Flash back to the end of 2008, back to when Andretti Autosport was Andretti-Green Racing and fielded teams not only in INDYCAR but also in road racing, with an American Le Mans Series outfit under their umbrella.
Bryan Herta had switched from IndyCars to sports cars at that point, leading the drivers’ end of that ALMS program for Michael Andretti. Unfortunately, funding for that operation ran dry at the end of that season, leaving Herta without a drive going forward.
It was during the offseason that Steve Newey, who worked with Herta on Andretti Green’s ALMS team, planted an idea in Herta’s mind: form a Firestone Indy Lights team together. “We bumped into each other at the PRI show in December of ’08. (Newey) suggested ‘Hey, what do you think about starting an Indy Lights team?” remembered Herta, who captured four wins in his Open Wheel ventures with CART and INDYCAR.
For Herta, who spent much of his career driving for teams owned by former drivers, the thought represented a true irony. “I’ve driven for a lot of former drivers, like Bobby Rahal, who was still driving as a teammate when I drove on his team, A.J. Foyt obviously, and Chip Ganassi, who was a driver for a short time, not many people know that, and of course Michael Andretti,” Herta explained. “I don’t want to say I got the idea that way because, at the time, I always used to joke that I didn’t want to own a team.” Of course, though he would no longer be driving, Herta wished to remain involved in the sport. “I still love racing as much as I ever did and wanted to stay closely involved in it. (Owning a team) seemed a great way to do that.”
For Newey, also out of work after Michael Andretti shut down his sports car team, the timing was perfect to try something new. “Bryan and I were both in between projects at the same time,” explained Newey. “We both talked about it for several weeks and reached an agreement. Then, we started recruiting sponsors and drivers. We were fortunate that everything came together for the 2009 season.”
Laying the Foundation
Though ambitious, Herta and Newey understood that starting a team from scratch was too difficult an undertaking, especially given the economic environment and global recession. With that in mind, they began assembling a program that incorporated a partnership with an existing team. Vision Racing proved to be just the partner they were looking for.
“We put a deal together with Tony George and Vision Racing, in our first year, where we ran one car out of their shop, and used some of our equipment and some of their equipment,” Herta went on. “On top of that, they were running an Indy Lights car, and we helped run that for them.”
Herta added that the help from George and Vision was invaluable. “Without Tony George and Vision Racing, it would have been very hard for us to start our team. It’s such a big capital expense to start a race team and get a shop, equipment and people (together), there’s so much outlay that you have to do before you run the first laps. You’re taking a big financial risk without a guarantee of anything. Without Tony’s faith and support in giving us the opportunity, I don’t know that we would’ve been able to start the team.”
That 2009 season proved a big success, both for Bryan Herta Autosport and Vision Racing. James Davison, with the Vision platform, ended that year second in the championship while Daniel Herrington, on the Bryan Herta Autosport side, took the outfit’s inaugural win at Chicagoland and ended the season a solid seventh in the standings.
The Next Step
Their operation now off the ground, Herta and Newey decided to branch out on their own in 2010. They moved into their own racing facility, separate from Vision Racing, which folded after the 2009 season, and adding a second team, fielding drivers Stefan Wilson and Sebastian Saavedra (though both missed races near the end of the season).
What’s more, they made the big jump into the Izod IndyCar Series, with Saavedra driving the team’s Indy 500 effort. Though, with a rookie driver in a rookie team with no teammate or technical partnerships to draw from, they knew it would be an uphill battle. “Bryan and I both raced at the Speedway in the past and we both had a reasonable amount of experience. We knew going into 2010 that it was going to extremely difficult with a one-car operation and a rookie driver,” said Newey. “That’s absolutely the most difficult way to go into it. But, we didn’t have a lot of other options. We had somewhat limited funding and limited sponsorship. Knowing that we were going in with a rookie driver and a very young team, our goal was to have a solid month of practice and qualifying and get in the race.”
When Saavedra crashed on Bump Day, it seemed unlikely that they would achieve their goals. But, as luck would have it, Mario Romancini began a trend of withdrawing one’s time in order to go faster. For Romancini, it worked. For Paul Tracy and Jay Howard, it didn’t. Neither improved their time, and actually went slower than Saavedra (with Tracy actually waving off his run and not having an official time to his name that day).
When all was said and done, Herta notified Saavedra they had made the show via cell phone, with Saavedra being examined in the hospital. “It was super important,” Herta said of the experience. “We took a big bite last year. It was all new to us. The whole project was new to us and Sebastian did a great job. As a rookie driver, he didn’t have the experience, and we didn’t have the experience. We worked really hard all month. By the end of the month, we were position to squeak in (to the field) at the end.”
Herta continued, “The win (in 2011) wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have those struggles. We learned so much that month. We learned a lot about the cars, and about what it took to be competitive at Indianapolis. If we hadn’t gone through that, we wouldn’t have had the successful result in 2011.”
For Newey, the drama that year was more than he wanted, and he realized that they needed a different approach for this year’s running. “We promised ourselves then that we weren’t going to do it the same way in 2011,” he laughed.
Back and Better Than Ever
Part of the new approach for 2011 was aligning themselves with a current IndyCar team for engineering help, much in the way Vision Racing helped their Firestone Indy Lights effort in 2009. This time around, the alliance came in the form of Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
For Newey, the choice was obvious. “Bryan and I know a lot of the key personnel at Sam Schmidt Motorsports. We worked with Alan McDonald at Andretti-Green in the past. I’ve worked with Rob Edwards in the past. There was a certain comfort level in aligning ourselves with the quality of that group.”
From there, they went about signing a driver. Herta turned to an old friend from his Andretti-Green days. “Dan (Wheldon) and I had been in contact. He was actually looking to put a program together, and (our team) was getting close (to finalizing our deal). He was working on a deal to run Indy and wanted to see what I thought. I gave my thoughts on it and then I asked ‘What do you think about running for us?’”
Though it may appear chance, Herta was very calculated in his decisions. “We pursued Dan, we pursued Sam; it didn’t just fall together. We went out and made these choices, picked our partners, and picked our driver. Frankly, we went out and made it happen,” he explained.
Putting It All Together
Wheldon immediately made his presence known, raising the expectations and attitude of the small outfit upon arrival. “Dan showed up and wanted to win the race,” said Herta of his driver. “That put a lot of pressure on us because we weren’t sure if we were ready for that. But, he pushed us and our guys stepped up and everything went our way.”
A fine week of practice and qualifying was punctuated with the sixth starting spot on the grid. For Herta, that was more than enough to declare “Mission: accomplished.”
“I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction coming out of qualifying weekend,” he said. “We had a great week of practice, we qualified solidly on the second row, and we were really competitive every day. I felt like we had already accomplished our goal of getting that calling card and establishing ourselves as a competitive IndyCar team. We had already done that coming out of qualifying. So, from there on, anything else that happened was the cherry on top of the sundae.”
The race would raise that sense of satisfaction even higher. Wheldon ran in the top five for most of the race, only slipping down the field when cautions twice interrupted green flag stops. Still, he placed the No. 98 entry back into the top five almost immediately afterward each time.
But, alternate fuel strategies at the end forced Wheldon to keep the charge up if they stood a chance for victory. “The strategy we picked at the end of the race, we were hoping to get a long green-flag run which we were lucky to get,” remembered Herta. “We felt like we were going to be second or third, but to Scott Dixon.”
However, Wheldon slipped passed Dixon on the final lap; their sights turned to J.R. Hildebrand, who appeared set to claim victory as he entered turn four. But, an encounter with the lapped car of Charlie Kimball opened the door for Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport. “I looked down for a second and then I looked up and the next thing I saw was J.R. sliding down the wall coming out of four,” recalled Herta. “Then, here comes Dan around the corner sweeping by. It was pandemonium because it wasn’t until that moment that we thought we would win.”
Wheldon only led the final few hundred yards, but it was more than enough to claim victory. For Newey, it was a moment of pure ecstasy.“It was an unbelievable result in my mind. You always go into the month of May with a package like we had thinking ‘We’re going to go there to win.’ That’s the goal and obviously, ultimately, we all believe that. But, at the same time, we know how hard it is to beat the Penskes and Ganassis of the world, especially with a relatively small operation. We had realistic expectations. Needless to say, we were ecstatic. It’s a huge accomplishment for our small team. It’s something that you dream about. It was a great day.”
Newey added, “The workload has increased dramatically with all the work we had after that. But, that’s all a good thing. It’s something that goes with the territory. Obviously, that’s going to make our year. It’s a great feat for our team, but it hasn’t really sunk in entirely. But, each day that goes by, the smile is still on my face. I’m sure it’s going to be that way for a long time.”
Staying the Course
As thrilling as winning at Indianapolis is, neither Herta nor Newey are going to press the issue and do too much too soon. “We actually have a pretty full plate already,” Herta elaborated. “We’ve got a project (rumored to be testing the 2012 chassis) we’re committed to, that’s going to be about a three-month project or so, that’s going to be ongoing during the current season. We’re really not in a position to complete all the races this year.
He went on, “If the right opportunity came along and we could add a couple races, I’d definitely be open to that. We spent a lot of time preparing for Indianapolis. A lot of the reason we had a great result was because of the time we took to show up prepared. What I don’t want to do is get caught up in the immediate inertia of everything that’s happened and throw some last minute stuff together just to get back out there and not be prepared and not execute the way we did at Indianapolis. We want to follow that result up and still be strong.”
Newey expanded on Herta’s thoughts, adding that they would like run a full-time IndyCar program next season. “Ultimately, our goal would be to have a very competitive two-car operation next year, but it’s going to take quite a bit of sponsorship to make that all happen.”
However, for 2011, the focus is on building for 2012 and expanding their Indy Lights effort, which currently fields one car for Duarte Ferreira. “In the meantime, we’re hard at work with our Indy Lights program, testing at Milwaukee (this past Thursday),” Newey said. “We have plans to potentially add a second car for the Indy Lights team. In the short term, we’re focusing on the Indy Lights program and we’re going to see what materializes for the IndyCar program over the next week or two.”
He explained further, “Tentatively, our plan is to enter a second Indy Lights car at Toronto and run the remainder of the season with two cars. That’s not 100 percent finalized yet but the deal has been agreed to in principle and I’m optimistic we’re going to have it concluded in the near future.”
Still, if the right pieces fall into place, we may see Bryan Herta Autosport on the IndyCar grid again in 2011. “Dan desperately wants to go back and do some more races. I would love to get back out and race again, as would all of our guys,” said Herta. “We’re open to it if the right opportunity comes up to do some races later in the year. I’ve been in touch with Randy (Bernard) and would love to come back at Las Vegas with Dan Wheldon and race for the $5 million bonus. I think that would be my dream scenario, to race for that $5 million at the end and get ready go in 2012 for a full season. Ultimately, it’s up to INDYCAR to select who those five at-large guys are going to be. I’d love for them to say that Dan is one of them.”
Regardless, even if the only IndyCar race of their 2011 season was that spectacular day last Sunday, Bryan Herta Autosport left an indelible mark on the sport, giving us what may be the best feel-good story of the year.