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When is The Right Time for Colton Herta to Move Up?

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After a solid debut year in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Championship, placing third on the final points table, second-generation driver Colton Herta has to be viewed as one of the top prospects to join the Verizon IndyCar Series eventually.

While currently ineligible to jump the big leagues due to being only 17, the son of former IndyCar pilot and two-time winning Indianapolis 500 car owner Bryan Herta, stated earlier this week that he is hopeful of joining the top division in the next two to three years. He also mentioned his desire to continue his partnership with Andretti Autosport, along with racing newcomers the Steinbrenner family, the longtime overseers of the New York Yankees baseball team.

Although Herta has shown promise on the Mazda Road to Indy trail, an early jump to tier one before the age of 20 has proven over the years to be a detriment in the long run for most. The most notable of these collapses could be A.J. Foyt, IV, who entered the championship in 2003 after dominating the inaugural Infiniti Pro Series campaign a year previous. While enjoying the guidance of his four-time Indy 500-winning grandfather, the youngster never found his footing in IndyCar, placing no higher than 14th in points in any of his five full seasons of action.

Active Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti also has been a victim of the so-called “youth curse,” but in a form the complete opposite of Foyt. Dubbed a road course specialist, the then 19-year old quickly broke through for his first win in 2006 at Sonoma, California and nearly won the Indy 500 only being denied at the last moment by Sam Hornish, Jr. After completing his rookie year ranked seventh in the final standings, the third-generation pilot was tagged as a future series champion. Unfortunately, that target has yet to be reached. While the veteran has had multiple showings in the first ten of the table, he has gone no higher than fifth overall in 2013, along with just two victories in 195 starts. The last two campaigns to date, have been the most telling as he wound up 16th in 2016 and this past season settled for 12th. Even the addition of Bryan Herta as a race strategist in 2017 was not able to change the current course.

While most have failed to find major success with an early rise to the summit, Graham Rahal is one exception. After quickly earning his first career IndyCar win in 2008 at St. Petersburg, Florida, the son of 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby entered a dry spell where he would end up 18th or worse in points for three of the next six years. Things though improved drastically in 2015, as the Ohio-native became one of the best drivers in the Honda engine camp. As opposed to Andretti and Foyt who faded over time, Rahal has become a bigger championship threat over the past three campaigns, collecting five victories and placing no worse than sixth on the championship table. Those stats gain more leverage considering they were not attained as a member of Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti’s operations, widely recognized as the best teams on the IndyCar circuit over the past decade.

So what can Herta do to veer more towards Rahal’s path to current success? One thing is patience. A good example of this was shown by fellow Andretti prospect Zach Veach, who debuted in Indy Lights for the 2013 season, but has had to wait five years before earning a full-time IndyCar effort. While Colton Herta appears to have talent beyond his age of 17, his experience is limited and one season in tier two may not be sufficient. It certainly was not for Jack Hawksworth, who only lasted three years in the top division, faring no better than 17th in points.

The other barrier is an opportunity. Currently, Andretti has four drivers on the full-time open-wheel circuit and has shown no interest in adding a fifth car for all 17 races. However, in two to three years time, the door of opportunity for Herta may open up. By the end of 2020, Marco Andretti will be 33 and team leader Ryan Hunter-Reay will be 39, possibly nearing the climax of their IndyCar careers. By that point, Herta would be more than ready to contribute as would the Steinbrenner half the equation, providing much needed financial support.

Assuming Herta does not feel the pressure to join the big leagues too soon, the chances to not only find a ride, but be successful will increase with further time in Indy Lights and not pressing his luck on top too soon.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

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