Herta was teamed with IndyCar rival and former Indy Lights teammate Pato O’Ward, new IndyCar teammate Devlin DeFrancesco and Eric Lux in the #81 DragonSpeed Oreca-Gibson.
Although this was his fourth time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship classic – and he won on his debut with BMW – it was his first IMSA outing in a sports prototype.
The combined efforts of the quartet – and canny strategy under cautions – brought the team from three laps down back onto the lead lap and they led the class by just under half a minute until with just under two hours to go, the caution flags flew for a spun and stalled GTD car. That erased DragonSpeed’s advantage and allowed Tower Motorsports onto Herta’s tail for the restart.
Gradually Herta inched away but with 50mins to go, another full course yellow flew for a broken-down LMP3 car, and by not giving its car new tires in the subsequent pitstop sequence, the Tower team was able to jump Louis Deletraz ahead of Herta.
At the final restart, Herta appeared to be wrestling with the car just to keep PR1 Mathiasen and Racing Team Nederland entries behind him, and briefly Deletraz had the lead out to 1.2sec, but Herta whittled it down and with 10 minutes to go he was in the Tower car’s slipstream.
“I knew that I would have a little bit of a grip advantage,” said Herta, “but it is quite difficult to get a run and pass in these cars, especially with the Bus Stop [now known as the Le Mans Chicane]. You get a lot of aero wash.
“It took a few tries and it didn’t happen until I got a little help from traffic… It was always kind of give and get with the traffic. For the most part I was kind of getting screwed with my runs to the Bus Stop, and eventually I was in situation where he [Deletraz] got screwed…
“He was trying to lift and set up and get a little bit of a gap from a GT car [ahead] so he could go through the Bus Stop and get a run on the exit so I wouldn’t get a run, if that makes sense. And when he was lifting, I was able to dive up the inside.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen. I knew I was going to need a little bit of help with traffic. I didn’t think I could pass him just straight up pace. But luckily we got some help there.”
Herta’s bold pass into the chicane left Deletraz with no room to make it through the chicane without using the grass, and the car lost enough momentum that the Nederland car also passed to claim runner-up.
Asked if he felt discouraged when the DragonSpeed car had been three laps down, Herta replied: “I don’t think anybody ever is because they know, if there’s 16 hours left and with 61 cars, there’s going to be a bunch of cautions. And you’ll get the pass around, wave around: you’ll get your lap back. I wasn’t worried.”
Herta said that his usual ride, an Andretti Autosport-Honda IndyCar, was a lot more difficult to drive and that the challenge at the Rolex is “a mental game…and you don’t get a lot of sleep.” But he added that the race was “a lot of fun.”
“It was really cool to be able to do it in a prototype and with this group. I didn’t know Eric before this race weekend, but I’m glad I was able to drive with him at least once. He’s really good and fast and a really good guy.
“I know these two guys [O’Ward and DeFrancesco] for a long time, and we’ll be competing against them very soon. But it was a lot of fun. And to win it on [Prototype] debut was amazing.
“And what a team.”