O'Ward, Herta Make Impressive INDYCAR Debuts at Sonoma
 September 18, 2018| 
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The eyes of the racing world were on the Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle last Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, as four drivers went into the season finale with a chance to capture the vaunted Astor Cup, won by 2000 Indy Lights champion Scott Dixon.

But for two drivers, just taking the green flag was a milestone as Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta marked the end of their Mazda Road to Indy journey and began what each hope will be long and prosperous IndyCar careers.

Having finished one-two in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title-chase (with O’Ward capturing the $1 million scholarship that guarantees him three INDYCAR races, including the Indianapolis 500), O’Ward and Herta fulfilled lifelong dreams by competing in their first IndyCar event only two weeks later, driving for Harding Racing. With each of their Indy Lights engineers onboard (Mark Bryant for O’Ward and Doug Zister for Herta), in addition to other team members from Andretti Autosport, the duo progressed well through their first practice sessions.

The fact that the pair had battled for the Indy Lights championship through the entire season, then found themselves teammates again for their IndyCar debuts, made for an interesting dynamic as the weekend got underway.

“We've been racing karts since -- if I remember correctly, since 2009, 2010,” O’Ward noted. “I think it's cool that we're both pushing each other. I think it's good to have someone that pushes you and pushes you to your limits, so you can get better and better, and I feel like he'll feel the same way. I know that he'll get the maximum out of the car just as I'll try to.”

“It was awesome to have him as a teammate,” said Herta. “We obviously pushed each other really hard. He made me a better driver as well as I think I made him a better driver. But yeah, we'll continue the same rivalry and keep pushing each other. We're in similar situations coming into this weekend, similar situations in our career. We're a similar age and both kind of struggling with the same stuff. We're very comparable, so I think it makes our relationship a little bit different and better.”

Herta qualified a steady 19th in the 25-car field, but it was O’Ward who captured the attention of the open-wheel world (and seemingly, all of social media) with an impressive effort that saw him make the Firestone Fast Six and take a fifth-place starting position. The fact that he was starting among drivers he had been watching on television for years was not lost on O’Ward – or on the drivers around him.

“When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought Newgarden, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi, such big names, you've been looking at them for years and years and years, since I was a kid,” said O’Ward. “If you told me last year ‘you're going to be in IndyCar in the last race of 2018,’ I would say you're crazy. But I think I matured a lot. I've grown a lot as a driver and as a person inside and outside of the car.”

“I think you got to give a lot of credit to O'Ward,” said newly crowned IndyCar champion (and 2000 Indy Lights champion) Scott Dixon. “A job well done. It's cool to see the opportunity that he and Colton are getting. He's (O’Ward) a smart kid, has done extremely well. To come here where some of us older guys have been pounding it out all year, and he jumps in and gets it done. It's good to see.”

Nothing can fully prepare drivers for what they will face during a two-hour IndyCar race – mentally or physically. Both O’Ward and Herta dealt with issues early on, learning to manage tires and save fuel. O’Ward fell back in the early going, but as the team adjusted the setup and O’Ward settled in, he battled back to a ninth-place finish – Harding Racing’s first top-10 finish. The result ties O’Ward for the second-best debut for an Indy Lights champion (Sage Karam finished ninth at Indianapolis in 2014 and Bryan Herta finished ninth at Indy in 1994. Greg Moore holds the top spot with a seventh-place tally at Homestead in 1996). Herta was on the move up the charts but got caught up in the restart melee and finished 20th.

“It was crazy hectic at the start,” said O’Ward. “I struggled in the beginning – I didn’t know how much to push the reds and I guess I pushed them too much. The rear of the car was making it hard for me to stay on pace, and I just got swallowed up. But once I settled down mid-race, we started making some good passes. We passed five or six guys. I’m really happy to get a top-10 finish. I just want to get better for the next one, so I’m already looking forward to St. Pete next year.

“I really appreciate the opportunity from Harding Racing and Team Chevy and I think we’re going the right way. It’s a great start and there’s only room to improve.”

“We really didn’t have any expectations coming into the weekend,” said Herta. “I was just happy to get the race under my belt and to get out there under race conditions. There is so much to learn. We didn’t run in traffic at all during practice, so that was an eye-opener during the race, with full tanks and the tire degradation. But I’m so grateful to everyone at Harding Racing for what they did for me. They did a great job all weekend. It was so fun out there.”

Harding Racing General Manager Brian Barnhart was impressed with the level of talent the two rookies showed, in a pressure-packed situation.

“They’re obviously talented kids and we were excited to give them their first opportunity in an Indy car,” said Barnhart. “The fact that you were able to get two kids of this caliber out of the Indy Lights series this year – and there are several other drivers who have plenty of talent as well – is a huge testament to the Road to Indy. The most important thing was to get both of them to finish, and we did that. We had excellent race results out of both of them. Both cars finished on the lead lap, we gained a ton of valuable experience and this also gives us a lot to focus on over the winter.”

Both drivers attributed their quick starts at least in part to their years spent on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, especially their two years in Indy Lights. Whether it was comparing the two Dallaras – the IL-15 and the IR-12 – or the time spent racing alongside the IndyCar Series, each felt the value of the lessons learned.

“Indy Lights really prepared very well for this,” said O’Ward. “This is just way faster and the tires are so different. That will take some time to get used to, but you’re still pushing a car to the limits and at the end of the day, it’s just another race car. But I'm really happy that I could show some speed this weekend because the Road to Indy is very competitive, and it really helped me prepare for IndyCar. I think Indy Lights is a great series. Getting the scholarship really opened the door to what my goal has been my whole life.”

“The two years in Indy Lights really helped to prepare me for this,” Herta agreed. “It’s just a lot more power, grip and downforce. But one of the big benefits was being able to take my seat straight from the Dallara Indy Lights car into the Dallara Indy car. And for me, one of the most important things has been just being around the IndyCar paddock every weekend, and the chance to learn all the tracks that IndyCar races on. We know all the media people, all the TV people. It made for a much easier transition.”

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