Monday, March 25, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: Let's Learn Our Lesson

Colton Herta made history in becoming the youngest winner in IndyCar history. The Indy Lights winner was over three years older than Herta. Will Power had another car break on him, which is a shame, because Team Penske keeps winning and it has won a race in five consecutive weekends across three different series. Penske isn't the only one who kept a winning streak going.  Formula E had another red flag. Supercross had a controversial finish. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Let's Learn Our Lesson
Colton Herta is the story of the weekend but it is important to keep things in check. After all, IndyCar has a history of teenage, second-generation drivers winning a race, and each time it has happened people have been massively let down afterwards.

Herta had an impressive drive at Austin and his season has been notable. It started out in testing when he led the preseason test from Austin. People remained level headed about that, one, because it is a test and we have seen test results not match what happened in the first race or the rest of the season and, two, there was some speculation that Herta's car in the test was not entirely up to the regulations. Some were suggesting the team ran an otherwise illegal car to impress sponsors.

However, the first weekend at St. Petersburg appeared to legitimize the testing pace. Herta was quick, made it to the second round of qualifying and he was set to advance to the final round had it not been for an interference penalty on Charlie Kimball before he started his flying lap. Instead of starting in the top six, Herta started 11th. In the race, he kept his head on straight, kept it out of the barrier and other competitors and worked his way up to an eighth place finish in the second race of his career.

I think many headed into Austin knowing Herta would be quick. There wasn't a guarantee he would equal his testing pace and leave everyone in his dust. We see teams like Team Penske return to a track and pull out a time it was not close to approaching during a test. It seems Alexander Rossi always finds more speed in every session. Scott Dixon is veteran and can figure out any racetrack. We may have thought Herta would slide back a few spots but he would still be toward the sharp end of the grid and that was the case.

Herta qualified fourth, his first career Fast Six appearance and that pace carried over to the race. It was not long before he was up to third and he was staying with the likes of Will Power and Rossi. All three separated from the pack over the first half of the race.

What will be forgotten because of this victory is Power and Rossi pulled away from Herta. Entering the final 20 laps it was a two-horse race and a game of chicken to see who would stop first. Herta was still in third but eight seconds behind the top two. Herta had a comfortable margin over Josef Newgarden in fourth and he was not slipping into the clutches of the veterans behind him. He ran well but didn't have the legs to keep up with the big boys.

One caution changed all that. Herta had already made his final pit stop and came out in third position. Power and Rossi were caught with their pants around their ankles. He inherited the lead when those two made their final stops. This race ended with Power breaking down in his pit box and Rossi having to restart in 13th with the likes of Ed Jones, Tony Kanaan, Spencer Pigot and Jack Harvey all directly ahead of Rossi. Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay were restarting behind Herta but for the first two-thirds of this race Herta handily were ahead of those two past champions. On the restart, Herta launched out and could not be caught.

All credit should go to Herta. At 18 years and 359 days old, he didn't make a mistake when he was put in the spotlight. He didn't spin the tires on the restart. He didn't blow a corner and let Newgarden and Hunter-Reay race on through. He didn't lose the race car over the bumps and royally mess up. Herta got the job done but we need to keep in mind everything that went into his favor and go back and acknowledge the struggles of other youngest winners.

This time it was Herta getting the break of Power and Rossi not making a pit stop before the caution. In 2008, Graham Rahal won at St. Petersburg in a race that was not only wet-to-dry race but a timed race as well. He also got the lead after 15 cars ahead of him made a pit stop under a caution. That move Rahal up to second and he would pass Hunter-Reay on the subsequent restart. It was an odd race where E.J. Viso and Enrique Bernoldi each led laps and both finished in the top five!

Marco Andretti's first career victory is famously remembered for him saving fuel and having the help of teammates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. He initially got the lead after Scott Dixon and a slew of other cars made their final pit stops under green.

Both Rahal and Andretti had a handful of circumstances go in their favor to getting their first career victories and at the time both were the youngest winner in IndyCar history. What followed was the period of higher expectations that were never met. Andretti had it worse of the two because he nearly won the Indianapolis 500 that year on debut. He won at Sonoma and didn't win for nearly another four years. Rahal had a few years of ups and downs afterward with Newman-Haas Racing not having enough funding to keep him in a seat, plus competing at a time when Penske and Ganassi had a stranglehold on the field. He did move to Ganassi but didn't win a race and would not win again for over seven years.

Rahal and Andretti were both pegged to be the faces of IndyCar before they could shave. Both were supposed to be the second-generation drivers to re-ignite the interest in the series purely because of their names. If a Rahal and an Andretti were fighting for victories than the crowd from the glory days of CART's tobacco money would notice and return. Those two weren't getting victories on a regular basis and still aren't. Andretti hasn't won since 2011. Rahal has won a handful more races since and he is a poster boy of sorts but no one has started following IndyCar in the last decade because of the exploits of Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal and, unfortunately, their lack of success leads to a lot of blame.

When Herta won his first Indy Lights race at St. Petersburg when he was still 16 years old, I sent out this tweet:

After watching the early years of Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal I knew the pattern. A familiar last name starts being successful in junior series. It leads to a rush to IndyCar. Expectations are that this familiar last name will match the level of success it once achieved. This is the future of the series and he will be the driver to bring a wave of people into the series.

However, I know one driver is likely not going to carry IndyCar to the higher levels of fandom. We set these lofty goals and they are not met. We set the goals and rarely are they realistic.

There was a chance if Herta struggled in Indy Lights it would lead to many lashing out and putting it down to another spoil kid who wasn't good enough to cut it. It all comes back to the goals the fandom sets and the fandom never takes the blame.

With a victory in his third career start, people are going to rise the bar. The expectation is going to be another victory this year, another two victories next year and a championship at the age of 21. That's probably not going to happen people and we need to learn our lesson from the likes of Andretti and Rahal.

Herta is turning 19 years old this week and while he won his first career IndyCar race he is still maturing, still developing and he is going to make mistakes. He is going to have accidents. He is going to have weekends when he can't dial the car in and get frustrated running no better than 16th. He has a lot to learn despite such early success.

And that is fine because he is going to be 19 years old! I worry about young drivers, and Herta is included in this group, because many are on a national stage when they are 16 or 17 years old in the higher rungs of a ladder system. If progression does not occur on a yearly basis people become jaded about a driver's talent and when you are starting out at 16 or 17 years old, yearly progression could mean making it to IndyCar before the age of 20. Then what? If you can't get it done in IndyCar in four years people are ready to spit you out and take on the next batch of drivers. All of a sudden, a 24-year-old is out of work and it could be career over.

That should not be the case for anyone. Herta is going to have plenty of time to win more races and championships. While being a race car driver, he is also an adult and he is going to have other life events that he has to work through and figure out. There is a balance between work and personal life and if he is in a rut personally it could hurt his performance and that is understandable. He is human after all. Life is tough and a bad day at home distracts anyone at work. It happens to all of us. We have to give him time and patience because he could have a 20-year career and we should cut it short just because he doesn't win another race before he turns 21 years old.

If you look at all the young winners, many experience a slump not long after that victory. We covered Andretti and Rahal but even Scott Dixon, who won in his third career start just like Herta, didn't win his second race until nearly two year later. Tomas Scheckter went nearly three years between his first and second victories. Jimmy Davies won twice in his first 16 starts and then he didn't win for about three and a half years. Al Unser, Jr. won at Portland in 1984 and didn't win again for a year. Ryan Hunter-Reay's first two victories came within four starts and then he didn't win again for over four years. Troy Ruttman's first two victories came in consecutive starts, the 1952 Indianapolis 500 and then at Raleigh. He didn't win another race in the final 12 years of his career.

We have to give Herta time but we also have to realize that this one teenager is not going to be a Messiah. We are not going to see attendance double at Barber in two weeks just because he won a race. We are not going to see the television rating shoot up and every race on NBCSN have a million people watching with every NBC race having four million watching and the Indianapolis 500 break 10 million viewers. There is not going to be profiles of Herta in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and other notable publications. He is not going to become a social media influencer with a stupid amount of followers, though he should not want to be that to begin with because that is garbage. He achieved something tremendous at a very young age. Now, we have to be patient and let him make mistakes.

If it works out and Herta joins the likes of Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Power as champions then great and if he gathers a following and increases the IndyCar fan base even better but that should not be our expectations. Though Herta won before he was 19 years old, we should know not to heap the future of the series on a developing adult.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Colton Herta but did you know...

Oliver Askew swept the Indy Lights races from Circuit of the Americas.

Jean-√Čric Vergne won the Sanya ePrix.

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville. Kyle Busch won the Truck race.

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross race from Seattle but was docked seven points after failing to adhere to the medical flag.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP is back in action from Argentina.
Formula One has a night race in Bahrain.
Laguna Seca hosts the second round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge with the California 8 Hours.
NASCAR is back in Texas and, specifically, Fort Worth.
Supercross will also be in Texas and, specifically, Houston.
The World Rally Championship runs the Tour de Corse.