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Herta exceeding rookie hopes as IndyCar’s youngest winner

March 28, 2019
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Colton Herta celebrates his win in the IndyCar Classic auto race, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Colton Herta is a shaggy-haired, taco-loving teen too cheap to move out of his parents Southern California home. He’s also IndyCar’s newest winner and enjoying a whirlwind celebration that took him to Yankee Stadium for opening day.

Herta turns 19 on Saturday and his victory last week in IndyCar’s inaugural race in Austin, Texas, made him the youngest winning driver in series history.

IndyCar, always in need of exciting new talent, landed a budding superstar with the young American. He’s a second-generation IndyCar driver who won with Harding Steinbrenner Racing , a team that has existed only 19 months and has no business running up front.

“I didn’t ever expect to win in my rookie year,” Herta said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You know, a lot of guys, even the best guys, they come in and it takes time get up to speed. I understood that and didn’t really set myself up for too much. You know, maybe we get some good finishes this year? Maybe at the end of the year, it is a reasonable rookie season that sets me up to keep my seat for next year.

“But that’s not what’s happening at all. This is definitely exceeding my expectations.”

Bryan Herta was in his seventh season racing CART when his son was born and Colton claims his earliest memory is of a 2004 visit to a victory lane sponsored by Gatorade, where the young boy had access to endless bottles of the sports drink. His favorite memory was 2011 when Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Bryan Herta, and a photo of Colton Herta celebrating behind Wheldon after the win went viral this week following Herta’s own victory.

“Ever since I can remember, anything I have memories of in life, I always wanted to be a racer,” Herta said. “I remember I always was bugging my mom and dad to let me into a go-kart and let me drive and they eventually gave way when I was 6. For my seventh birthday, I finally got a kart.”

His talent level surpassed how far his father could take him by the time he turned 15, so Herta relocated to Europe for two years to get as much seat time as possible. He lived alone and quickly had to figure out how to become an adult.

“Looking back at it now I think ‘Oh my God, what the hell were my parents thinking?’” Herta said. “The first week was really tough. You are running a vacuum and doing my laundry for myself and figuring out how to cook because I learned quickly it gets quite expensive when you eat out all the time. So there were a lot of undercooked steaks and a lot of growing up very quickly. But as soon as I was able to get in the car, I think we did like 30 races that year, I was busy and focused and it became easier.”

Herta returned to the U.S. before the 2017 season to drive in Indy Lights for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, a partnership with Michael Andretti and the IndyCar-loving grandson of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

George Steinbrenner IV was 20, his driver was 17, when the team won in its second race. Herta totaled six victories over two seasons in Lights and the driver and car owner moved up to the big leagues this season. Steinbrenner, now 22, signed on as a partner with Harding Racing, which had just completed its first full IndyCar season and Herta was named the driver.

They celebrated the September promotion at a Yankees game, where Herta threw out the first pitch against the Boston Red Sox.

He also landed a deal with BMW to run the IMSA endurance races in Bobby Rahal’s sports cars and opened the racing year with a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He shifted his attention to his first IndyCar season after earning his first Rolex watch, and the tiny and underfunded team turned heads with its speed during a February test in Austin.

At the season-opening race in March, Herta would have made the final round of qualifying if not for a penalty. Herta finished eighth — the highest finish in the team’s short history — then won two weeks later in the second race of the season and third of his IndyCar career.

“It feels pretty amazing, to have this crazy vision alongside Colton, to have this dream and to be accomplishing it,” Steinbrenner told AP.

Herta is already answering what’s next, how much he wants to do in racing. He’s got a bucket list of events, like most racers, and one of them includes an unconventional NASCAR stop: Herta wants to run a truck in the dirt at Eldora Speedway.

“I’ve never raced anything in dirt, I really want to try that,” he said.

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