Catching up with Rolex 24 at Daytona Podium Finishers Herta and Telitz
 January 31, 2019| 
  • Series News
Telitz Herta Daytona 2019

The Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires trains drivers for careers in all forms of motorsport. That training was on particular display last weekend as an impressive six former Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers made their Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts, with every driver earning accolades for his performance under trying conditions that caused an unprecedented two red flags.

When the checkered flag flew, Road to Indy veterans Colton Herta and Aaron Telitz stood on the podium in their very first sports car races, with Herta’s team taking home the victory and the prized Rolex watch.

Making their IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship debuts were:

  • Victor Franzoni, driving for the Via Italia Ferrari team in the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) class
  • Colton Herta, with BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan in Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM)
  • Aaron Telitz, with AIM Vasser Sullivan in the GTD class Lexus
  • Juan Piedrahita, driving the Cadillac DPi prototype with JDC-Miller MotorSports
  • Scott Hargrove, in the GTD class Porsche for Pfaff Motorsports
  • Kyle Kaiser, joining his Juncos Racing team in its first race with the Cadillac DPi

All six drivers made their presence known over the course of the weekend, with Franzoni’s team earning the GTD class pole and Franzoni posting the second fastest lap of the race in GTD, and Herta setting the quick race lap in the GTLM class. Though the race was stopped early due to the treacherous conditions, nothing could dampen the outcome for Herta and Telitz. Herta and RLL Racing took home the coveted Rolex watch as the GTLM class victors while Telitz shared the third-place podium* with his AIM Vasser Sullivan teammates, which included 2001 Indy Lights champion Townsend Bell.

The pair took different paths to the endurance classic – Herta spent 2018 as a reserve driver for RLL, attending the races that did not conflict with the Indy Lights schedule, and testing the BMW several times at Sebring. Meanwhile, Telitz pondered his options for 2019 after a difficult 2018. He saw the IndyCar budget window closing and had begun to search out sports car possibilities when Jimmy Vasser, heading up the new AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing sports car team, asked him to be their endurance driver.  With just the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test in early January to prepare, it was a quick learning curve.

“It was an interesting transition, from the Indy Lights car to the Lexus RCF,” said Telitz. “I think I went from one kind of driving to the farthest side of GT driving that you can, from an open car with a small engine in the back to a front-engine V8 with anti-lock brakes and traction control. And just the sightlines out of a gigantic sports car, instead of the lower open-wheel car, took some getting used to. But by the time the race started, I was fine.”

For both drivers, the mental aspect was much more difficult than the physical side of driving.

“It was even more mentally exhausting than I had anticipated,” said Telitz. “In an Indy Lights car, you’re doing qualifying pace the whole time, but in the 24, it’s more important to maintain a consistent lap time, and there are assists to keep the driver’s physical pace up. But the mental fatigue was high. Your spotter is in your ear the whole time, so there’s a lot of information to process.

”In every other form of racing that I’ve done, it’s been me against the other drivers. So here, it was interesting to watch the four of us drivers become a close-knit group of guys all working toward a common goal. I really liked the camaraderie. There’s no selfishness, because there’s no point to it. You have one goal, and you try to reach it as a team.”

“The mental side is really important,” agreed Herta. “To focus for that long, and on very little sleep, that’s the tough part. It’s physical, but it’s a different kind of physicality from the Indy Lights car. I drove from midnight to 2:30 a.m., then for about 40 minutes behind the safety car in the rain. I couldn’t sleep before my night stint, then got about two hours before my next stint.  The espresso machine is definitely your friend! Adrenalin wakes you up but once you’re done, you’re drained.”

Once the checkered flag flew, both drivers were hit with the realization that they had earned a podium on their first try – and for Herta, the chance to take home the coveted Rolex watch was almost too much to take in.

“It was strange to have the race end under red but to realize that I got a podium in my first try!” said Telitz. “We went to the podium and I saw Colton, who got the win on his first try, but then I also saw John Edwards (who finished ninth in the sister BMW) who’s won races and championships, and has been doing the 24 for years and years and has never even been on the podium. I’m very thankful to have been on the podium – but I have to say, there were a lot of people on the podium. There were our four guys, which is already more drivers than I’ve ever been on a podium with, plus the other eight guys!”

“It’s incredible,” said Herta.” All the GTLM guys are such good drivers that it’s all about strategy and, honestly, luck. It’s like the Indy 500: all the drivers are good; you just have to have a really good strategy and a lot of luck. I don’t think I still understand what a big deal this is. This race is in the top five biggest races in the entire world – with Le Mans, Indy 500, Daytona 500, Monaco Grand Prix. It’s the most coveted sports car race to win along with Le Mans. And to win it on the first try – there are guys who have done it all their careers and haven’t won it. It’s surreal, and I don’t know when it will hit me. Maybe in five years, when I have kept trying and haven’t won it again!

“I looked around the podium and it was guys like Pastor Maldonado, Fernando Alonso, Jordan Taylor, Kamui Kobayashi, Sebastian Saavedra that are so successful. It was kind of crazy to be there. The watch is on a shelf, nice and safe! I wore it for the first two days and I’ll wear it for special occasions –like the Indy 500 banquet. And yes, when I took it in to get sized, they thought it was a fake. I mean, what’s an 18-year-old doing with this watch?”

As they look back on their Road to Indy careers, one thing stands out: all the media training, the hashtag contests and of course, the progression through the three development series – in the end, that experience led them to where they found themselves on Sunday.

“The biggest takeaway for me from the Road to Indy was how to handle myself on a race weekend,” said Herta. “It’s the professionalism that the Road to Indy brings to all the drivers that helps you. You have a lot of media exposure as well, so you learn how to talk to the media and handle yourself as a professional race car driver. IndyCar owners watch the Road to Indy races, so you have to present yourself well at all times. From media to the racing, I’ve gotten to do some really cool things that I would never have been able to do if I wasn’t racing.”

“I still think the best way to learn your race craft is through the Road to Indy,” said Telitz. “Coming up through the three series is where you learn to go fast in a race car. You learn car control, the dynamics of the car. There are no assists; it’s just you. I didn’t have any money for crash damage, so, except for last year, I was good about taking care of the car. Now, if I do something to the car, you’ve let down the other drivers on your team in addition to your mechanics. It’s important to bring the car home in one piece. And there are so many off-track expectations, like media interviews and photo shoots. You learn all the ins and outs of how to handle media, and that’s super important as well.”

 * The AVS entry was elevated to second place following a post-race penalty to the second-place finisher

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