CHAMPCAR/CART: Bryan Herta Interview

BRYAN HERTA FINISHED THIRD IN CLEVELAND LAST YEAR. HE HAS SCORED TWO OF HIS SIX CAREER PODIUM FINISHES ON THE RUNWAYS OF BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT, INCLUDING A SECOND IN 1995. HE HAS ALSO QUALIFIED WELL AT CLEVELAND WITH THIRD PLACE...

BRYAN HERTA FINISHED THIRD IN CLEVELAND LAST YEAR. HE HAS SCORED TWO OF HIS SIX CAREER PODIUM FINISHES ON THE RUNWAYS OF BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT, INCLUDING A SECOND IN 1995. HE HAS ALSO QUALIFIED WELL AT CLEVELAND WITH THIRD PLACE EFFORTS IN BOTH '95 AND '96. BRYAN HAS BEEN THE FEDEX CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES DOMINANT QUALIFIER ON ROAD COURSES OF LATE, WINNING FOUR OF THE PAST SEVEN POLE POSITIONS, INCLUDING MID-OHIO AND LAGUNA SECA LAST YEAR, AND LONG BEACH AND PORTLAND THIS YEAR. ALL IN TRACK RECORD TIME. HE HAS COLLECTED FIVE TOP 10 FINISHES IN NINE STARTS THIS SEASON, HIGHLIGHTED BY THIRDS AT LONG BEACH AND PORTLAND. ENTERING SUNDAY'S MEDIC DRUG GRAND PRIX OF CLEVELAND BRYAN RANKS SIXTH IN THE PPG CUP POINT STANDINGS WITH 54 POINTS. CAN YOU RECALL LAST YEAR'S RACE WHEN ALEX ZANARDI CHARGED THROUGH THE FIELD AND HOW HE WAS ABLE TO GET BY YOU AT THE END? "Yeah. I mean, he has the fastest car on the track without a question last year. He came back from I think, you know, almost a lap down, most of a lap down, and really without a lot of help he charged through the field. I think I was running second when he caught me, probably about ten laps to go, I think when he caught me. I fought him off for a few laps, but, you know, it was pretty evident that he had a lot more car and was a lot faster at that point in the race than I was. "You know, he was able to get through and then chase down de Ferran and win the race. "I actually burned my brakes up trying to keep him behind me (laughter). I was lucky to finish the race. The pedal was going down after that. I obviously tried as hard as I could to keep him back, but on that day there was certainly no way I was going to be able to do it for long." IS (ZANARDI) THE TOUGHEST GUY, OR THE LAST GUY ANY DRIVER WANTS TO SEE BEHIND THEM? "He's the best driver in the series right now, without a question. You know, how can you argue? He's had a great record. He's on a roll. You know, his confidence is high. He's got a good team behind him. He's leading the points championship. I mean, you see that from time to time, you know, a guy gets on a roll, things start clicking, breaks go his way. "He's got that kind of roll. He's making things happen for himself and for the team. You know, you really can't take anything away from what he's been able to accomplish in the last couple years, and certainly this season. "Like I said, I mean, I don't think anybody can say right now that he's not the best driver in the series at the moment. I WANTED TO ASK YOU IF YOU COULD GO INTO A LITTLE BIT OF DETAIL WITH REGARD TO THE FIRST TURN AT CLEVELAND, WHAT GOES ON THERE, WHY THERE'S BEEN SUCH EXCITEMENT THERE IN THE PAST? "Oh, I was waiting for that one (laughter). Got me early. Without a question, Cleveland is probably one of the one or two toughest tracks to get through the first corner. Funny, one of the other ones is Portland, which we just came off of. We failed to make it through that one as a group. "I think it stems from a couple things. Certainly, Cleveland, on the runway, the track is so wide, much wider than any normal racetrack we go to, that it really entices you to try to make a flyer or try to make a run down the inside of a guy going down into that corner, then of course it tightens up very quickly into a second gear, right-handed hairpin. "Typically you see guys five and even six abreast going down in there. You probably can get through the apex of the corner two abreast at most. So something has to give. It usually does. "You know, for that reason, I think qualifying is really at a premium at Cleveland. You can pass there, as Alex showed last year. If you have a good car, you can get to the front. If you can qualify at the front, you're going to minimize your chances of getting caught up in the inevitable mess down there in turn one. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WARNINGS THAT GO ALONG WITH THE DRIVERS MEETING, BEFORE EVERY RACE THERE? WHAT DO THEY INSTRUCT YOU TO TRY TO DO? "Well, we talk about it. You know, certainly nobody goes into the first corner with the intention of taking anybody out, including themselves. But I think in the last couple years, what you've seen is that some of the medium and small teams have really stepped up their program, and there's been an influx of good drivers. The competitiveness of the series is so high. You know, the speeds amongst the drivers is very similar in the race. You know, everybody is within a tenth or two that you know it's going to be hard to pass, because everybody around you is going about as fast as you. "So you end up having to take a few more chances than maybe you would normally to try and gain that advantage. You know, if you see an opening, you've got to go for it. You can't wait because you might not get that chance again. I think guys are maybe taking a few more chances because of that than they might have a couple years ago when maybe you could have waited and made that move the next lap or two laps later." ARE YOU CLOSER TO WINNING RIGHT NOW THAN YOU WERE A YEAR AGO OR TWO YEARS AGO, WHAT HAVE YOU? AGAIN, IF YOU'D JUST DISCUSS THE FRUSTRATION OF BEING SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR? " I don't know. It kind of changes from day-to-day. I mean, some days, you know, you look at it, or I look at it, and I feel very fortunate to be in a team that's giving me good cars and being able to put ourselves in a position to win races. "I think we've certainly been as close as you can be on a number of occasions without actually doing it. In some ways, that's a positive. Certainly easier to take than running around 12th every weekend and never really having a shot to win. "But then the other side of it is, you know, there's a little bit of frustration in not getting that first win. Certainly with the team now, and myself, we've been going long enough that you start to question," What aren't we doing right?" But I really believe that, you know, a couple years ago we started this rebuilding process with Team Rahal, and it's been culminating. We've been continuing to become more and more competitive. You know, when that first win is going to drop. I can't tell you if it's going to be two weeks, five weeks from now. I really think we've got a good shot at making it happen this year. "Certainly at this point in the season for me, we're sixth in the championship. Zanardi is way out front. As far as I'm concerned, really it's entirely his championship to lose at this point. "You know, what's the best thing for us as a team? It's to really focus on trying to win races and not think so much about the points, just week in and week out what can we do to win some races. "I think when we do get that first one, it's going to be almost like a pressure release for myself, for the team, more than joy, it's going to take some pressure off us that we've finally done it. "We've felt like we can do it. We've talked the talk, but you've got to walk the walk. Hopefully that's going to then help us to continue to do that, take that pressure off. It will become a habit. IF I COULD FOLLOW-UP QUICKLY, HOW MUCH NASHING OF TEETH WAS THERE OVER THE PIT STOP STRATEGY THAT VERY POSSIBLY COST YOU A VICTORY? "Not as much as you'd think. That's because I think we've got a great group of individuals who put it into perspective, which is we had a really fast car in Portland, had a car that probably should have won the race. We made a bad call on the pit strategy. I mean, there's no sense dancing around that. We took ourselves out of a chance to win the race. "But the last thing we need to do is start beating ourselves up internally and pointing fingers. That will do nothing but hurt us. I think the best thing to say is, "Look, we made a mistake, we did. Nobody's happy about that. " I have a lot of confidence in my guys calling my pit strategy, my guys doing the pit stops, preparing the car and everything else. "Really, you know, we talked about it. We're trying to learn from it. We are going to put it behind us and go to Cleveland with a clean sheet of paper, ready to fight again." YOU MENTIONED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE EVOLUTION THAT'S OCCURRED AT TEAM RAHAL. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW FIRESTONE HAS KIND OF WORKED INTO THAT EVOLUTION, HOW THAT PART OF YOUR PROGRAM HAS FARED FOR YOU ALL THIS YEAR? "Sure. I think it's no secret the team the last couple of years has been in a rebuilding phase. Bobby won the championship in '92. They went through a couple of tough years with the very first year with the Honda program, the TrueSports chassis, and really from there it's been a gradual buildup again. "When I came to the team, an association with Reynard (was present), which has been really fruitful. Then the next year we made the switch to the Ford Cosworth engine, and a good relationship with Ford Motor Company, which I think is starting to pay dividends with the team. "This last year, I think we made one of the more important changes again, which was to the Firestone tire. The first part of this year, we're still learning about the tires. Definitely it is different. It takes a different setup, a different approach to the car than what we're used to with the other tires, last year with the Good Year tires. We've have to adapt to that and learn. "We're at a point in the season now where I think we feel pretty comfortable with it. We've done enough testing, enough running on the tires that we're starting to understand them better. You know, really now next year, we're going to go through one more step, I think, which is Bobby is going to retire, he's going to bring another driver into the team to be my teammate. Hopefully at that point, the sort of building process will be complete. I think at that point hopefully we'll have all the blocks in place to really be a top team again. I WANTED TO HAVE YOU ASSESS THIS PART OF THE SEASON COMPARED TO OTHER YEARS. SEEMS TO ME YOU HAD A PRETTY SUCCESSFUL BEGINNING TO THE SEASON. INTERESTING TO HEAR YOU TALK ABOUT THE LEARNING CURVE WITH THE TIRES. WHAT OTHER SORT OF THINGS HAVE GONE ON THROUGH THE HALF SEASON NOW? "Yeah, yeah, it's hard to believe, isn't it, that we've already done half a season. It seems to happen so quickly. You know, I think if you look at our last two seasons together, this has been the best first half of season we've had as a group. You know, people say, "You guys are always strong in the second half." But I attribute that to one thing, which is the first half of the season is all short, medium ovals, predominantly. Those are the tracks we have struggled on. "We made a step forward this year. I would say we ran in the top eight on most of them, where last year we struggled even to do that. So that helped us score a few more points than we normally had. But that's probably still the area we need as a team, and I, as a driver, need to improve the most if we really want to consider ourselves, you know, a complete program with championship aspirations. "We realize that, and we're focused on that. We're coming into now a lot of road courses and street courses where I think we've got good setups for the cars. I feel comfortable on the tracks, run well on most of them. So I think we've got a potential now. We're in a pretty good position with points. I think we've got the potential to move forward from here. YOU'VE DRIVEN A COUPLE YEARS WITH BOBBY. HOW, IF IN ANY WAY, IS THIS YEAR DIFFERENT, KNOWING THAT IT'S HIS LAST TIME AROUND? "You know, it's funny. I didn't know what to expect about Bobby's last ride this year, you know, how much the extra attention, the focus that was going to be on the team, how much that might draw us away from the primary goal, or how much of a distraction that might be. I really have to say, and this is a compliment to I think really Bobby and our PR staff on our team, the people that work with us, that have really kept it in great focus. I think it's been a fun thing for Bobby. It's been great for me to have a firsthand view of it all. We've got to do some fun things. "I know Bobby has experienced some things this year in terms of the ovations and reactions from the fans that will certainly stay with him for a very long time. "But by the same token, it's really been -- I think the media and fans, have recognized, not just Bobby, but the whole team at some point has to switch back over, "It's time to go racing, time to go to work," and that's where the focus has to be. "It's really been, I think, a great program. I know he's done a lot of things charity-wise with it. You know, I think just for me I'm kind of riding on the coattails. It's been fun to hang out." I'D LIKE TO ASK YOU, I DON'T KNOW HOW MUCH INPUT YOU WILL HAVE IN IT, BUT WHAT WOULD YOUR PREFERENCE BE FOR A TEAMMATE NEXT SEASON? WOULD YOU LIKE ANOTHER VETERAN DRIVER LIKE BOBBIE OR WOULD YOU LIKE A YOUNGER GUY LIKE YOURSELF? "Well, I think in terms of young guy/old guy, I don't have a really strong preference other than, you know, when Bobby and I have talked about it, I told him that really from my point of view, I want him to get the best guy he possibly can. That's going to be good for me; it's going to be good motivation for me, going to help push our team forward. "Particularly, if we can get somebody who is really strong on the ovals, I think it could help us out even a little bit in that area, it would be good. "But I don't know -- they call it the silly season for a reason. I don't really know, you know, who fits that bill, that's really available, how it's going to all shake out. Ultimately, it's Bobby's decision. You know, he'll make the call and hire the very best driver he possibly can." WOULD YOU EXPECT IT TO BE SOMEBODY ALREADY IN THE SERIES THEN? "Not necessarily. I mean, I think Bobby is looking at all of his options, whether it be here, in Europe, wherever. I think he feels this responsibility to the team and sponsors to hire the best driver he can hire. Whether that guy has F-1 experience or CART experience, what have you, that's who he's going to get." WHAT IS THE HANDFORD WING DOING TO THE ENGINE AS FAR AS PUTTING DRAG ON THEM? IS IT A CONCERN ABOUT GETTING AN ENGINE TO GO 500 MILES? "Sure it is because, you know, when you're adding drag like that, it feels like you're pulling a trailer behind the car. You know, it's definitely pulling the motor a little harder, putting a little more load on it. That's going to be a concern. "But, you know, really it's the same challenge for all the engine manufacturers to comply to. Maybe they'll have to be a little bit more conservative in their design for the race spec motor this year than they would have been had they not had that extra drag. You know, I know what Ford is doing. I think we'll be okay in that respect. I'm sure that the other manufacturers are looking at that closely and making adjustments accordingly." I HEARD CLEVELAND DESCRIBED AS RACEY, HEARD IT AS BEING FLAT AND WIDE, BUT NEVER HEARD IT DESCRIBED AS BEING SMOOTH. "It is really, really bumpy, but I like it. I love the track. It's a fast track. I love fast corners in general. There's a lot of fast corners. "It's bumpy, which really as much as anything, you get used to it from a comfort level yourself. It's not that so much as it's difficult to get the car set up to really handle the bumps and still put the power down, still handle well. "So that is the biggest challenge, is really getting over the bumps. I think last year we started off with a setup that wasn't too good. I went out and did my first initial laps. I came in, my engineer asked me how the car was, I said, "It lands well." That's not a comment I want to have to make too many times. "That is one of the unique challenges of Cleveland. I mean, I wouldn't change that. If they said, "We could repave it," I'd leave it the same. I like it that way." I WAS THINKING A FEW MOMENTS AGO ABOUT THE STATEMENT YOU MADE ABOUT THE FRUSTRATION OF NOT WINNING, WHAT HAVE YOU. THIS LITTLE SCENARIO POPPED IN MY MIND. YOU FINALLY GET DOWN ON THE LAST LAP, YOU'RE SEEING THE CHECKERED FLAG, YOU LOOK OVER TO THE RIGHT AND SEE THAT BLUE AND WHITE CAR TRYING TO WIN A RACE IN HIS LAST RIDE. WHAT WILL HAPPEN? "Bobby will have to wait till the next one. That's an easy question to answer. Let me put it this way: I don't want to win my first race on a gift. Bobby, I know, doesn't want to win his last one on a gift. "People are sometimes surprised like this. Portland, I was actually personally -- I was disappointed not to win, but I was very satisfied because I felt like I drove hard, I felt like I drove well, and I felt like given the scenario that we put ourselves in that I got as much out of the car as I could. "Satisfaction comes from when you're honest with yourself, knowing if you did the best you could that day. Winning is kind of a by-product of that. If we're first and second, it's Bobby and I, that would be a great finish. If Bobby wins, I would be as happy for him as I would for myself. I know he feels the same way, if I win and he were to finish right behind me." DO WE SOMETIMES IN THE MEDIA, AND I GUESS THE FANS AS WELL, MISS SOME OF THE SMALL POINTS OF SATISFACTION THAT YOU THE DRIVER AND THE TEAM MEMBERS GET? WHEN IT ALL COMES DOWN AT THE END OF THE DAY IN THE MEDIA, WE TEND TO LOOK AT WHO WAS ON THE PODIUM AND WHO WASN'T. "Right. Really, I mean, that's the most important thing to look at in terms of the results of the race. Certainly, there's moments and there's things that happen when you're out there that even -- that I take away that nobody knows. I couldn't even explain or tell my wife about. There's emotions you have, things that you experience. It's kind of a funny thing when you're out there; you're very much alone even though you're in constant contact with the team, there's tens of thousands of people standing there watching you. In some ways, you're very much alone out there. "Some of the experiences are, you know, really yours alone. I wish I could share more of that because the joy I get from participating in this sport, driving race cars, I really almost couldn't put it into words. But I guess that's the essence of our sport. WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT IN CART? "My most memorable moment in CART? Probably Laguna Seca with Zanardi. I'd like to have a more memorable one than that." BETWEEN '94 AND '96, YOU DROVE FOR THREE DIFFERENT TEAMS. THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING SAID IN A POSITIVE NOTE FOR HAVING SOME CONSISTENCY WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR TEAM OWNER. EVERYBODY HAS THEIR OWN PERSONALITY, EVERYBODY HAS THEIR OWN WAY OF ATTACKING THE SEASON. IT'S NICE TO KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING FROM ONE WEEK TO THE NEXT, YES? "Oh, yeah, yeah. I think all drivers mature at a different rate. I think I had a lot of success at a very young age and jumped up into a level where then I didn't have a lot of consistency for a few years, as you have intimated. "What I did have was I had the opportunity to work with some of the best teams and greatest personalities in the sport. I think that has been good for me in the long-term. I think I've taken something away from each of my relationships that's helped me to grow as a person and as a driver and improve." BOBBY WAS THE FIRST TO WIN AT CLEVELAND. WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU TO WIN IT AGAIN FOR MAYBE THIS WEEKEND FOR THE TEAM? "It means everything. You know, I don't know how to describe it. I truly don't know what my emotions will be. Certainly I've won races in the past, in all different types of cars. This one has been a long time coming. I don't really know for myself what I'm going to feel like or how it's going to be. "I just know that it's something that's important to me, that it would be a great thrill, a great accomplishment for me personally and really for our whole team. We're looking forward to getting the chance to find out what that is like. "Frankly, then I don't have to answer, "When are you going to win your first race" anymore." CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF TOUR OF THE CLEVELAND TRACK, WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR AS YOU'RE GOING AROUND EACH TURN? "Well, okay. I think heading down into the first corner, the key is really to break late. It's a very late apex. The biggest thing you notice about Cleveland, there's really no references; you're out there by yourself. "The key really is to establish some sort of feel or rhythm on the track rather than reference points, which is what most guys use at most tracks, and then really it's all a momentum circuit. It's about carrying speeds into the corners, being able to carry that speed over the bumps at the apex of each of the corners, so then you can get the power early, you know, maintain that rhythm, maintain that speed. "At least for me, that is the key to running fast around that track." WE'VE NOTICED THAT OVER THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS ON ROAD COURSES, IT SEEMS LIKE -- I WANT TO STEAL A QUOTE FROM CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI -- A FEW OF THE DRIVERS HAVE BECOME OVERLY OPTIMISTIC. IS THAT A FAIR ASSESSMENT? DO YOU SEE THAT ON THE TRACK?"Yes, I do. But, you know, I guess I'll have a different view of it next time I get taken out by somebody who is overly optimistic. "You know, in some ways I think it's good. The racing is very close. The competition is very close. You can't just sort of lay back and then make a pass anymore. You have to kind of commit yourself to it. They're not all going to come off that way. I think you want to eliminate some of the bone head moves, the moves that should never be attempted because they're never going to come off without taking one or two of the cars out. "But by the same token, I think there's sort of moves afoot in some series to almost eliminate racing. I mean, every time a car touches another car anymore, it seems like there's the Spanish Inquisition coming on. I don't know that that is the best thing either. We're out there racing. I don't think anybody purposely is running into other guys. "When you try to make passes, sometimes it's not going to happen. I think you've got to let guys race, you've got to let guys sometimes make mistakes, because they always will. Really, just when somebody does something that is really belligerent or obviously over the top, that's when you step in. I think CART is starting to do that. I think they've got a good balance on that so far. I hope it stays that way." IN OTHER WORDS, A LITTLE NUDGE NOW AND THEN IS OKAY? "Well, yeah. If it's in the course of racing, if it's an unintentional thing, then I think it's all part of the game. But I think -- look, I don't have to name names. I think you know and everybody out there knows there's certain guys who are good, hard racers, that are clean racers. I think a guy that's gotten some flak over the years, is Michael Andretti. I tell you what, I would go wheel to wheel in any corner with that guy and trust him. I couldn't say that about a lot of the other guys out there."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Bryan Herta