One year ago, Bryan Herta’s team was lucky to be in the field. Now, he, Steve Newey, driver Dan Wheldon, and the rest of Bryan Herta Autosport are champions of the Indianapolis 500.
Their journey, though short, has been a trying one. A brand new Firestone Indy Lights team in 2009, Daniel Herrington brought the organization its very first win in Chicagoland that year, Moving into 2010, they expanded that program to two cars (for Sebastian Saavedra and Stefan Wilson) and placed Saavedra in a one-off effort for the Indy 500.
Bump Day seemed to work against them as Saavedra crashed, leaving him unable to defend his place in the field. But, luck fell their way when Paul Tracy and Jay Howard withdrew times that would have qualified them. When neither posted a speed fast enough to regain spots in the field, Herta’s outfit was left in 33rd, the last position on the grid (he notified Saavedra via cell phone with Saavedra in being examined in the hospital after his crash).
In 2011, good fortune struck again, though it started with the misfortune of an old friend. Dan Wheldon, teammates with Herta in their days with Andretti Green Racing, announced in his post-race interview at Chicagoland that he was leaving Panther Racing and looking for a ride heading into the 2011 season
Mysteriously, no team signed the former Indy 500 winner and INDYCAR champion and he entered the Spring with no plans set in stone. With a driver of his caliber on the market, Herta knew he couldn’t pass it up and signed Wheldon for a “500 only” effort in March.
Even then, Wheldon knew that their chances were strong. “Bryan has been a friend – and a teammate – for a long time now and because of that I have the utmost confidence in him and his team to provide me with the tools to win my second Indy 500,” he said confidently when the signing was announced.
Utilizing a technical alliance with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, the pieces appeared to be in place. But, not since Al Unser Sr. in 1987 had a one-off entry gone to victory lane (Unser famously won that year, after not having a ride to start the month, in a car that was a showroom model only weeks before).
Any questions about their speed were answered on Pole Day. Wheldon took the No. 98 machine and placed in the Top Nine Pole Shootout and, eventually, sixth on the starting grid. Once again, Wheldon credited the team and was prophetic about their chances. “To be honest, the speed is a testimony to this team. It's not me; the guys have done a fantastic job,” said the Briton. “I know what I want from the racecar, and we're making it work. Being in a race car is what I love to do. My time off made me realize how much I love motor racing. I'm having a blast. We will be a force to be reckoned with."
Still, there was the race to run and mistakes to avoid. One of the problems with one-off efforts is that they are often crewed by a team who would call that race, the “500,” their first of the year. They would operate without the practice from the opening rounds of the season and enter the event cold.
But, in a credit to the people that Herta was assembled in his gutty little outfit, they did everything they needed to do. The pit stops were faultless and Wheldon drove a smart, savvy race. He didn’t lead the until final the lap…but he didn’t have to. Wheldon ran in the top five for most of the day, kept himself out of trouble, and was in a position to challenge for the win. That’s all he needed to do.
“I was just trying to go as hard as I could,” an emotional Wheldon described afterward. “I knew it was the last lap, and I knew some of those guys were struggling with fuel.” He crossed the line ahead of J.R. Hildebrand, who slid across in second after contacting the turn four wall.
“For Bryan Herta and everyone at Bryan Herta Autosport, such a dream ride,” Wheldon continued. “It's been absolutely phenomenal. I love Indianapolis. I love the people, I love everything about it. The tradition, the history.”
Herta was especially complimentary of his driver’s tenacity, which helped the enthusiasm of everyone on the team. “On paper, based on our previous effort, anything, on paper we really had no business believing we could win it,” said Herta, who was beside himself with joy. “But, Dan believed in us so strongly he made us believe it, too. I really think over the course of this last two weeks, he made the crew guys believe it, he made a lot of people on the outside believe it, because so many people were coming up to us the week of the race saying, ‘We think you're going to win.’ It was so uplifting.
Unfortunately, we may not see Wheldon, Herta, and the rest of BHA for the rest of the season. The economic environment has not yet granted them the backing to run any other races this year.
However, for one day, the little guy reigned as king. We certainly hope to see them again in 2011.
Hildebrand Can Hold Head High Despite Crash
Technically speaking, Juan Montoya and Helio Castroneves were rookies when they won in 2000 and 2001; neither had competed at Indianapolis before those years. But, with Montoya the defending CART champion when he won in 2000 and Castroneves and established CART star by the time of his win in 2001, neither driver was a rookie to major Open Wheel Racing.
J.R. Hildebrand, in his first full season in big-league INDYCAR competition, did something that rookies should not do: he ran a mistake-free race and was in position to win.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, his approach on Charlie Kimball came at an inopportune point: the entry to turn four. Hildebrand’s only option to pass Kimball was on the outside, and with his team telling him that Wheldon was charging, he didn’t want to wait.
“Well, I knew we were running a little tight on fuel coming to the end, and I had spotters in my ears saying, 'Guys are coming, and they're coming hard because we were having to conserve a little bit of fuel,' and the tires are at the end of their stint,” Hildebrand elaborated. “I was just hanging on to get the thing around. I made a last minute judgment call on the 83 car (Kimball). He was out of the pits, and I thought, 'You know what, I don't think I want slow down for him around the wrong part of the track. I would have to slow down a lot to stay behind him, then pull out a lot to pass on the straightaway so I thought, 'Well, I've been able to make this move around the outside before,' and so I went to the high side and just got caught up in the marbles, and that was it.”
It is a heartbreaking way to miss out, but Hildebrand has nothing to be ashamed of. He ran a perfect race all day, kept himself out of trouble, and had a chance for victory. For any driver, rookie or veteran, that is all you can ask for.
“We came here with a rookie driver, and everybody says we're going to have trouble and everything. But I can tell you that he (JR) did a great job,” said owner John Barnes of Hildebrand’s performance. “He drove to a fuel number I didn't think was going to be attainable. We're so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew."
What’s more, he, John Barnes, and the Panther team showed class at the race’s conclusion by not filing a protest. Some believed that Wheldon had passed Hildebrand after the caution had flown, but with Hildebrand’s car wounded, it was within the rules for Wheldon to pass him (even if Hildebrand hadn’t crashed, the pass occurred just before the yellow lights came on, making the point moot to begin with).
Surrounding the best story Indianapolis has seen in a long time with controversy was the last thing the sport needed after the good momentum it enjoyed this month. The entire Panther organization deserves credit for handling their defeat with class and dignity.
Along with Wheldon, Hildebrand illustrated how to do business at Indianapolis. You don’t have to have the fastest car and you don’t have to lead the most laps. All you need to do is be mistake-free, stay out of trouble, and give yourself a chance. Wheldon and Hildebrand set an example that all should follow.