Colton Herta has been among the biggest sensations throughout this NTT IndyCar Series season. The teenage Californian has proven to be fearless while fighting for positions with champions and fellow rookies alike, and his attacking driving style is certainly giving IndyCar’s veterans plenty to consider.
If Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s young ace has led the insurgency among next-generation talent, Herta’s race engineer Nathan O’Rourke has experienced a complementary resurgence from the timing stand. The Andretti Autosport man, made available to HSR through a technical alliance forged between the teams, was in a similar role earlier in the decade with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Fresh out of Indy Lights, future IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden would cut his teeth with O’Rourke in charge of engineering at SFHR. Looking back at those 2012-2013 days, he’s seen many similarities with his newest rookie.
“I kind of had a similar experience to Josef when we took him to his first test where, within the first couple laps, you knew that he was going to be something special, and that’s the same thing with Colton,” O’Rourke told RACER.
“The first time we were together was last year when Colton did the Portland test before the Sonoma race, and they sent me to run them for that test just because I was available. Honestly, from first outing he did, you just kind of knew that he was also something special.”
Some drivers are more demanding than others when it comes to chassis setup. One might need something close to perfect before ultimate speed can be extracted from the vehicle. And then there’s Herta.
“You see him getting these big loose moments on the track where a lot of veterans would be coming in, telling you to fix it,” O’Rourke says. “But he just drives and seems pretty unrattled by most things. It was like that from day one with him. To be honest, it’s been… I don’t want to say easy, but most places, we haven’t really had much trouble figuring out how to go fast.
“There aren’t many things that bother him a whole lot in the car. He’s really pretty simple. He’s a, ‘It’s either going to understeer or oversteer’ type of guy. He doesn’t worry too much about [chassis] platform or any of those types of things. Between that, and him just being naturally talented, there aren’t many boxes to check for him to go fast. There’s not a really complicated answer to what makes him special, to be honest. It just works.”
However, that combination of Herta’s uncomplicated needs behind the steering wheel, plus the prodigious talent and his willingness to live on the ragged edge, could give rise to the development of a basic shortcoming. Five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon owns the same attributes. He can hold onto whatever his car wants to do – positive or negative – and deliver outrageous speed, but he’s learned, in time, to stop and ask his engineer to correct any handling deficiencies in an effort to make more speed.
“I think he does have some of those tendencies with Scott, but one of the things that helps him most is that he’s got a really good ability to adapt to new things,” O’Rourke says. “I think you see that he’s been good everywhere we’ve gone, right? That’s the thing about IndyCar. You can’t just be a good road course driver and expect to do well everywhere. But we keep waiting to see what he’s not good at, and haven’t found it yet.
“Colton has been able to be really fast with some loose setups, and I’ve had to tell him he was loose a lot of times. Like, ‘Hey, look dude, you’re tending to fight this a little bit too much. I think if we fix this, you’re going to go faster than if we don’t’. Early on, he didn’t talk about it much at all, but I think he’s, talking about Dixon realizing to stop and fix things, I think Colton’s already there. I think he realizes it. He knows.”
Drawing from his time with Newgarden at the smaller SFHR outfit, O’Rourke is confident Herta has adapted to IndyCar at a faster rate, due in large part to the talent and tools made available via Andretti Technologies.
“Now I look back on it, I’ve said to Josef that I really wish that he could have come into this type of situation as rookie, because I’m sure it would’ve been the same thing for him,” he says of Team Penske’s 2017 title winner. “He didn’t get this type of situation that Colton’s getting. But I just can’t say enough about the job Colton’s done. It’s pretty exceptional.”
As the old racing adage goes, it’s easier to slow down a fast driver then to speed up a slow one. In that regard, O’Rourke and the HSR team are fortunate with Herta.
“I’m probably not the responsible adult to answer in this situation,” O’Rourke laughs. “I know he’s aggressive, and I’m really aggressive too. I think that you might’ve seen that a little bit at Indy, where we put in a good speed. We’re in the Fast Nine, but we’re both like, that’s not nearly good enough. Let’s go back out and do it again. I think a lot of people were shocked that we did that, but it was the right thing to do. We knew we were faster. We knew we weren’t taking any risks, and we wanted it to be more comfortably in there, so we went back out.”
Taming some of his bolder urges in the races, though, would certainly help to improve his points-per-start ratio.
Unbothered by contact, Herta’s demonstrated a willingness – and possibly a little bit of glee – in rubbing wheels and trading paint while fighting for track position. Whether it’s forcing the issue to get by or forcing the issue to avoid being passed, Herta’s cultivating a reputation as someone willing to playing harder and take more risks than any of his rivals.
Is it a case of youthful invincibility manifesting itself in his daring driving style, or is he setting the bar to new and uncomfortable heights for the rest of the field to reach?
“In those situations, I think the last thing you want to do is give up what you’re good at, which in this case is going fast,”O’Rourke says. “If you take the Texas situation [where he crashed] with Dixon for instance, Colton earned that pass, right? If he backs out of that, then immediately everybody sees that and knows that when those situations come up, they don’t need to worry about it because he’s going to back out. But in my opinion, there was zero reason for him to back out of that pass. Colton was alongside him. There wasn’t enough room, and they crashed.”
With his unforgettable win at Circuit of The Americas as 2019’s high mark, and a pair of eighth-place finishes as his next-best results, Herta could use clean runs this weekend in Toronto, the following weekend in Iowa, and once more a week later at Mid-Ohio to improve from his current home of 14th in the championship standings.
Presently ranked third among a rich crop of rookies, catching Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist for top honors could take a heightened degree of risk management. Thinking ahead, O’Rourke isn’t sure it’s the right thing to ask of Herta.
“You look at a position we’re in right now: Would it be great to be in a top 10 in points? Yeah. Would it be great to be the Rookie of the Year? For sure. I still think that those things are going to happen,” he says.
“But if you establish a reputation as the guy who’s going to give up on every pass that he earns, then you talk about the sophomore season, junior season, that’s going to carry over for a long time, and that’s going to be a hard reputation to fix.”
The powerful bond between O’Rourke and Herta appears to stem from a shared flair for all things brash and audacious. Taming Herta, in O’Rourke’s view, would be the wrong move. If and when Herta’s fighting for championships for HSR, Andretti, maybe McLaren, or another front-runner in the years to come, he’ll have his validation.
“I think people know now that he’s fast and, if he comes up alongside you for a pass, he’s not going to give it up,” he says. “Unless you want to risk both of your races, you probably ought to back out. I think maybe that’s the wrong thing. Maybe team owners are going to read this and say, ‘Oh man, you need to be a bit more conservative.’ But I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to let him do what he does well, and if he’s earned that pass, then he needs to take it.”