ST. PETERSBURG — Colton Herta is content here.
Here at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he’s the defending race winner and among the favorites to take the checkered flag in Sunday’s season opener.
Here in IndyCar, where he’s a championship contender for power team Andretti Autosport.
And here in Pinellas County, where the California native spends most of his time since moving to Belleair two years ago.
But there’s a question hanging around Sunday’s race and, in some ways, over the entire IndyCar season: how much longer will he be happy here?
Herta enters Sunday as one of the hottest names in racing.
Mario Andretti called the 21-year-old an “exceptional talent” to the Indianapolis Star. Another racing legend, Jimmie Johnson praises him as a “big-moment guy.”
“You either have it, or you don’t,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “He’s one of the guys that has it.”
Andretti knew Herta had it when he finished third and second driving for him in the Indy Lights feeder series in 2017-18. Everyone else knew a year later at Circuit of the Americas where he became the youngest race winner in IndyCar history (18 years, 11 months, 25 days).
Herta was at his best at the Grand Prix in April where he won the pole and led 97 of the 100 laps in a dominant victory. His No. 26 Honda won the final two races of the year, too, to tie series champion Alex Palou for most in the field.
“In a very short period of time, he has not only matched the best in IndyCar in a lot of categories,” said NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix winner. “He’s surpassed them.”
Herta has been a quick study elsewhere, too. He made the winning pass last month at Daytona to secure his second class win at the prestigious Rolex 24. A week later, he drove in snow for the first time ever at the Race of Champions Nations Cup in Sweden. He finished second.
“In big pressure moments, he can execute and get it done,” said Johnson, Herta’s Race of Champions teammate. “That helmet goes on, he goes from being a pretty laidback, SoCal guy to a lethal driver.”
Ask Herta about it, and you won’t hear the hubris of a hotshot. You’ll hear the maturity of someone who grew up fast thanks to the two years he lived by himself in Europe at age 15-16. You’ll hear the humility of someone with bigger goals ahead.
“I guess for being 21, it’s nice, some of the stuff that I’ve been able to do,” Herta said.
And everything Herta has done so far has fueled speculation and excitement about what he can do in the future — here or elsewhere.
Michael Andretti hasn’t been shy about his desire to field a Formula One (F1) team. He made an unsuccessful run at buying the Sauber team last year and is awaiting word on whether he can get an expansion team for 2024 for a reported $200 million entry fee.
The appeal for Andretti is obvious: F1 is the pinnacle of motorsports. But the draw for F1 is noteworthy, too. Though U.S. interest in the series spiked thanks to the hit Netflix series Drive to Survive, no American has raced in the series since current IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi did so in 2015.
“We get a competitive team and driver in the U.S.,” Andretti said, “I think it’ll do wonders for Formula One in the U.S.”
The competitive driver, if Andretti’s bid is successful, would almost certainly be Herta. He has experience racing overseas. He’s fast in every car he enters. He could handle the pressure.
He already is. Herta has been calmly fielding questions about the possible move for months, including this weekend. If it has become a distraction, he’s hiding it well. Herta said he’s young enough that he could try F1 for a few years and, if it doesn’t work out, return to IndyCar entering the prime of his career.
“I’m focused on IndyCar completely, 100 percent at the moment,” Herta said. “Until I have a contract for somewhere else and it shifts my focus, that’s what it’s going to be.”
There is no contract elsewhere, no concrete plan yet. But Herta has goals. He wants to win the Indianapolis 500, of course, preferably several times. He wants to win an IndyCar championship. He wants to race in the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And, yes, he wants to give F1 a shot.
But for now, Herta is content to be here, in a competitive car in a prestigious series at a picturesque track 20 miles from his home.
Enjoy him while he’s here. He won’t be forever.
If you go
Where: Downtown St. Petersburg. Track is at First St. S and Fifth Ave. S.
Main race: Noon Sunday TV: NBC
More info: For details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more, visit gpstpete.com.