Colton Herta has been visiting Long Beach for almost as long as he’s been breathing, and on Sunday, he rebounded from a frustrating qualifying performance to join the long list of race winners on the storied street course.
“This is the biggest race for me outside of Indy,” Herta said. “This is the first race I ever was able to come to, being from Santa Clarita (approximately 50 miles north). I was two weeks old when I first came to Long Beach. My father (Bryan) was driving in 2000. It was the only race I could go to, because I was so young and I couldn’t fly yet.
“I remember growing up around here, coming to this race every year when I was five, six, seven, all the way up until I was racing in IndyCar in 2019. I can’t believe I won it on my second try. I’m super happy. This is a big one for me.”
A big one, and an emphatic one. Herta was a class apart during the practice sessions, but missed a chance to capitalize on that pace when he tagged the wall during qualifying. Relegated to 14th on the grid, he was electric through traffic during the first part of Sunday’s race, and commanding once out front.
“Yesterday I was pretty upset at myself for making that mistake of hitting the wall in qualifying and taking us out of contention when I think we really should have done well,” he said.
“But in the race, it’s just fully focused on trying to get the best result out of it. You kind of know by maybe lap five or six what kind of car you have, if you have something that could be good in the race. I kind of knew. I got by a few guys, car was feeling good… I kind of knew. I didn’t think we had a shot at winning, to be honest. I thought a podium would be a reach, but possible. I thought that was going to be the maximum.
“I was very surprised by how much pace we were able to have. When I saw by lap 15 or something we were in fifth, I couldn’t believe it.”
After issues yesterday during qualifying, @ColtonHerta is showing how fast his car truly is.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 26, 2021
He dodged a couple of bullets along the way. At the start of the race, he tagged the rear of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car as everyone scrambled to avoid Pato O’Ward, who had been knocked into a spin at the fountain by Ed Jones.
His car was damaged, but not enough to hurt his afternoon. And then later, he found himself preparing to lead the field on a restart with the only frontrunning car shod with the less-favored harder compound tires, yet managed to gap the pursing Josef Newgarden immediately.
“I thought when the yellow came out it was game over for us, and we were going to be swallowed on the restart, being on the blacks,” he admitted.
“I got a good jump out of Turn 9. I don’t think Josef was expecting me to go that early. That was enough of a buffer that… the first few corners, the blacks are stone cold and (you’re) trying to get all the rubber, all the debris off the tires, get some heat into them. It gave me enough of a buffer that I could do that without being under too much pressure from Josef.
“From then on it was about managing the gap. I was still having to make a little bit of a bigger fuel number than Josef because he was able to pit one lap later. I had to sacrifice a little bit in the brake zones lifting, coasting, stuff like that. I’m happy with how everything played out.”