Sometimes we tend to take things for granted, and at least in IndyCar racing, that might apply to be just how quickly these kids get up to speed and race like they’re 20-year veterans.
Case in point: Colton Herta. The second generation of HertaMania has made 29 starts and already owns three victories. He was a teenager when he captured COTA in 2019 – the third race of his IndyCar career. His commanding performance on Sunday at Mid-Ohio included leading 57 of 75 laps from the pole, and never putting a wheel wrong despite the pressure from his older, more experienced teammates during the last 28 laps.
Bryan Herta’s oldest son is as humble and gracious as he is talented, and always talks about how good his car or Michael Andretti’s team is – never himself – although it’s pretty obvious he’s something special.
But to get a really good perspective on what Colton has already accomplished, let’s take a quick trip through history.
A.J. Foyt, the all-time IndyCar leader with 67 wins, didn’t score his initial victory until his 38th start in his third season at DuQuoin, Ill. And Super Tex was considered a prodigy since he was only 25.
Ditto for his arch-rival Mario Andretti, second for the time being with 52 wins, who earned his first victory in his 16th start at Indianapolis Raceway Park in his first full season. He was also 25.
It took 29-year-old Al Unser 48 starts to score that first win in 1968 at IRP, while brother Bobby chased the checkered flag for 55 starts before his triumph at Mosport in 1967 at the ancient age of 33.
Johnny Rutherford first won in his 36th start at Atlanta at age 27, but it was eight years before he tasted victory champagne again and went on to three Indy 500 wins. Rodger Ward was 32 when he broke into the win column in his 19th start in 1953 at Springfield, Ill. and Don “Pappy” Branson debuted at Indy as a 39-year-old rookie in 1959 before conquering Langhorne three years later for his first win in his 67th race.
Parnelli Jones got a late start by today’s standards and was 28 when he captured his initial IndyCar win on the dirt at Phoenix in 1961 in his 19th start while Gordon Johncock was also a late bloomer in Champ Cars but it only took 16 races for the 29-year-old to score that first win at Milwaukee in 1965.
The mindset among car owners in the ‘50s-‘60s and early ‘70s was that older was better but that all started changing when this desert racer named Rick Mears came storming into the picture. He was 26 and in a partial season with Roger Penske when he won at Milwaukee in his 15th start.
Al Unser Jr. won at Portland in his 19th start at age 22 in 1984, while it took second-generation rival Michael Andretti 36 tries before hitting pay dirt at Long Beach in 1986 when he was only 23.
By the 1990s, CART was turning into kid’s play as 24-year-old Paul Tracy won in his 15th start at Long Beach in 1993, 22-year-old Greg Moore won Milwaukee in his 23rd start in 1997, and 23-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya came roaring out of the blocks to become a winner at Long Beach in 1999 in only his third race.
We knew Scott Dixon was a cut above after the 20-year-old Kiwi took first at Nazareth in 2001 in only his fourth start, while Will Power was victorious at age 26 in his 17th start at Las Vegas.
Back in Foyt’s glory days you couldn’t even get a USAC license unless you were 21, and there were no driver’s schools or rich daddies buying their kids rides. Today, racing is a very young man’s game, from Kyle Larson to Buddy Kofoid, but nowhere is youth better served than IndyCar.
Rinus Veekay (20), Pato O’Ward (21), Santino Ferrucci (22), Alex Palou (23) and Oliver Askew (23) look like kids, but certainly don’t act like it behind the wheel. They’re not intimidated by big, fast ovals or big names, and the lack of testing (compared to the Mears-Unser Jr-Michael Andretti era) hasn’t slowed their progress at all.
O’Ward, third in the point standings, could easily have three wins in 2020, while Askew and Palou each have a podium, Ferrucci was fourth at Indy and Veekay has been at the front much of the time while pulling off some amazing passes. Herta sits fourth in the standings and, until this past weekend, was the only thing Andretti had to brag about in 2020.
And, just for some table talk at Thanksgiving, it took Bryan Herta 70 starts in his fifth year to break into the winner’s column at Laguna Seca. His son has picked things up quite a bit faster, but that’s due in part to an early start, the old man’s coaching, his ability and a maturity that’s hard to comprehend.
But I’ll bet even the original HertaMania is somewhat in awe of his kid’s amazing ascension. How he could not be?