INDIANAPOLIS — As Colton Herta prepared his game-winning pass on Saturday, all he could see were flashing red lights.
He still charged forward.
The 22-year-old from California raced quickly inside Pato O’Ward on a late restart, took the lead for good with nine laps to go and beat Simon Pagenaud to the finish line of 3.0983 seconds to win a wild, goofy, wet IndyCar Grand Prix.
“Pure talent,” joked Herta when asked how he persevered to his first win of the season despite the incredibly difficult weather conditions. “The most interesting thing is that you never have a car that handles well in the wet and in the dry, but it happened today.
Getting to victory lane certainly wasn’t easy for Herta, who earned his first Indy victory in his 10th series start at the track. He also became the first Honda rider to reach victory lane this season.
But on Saturday, he made all the right calls.
After qualifying 14th on the 27-car grid, he made the bold choice to switch from wet to dry tires after just three laps of the race. While he initially struggled to keep the tires cold on the track and nearly spun on lap 4 when he pulled aside in turn 10 on the road course of 14 turns and 2,439 miles, Herta never flinched.
Somehow, he hung on, quickly taking the advantage and taking advantage of a movement that allowed him to move from 15th to first place. He stayed near the front of the pack the rest of the race, leading 50 of 75 laps in a two-hour race that had just 53 minutes and 22 seconds of green flag time.
It happened on a day when race strategists and drivers were constantly changing plans because of rain or the threat of rain. And even when it appeared that Herta had made the wrong choice – like running on dry tires after Alexander Rossi and switching back to wet tires early – things worked out.
“What I said was with the track conditions right now it’s probably wet, but if you think it’s going to be dry we’ll go with slicks,” Herta said as he made reference to the first of two late pit stops. “Immediately when I came out I knew it was going to be tough so we came back. Luckily everyone followed our lead and did the wrong thing so we didn’t lose too many places.”
Pagenaud and pole winner Will Power struggled to navigate the spray from the other cars. Neither could see well enough for long enough in the first IndyCar rain race with the aero screens to catch Herta.
Still, the two three-time race winners and former teammates felt like they too had achieved something. Pagenaud, the French driver, gave Meyer Shank Racing its best result of the season.
“It was crazy. The racing was phenomenal and strategy was the name of the game today,” he said. “Sometimes second place feels like a win. I would have liked to win today, but we’ll probably celebrate tonight like it’s a win.”
Power took the lead in points from defending series champion Alex Palou and posted the best result for Team Penske.
“At the end you couldn’t see. I can’t imagine being back in 10th or something like that,” the Australian said. “A pretty crazy day, a day to keep you on your toes and when to pick the right tire and not overdo it. Just survival.”
Race organizers knew the weather would be a factor.
They moved the start time forward about 30 minutes in hopes of a wet track. Instead, the start was delayed – first by nearby lightning in the area, then by steady light rain.
The colder, wetter track changed everything. There were spins and crashes, even cars struggling to stay in line under caution. And no one, not even the big names in the show, was safe.
Team Penske raced to get two-time series champion Josef Newgarden back on the course after his car was damaged in a crash on lap 17. Power lost three places on the first lap and never fully recovered and Scott McLaughlin, Penske’s third rider, lost the lead when he spun.
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon, the New Zealander who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, ran out of fuel in the pit lane. Dixon’s team-mate, Spaniard Palou, fell out of favor when, like Rossi, he switched back to wet tires too soon.
O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP teammate Felix Rosenqvist got tangled in the first corner of lap 42.
“I knew we could do it,” Herta said. “Did I think we were going to win today in a normal dry race? No, probably not. But we adapted pretty well. It was a lot of fun.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials opened the first on-site betting parlor in the track’s history on Saturday.
Caesars Sportsbook Lounge at Pagoda Plaza will remain throughout Indianapolis 500 practice, two days of qualifying and the May 29 race. Caesars Sportsbook will also sponsor the remaining races on the circuit this year.
Teams and drivers aren’t going anywhere. Next up is the series’ flagship race, the Indianapolis 500, on May 29. Everyone gets a two-day break as the track is converted from a road course to a more traditional oval. Practice begins on Tuesday and two days of qualifying are scheduled for next weekend.
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