austin roughly 10 weeks prior? My hunch is that having a second NASCAR race at the same track hurts sales for TMS’s first NASCAR race more than this past weekend’s race at COTA impacts the ticket sales for the IndyCar race in June. I have no numbers to back that up, and perhaps I’m completely off base in that assumption, but that’s my gut feeling.
COTA and TMS are world’s apart in terms of IndyCar race action, and I’m of the belief that IndyCar fans would enjoy seeing both of those venues rather than choosing one over the other. A dual-headed marketing push by both facilities seemed like a no-brainer to an outsider, but perhaps the internal spreadsheets suggest differently. Perhaps it’s a matter of Gossage not really being used to geographic competition. After all, the closest NASCAR competition is Kansas Speedway, roughly 420 miles from TMS. Perhaps Gossage just felt having IndyCar only half that distance away was too much of a threat to his IndyCar base. Nonetheless, I, and I’m sure many IndyCar fans, would like to see TMS look at the bigger picture going forward and promote all IndyCar events, even those also in Texas.
NBC Sports continues to excel
I hate ending posts on downer subjects, so let me wrap up with my continued praise for NBC Sports and their IndyCar coverage. Yes, I realize it’s low hanging fruit, but as they continue to provide great coverage, they should continue to receive praise.
More and more I am enjoying the team of Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell. Though they are already excellent, they continue to get better each weekend. I particularly enjoy the technical detail that each provides in real time while on the air. Both are able to get their points across without talking down to the fans, without treating fans as if none had ever watched an IndyCar race, and without blabbering on in full-on homer mode.
The perfect example was in Practice 1 when Colton Herta’s engine blew. Bell and Tracy were immediately able to connect the failure to previous Honda failures at St. Pete. They even identified it as a “bottom-end failure” and pointed out details to fans that are symptomatic of such a failure.
Occasionally they jump to conclusions before seeing the replays and have to correct themselves, such as with the Rosenqvist accident, but they do so without arrogance or self-defense. Such moments are appreciated.
At only one point during the race broadcast did I felt like I got left hanging. I can’t even remember who was on track with a battle (I feel like maybe Dixon and Herta, but don’t quote me on that) when a pass was clearly being set up heading into Turn 1. Just as the cars crested the hill and the pass was underway, the director cut to a pit stop and we missed the pass. It was a bit deflating, but we did see the pass shortly thereafter on replay. Given the excellence of the rest of the broadcast, I can forgive the director or producer for that one slip up. The rest of the broadcast really seemed flawless in my eyes.
Overall, I was much more pleasantly surprised with the race than I thought I would be. I fully expected the race to be exciting for the first lap and then get strung out, processional, and kind of boring. That didn’t turn out to be the case at all even though Power led all 45 laps of the race before his ill-fated pit stop.
COTA put on a fantastic show and really seemed to embrace having the NTT IndyCar Series on their schedule. I wasn’t quite sure how the whole race would be accepted by the community and compared to F1, but it certainly seems it was well received. It didn’t have the international flare of the F1 race, nor the massive crowds, but for a first-year event, it was a very solid start. Here’s to many more years at the Austin facility.
And finally, what can you say about Colton Herta. I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall and for him to look like an 18-year old rookie. So far, it hasn’t happened. He might not find himself on the pointy end right away when he takes to the high-speed ovals, but I strongly suspect he will be right in contention for the next two races at Barber and Long Beach. This kid is going to be a star!!
I’ll leave you with my quick-hitting lists of good performances and aspects of the weekend along with my disappointments.
- Colton Herta and HSR.
- COTA’s raciness and modern appearance.
- NBC continues to shine in its role as sole American TV partner.
- Pato O’Ward made everyone believe he is for real.
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had their best weekend in quite some time with 4th and 7th-place finishes.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay shook off the bad luck for at least one weekend.
- Four Americans in the Top 4 positions.
- Marco Andretti had a very respectable run finishing in 6th.
- Jack Harvey backed up his St. Pete performance with another solid Top 10 finish.
- Tony Kanaan probably isn’t going to party over a 12th-place finish, but given where their weekend started, that is a very good result for AJ Foyt Racing.
- Another race in the books with almost no discussion of Race Control. It shouldn’t be, but it’s still a nice surprise for a race weekend.
- A quiet but efficient weekend yielded a welcomed Top 5 finish for Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing.
- Now that COTA is out of the way, I’m happy that I will BE at the next race in two weeks time at Barber Motorsports Park!!
- Max Chilton was pretty much non-existent this weekend. Again. It’s hard to argue lack of technical knowledge and team experience is what’s holding Carlin back these days.
- Strategy continues to bite teams week in and week out in both qualifying and the race. And teams continue to blame INDYCAR for their own risks backfiring. Nobody should be surprised by red flags in qualifying or closed pits during yellow flags anymore. Teams have to start acknowledging their own risks.
- Another mediocre weekend for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing. For a team that fancies a place among the elite of the Series, neither car has shown particularly strong in either race thus far.
- Another disappointing weekend for Simon Pagenaud. He seemed to have some speed in qualifying but again got caught out by strategy. In the race, he was just never able to move forward. It doesn’t seem he’s exorcised his 2018 road and street course demons with the new UAK-18.
- Chevrolet again seemed to be clearly outpaced by Honda overall. It could be a long year for the Bowtie, especially on the road and street circuits.
- Though the race was clean for Honda, a reliability problem seems to be growing more concerning by the week. If it is in fact a long lead-time issue as Townsend Bell suggests, the Month of May could get interesting as it was in 2017.
- Only one yellow flag on the day, but it seemed to stretch on FOREVER. Perhaps there was more going on than NBCSN showed, but it seemed to stretch on at least a couple extra laps on the massive 3.8-mile track.