To say that Colton Herta was born to be a race car driver is probably not too far off the mark, as the son of 1993 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion (and two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner) Bryan Herta began racing soon after he learned to walk.
Swiftly moving from karts to open-wheel, including the Pacific F1600 series (which he won in 2013), Herta first joined the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires in 2014. He missed the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season opener due to age requirements but went on to capture six top-10 finishes in his rookie year.
But at the end of the season, at the age of 14, he made the remarkable decision to move to England – by himself – to fulfill a dream of racing in Europe. Herta returns to the U.S. this season behind the wheel of a new Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires team – Steinbrenner Racing, a joint effort between Andretti Autosport and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Here, the 17-year-old Californian explains what prompted the move to Europe, how he met Steinbrenner and the most useful skill he gained after two and a half years on his own. What inspired you to follow your dad’s path into racing?
I did the normal kid sports like baseball and soccer, but everything always came back to racing. That’s always been the main focus! I remember being in the motorhome and going to almost every race when my dad was driving for Andretti.
I suppose I wanted to race because my dad did, and I was around it my whole life which amplified that. I started racing dirt bikes before I was 4 years old then raced karts from age 5 to 12. I’m not sure when it really got serious: it started with club racing, then some national championships then international racing. It just clicked. I really enjoyed working with the mechanics and working on the kart. I loved to see the progress.
But when I look back on all this, I tell my parents “you were such bad parents for letting me do all this stuff when I was so young!” My little brother is 7 now and I can’t see him doing that. How was the transition from karts to cars?
It went pretty smoothly because of the people I had around me and the amount of racing I got to do. I did almost 50 races that year. The raw speed stands out in my memory as something that took some getting used to. Everything happens a lot quicker, so you need to get used to that in order to get it to slow down. When you make a transition like that, you notice things like your head flying against the headrest and you’re all tensed up. When you get over that, things smooth out. What was the thought process behind the jump from karting to USF2000 and the Mazda Road to Indy?
It was the logical next step and it was where I wanted to be. I had to sit out the first race of the year at St. Pete because I wasn’t 14 yet, which was hard. It’s one of my favorite tracks: I love the racing there and I love going to St. Pete. It was a big transition, but you got a ton of seat time for it being on an IndyCar weekend. You look at some of the European series, like GP2 or GP3, and they might get a 30-minute practice before qualifying on a Formula One weekend.
It was also great because you can talk to so many of the IndyCar drivers, the guys who have been racing on those tracks for 20 years. You have them as a resource. What made you decide to go to Europe?
I’d always wanted to race in Europe, so when I got the chance with Carlin, I took it. It was a big eye-opener. I moved over there when I was 14 and lived on my own for two years. It was a big step but it really did mature me – sort of like going to college, if you went to college when you were 14 years old!
Carlin is a really powerful team and they’re very good at what they do. Trevor Carlin and the whole team made the transition really easy for me. The engineers are particularly good at adapting drivers and I got into a ton of different cars – FIA F3, Formula F3, British F3, F4. It will be interesting racing against them this year! How did Steinbrenner Racing come about?
My dad raced against his stepdad in Barber Saab, so George Michael came to one of my Skip Barber races at Lime Rock Park. We really clicked and he came to all my USF2000 races in 2014. He was working with my dad on the Andretti Autosport Global Rallycross team and gaining experience, and decided he wanted to do this full time. Michael Andretti was on board, so it all came together pretty fast.
I hope we’ll see some of the Yankees players at the St. Pete race – their spring training facility is in Tampa and they’re in town Saturday and Sunday. And maybe Watkins Glen. What are your expectations for 2016?
I don’t really have too many expectations. I just want to see how it goes. We have a good car so I know we’ll be quick in preseason testing. It’s just a matter of putting it all together and not making too many rookie mistakes. I think two years in the series is reasonable. Hopefully I can do well, win a championship and move up to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Testing has been smooth – I’ve already tested on an oval, which was pretty cool. It was at Gateway, which is a track we’ll race on and I had a great time. What is your favorite racetrack?
In America, I would say either Barber Motorsports Park or Gateway. Barber is really cool with all the artwork. It has a different character than any other track. It’s a great track to test and drive on. And Gateway was super fun with the sheer speed. We were going 185 mph and pulling four and a half Gs.
But internationally, it’s Red Bull Ring in Austria. It’s an amazing track and an amazing backdrop. It’s up in the hills, so it’s super green around the track and probably the nicest facility I’ve been to. If I wasn’t driving a race car, I'd be _____________.
Broke! I don’t know what else I could do. My talent pool is a little shallow, so it’s race car driver or bust. Do you have a “hidden” talent?
I am a good cook, since I’ve had two and a half years of experience cooking for myself! I can make a mean steak, but chicken teriyaki is my best dish. What do you do to relax away from the racetrack?
Honestly, I can do some snowboarding during the winter season, but it’s mostly training, the gym and school. I have a year and a half of high school left.
Cycling is very peaceful, getting out on the road. You get to go to some cool places when you’re cycling, so I bring my bike wherever I go. It’s amazing to cycle in England; it’s so green and lush. It’s all small roads, but there aren’t a lot of cars.