An Interview with BRYAN HERTA T.E. McHALE: Belated Happy New Year to everyone. It's nice to have you back with us for another season of CART weekly teleconferences. The weekly portion of the program will probably begin sometime ...
An Interview with BRYAN HERTA
T.E. McHALE: Belated Happy New Year to everyone. It's nice to have you back with us for another season of CART weekly teleconferences. The weekly portion of the program will probably begin sometime in mid-March, but we're pleased today to have this special teleconference, with our guest Bryan Herta, now of McDonald's Championship Racing. Bryan, good afternoon, welcome thanks for being here. BRYAN HERTA: Good afternoon, T.E., thank you. T.E. McHALE: Bryan Herta is entering his 7th season in the FedEx Championship Series, having spent the fast four driving for Team Rahal. He owns two career victories and seven pole positions including one of each last year at Laguna Seca Raceway. He finished 12th in the 1999 FedEx Championship Series with 84 points and closed the season with Top-5 finishes in three of his final four starts, including his victory at Laguna Seca, a 5th place at Houston, and a 4th place effort at Australia. He also started among the Top-5 drivers in 9 of his 20 starts last year. Bryan Herta's new position reunites him with Forsythe Championship Racing president Steve Horne, as well as with chief mechanic, Steve Ragan. Bryan Herta, Steve Horne and Steve Ragan teamed to win the 1993 Indy Lights Championship with the Tasman Motorsports Group ... (Audio Noise) ...
Q. I guess, you know, certainly one of the challenges facing you here is that, at least at this point in time, you're the only person who is going to be, you know, actively driving a Swift, let alone a Swift Honda. Can you talk about the particular challenges of basically developing a car without a lot of -- a lot of help from other drivers or without the ability to -- if you will triangulate with a teammate? And second of all, maybe put it in context of doing it with people like Steve Horne and Steve Ragan, who you are very familiar with? BRYAN HERTA: Certainly, going in, the Swift is, you know, a question mark for everybody right now, just because we haven't driven it. We've seen the new Reynard on the track, and the new Swift hasn't been out yet. So I think that we're going to have a lot better feel or idea of what we have to do or what direction we're going to have to take after this test at Laguna Seca tomorrow and Thursday. Certainly, with the way the CART testing rules are, it's going to hurt us or make it a little tougher for us more than probably most people because we're limited now to 12 preseason test days and I think like six days during the season, where a two-car team would get a little bit more. So certainly if we expand to a two-car team at some point, that would be an advantage. But having said that, there's a certain advantage too, in the fact that this is a very focused program, obviously, and the factory is working very specifically and very closely with the team to develop the car in a way that's probably unique in CART racing more -- I would liken it more to like a Formula 1 style program more so than probably we've seen, at least other than the way maybe Penske has done it in the past. There's certain advantages in being able to have that close relationship and being able to work that closely with the manufacturer; that we'll be able to turn things over very quickly. I expect to see a lot of development pieces throughout the season. Because we don't have to produce 20, 30 of them; they can produce 2 if they are good and continue the development program.
Q. Again, if you could talk maybe a little bit about what it means to be going -- a cliche question, I'm sure you'll hear quite a bit in the next few days, but what it's like to be quote unquote, going home again to the team that you won the Indy Lights title with? BRYAN HERTA: That's something I'm definitely looking forward to. You almost can't really say it's the team I won the Indy Lights Championship with because it's gone through so many changes since I was there. A couple of the very important key players are -- Steve Horne is still there and Steve Ragan, as well as a few others. So it's nice because it's not an unfamiliar place to me, and I certainly have a tremendous respect and confidence in the abilities of Steve Horne and -- he's just got such a no-nonsense approach to racing, and he's able to really eliminate the BS so effectively, that I think in the development program he's absolutely the right guy to be steering the ship because he understands as much as anybody how easy it is to start heading off in a wrong direction. And if you don't have any other team or anybody else to bounce input off of, if you head off in the wrong direction by yourself, sometimes it's hard to come back. So I definitely have confidence working with Steve in that regard. And being back with Steve Ragan, it's funny, because we were both pretty young and somewhat new when we worked together last time, and we've each been through a lot and I think grown a lot and had a lot of new experiences, and I think we're each stronger in our respective positions for it. So I think that we're going to definitely have a good chemistry or a good balance within the team. And now it's really going to be down to us making the most of the package, making the most of the car that Swift gives us. And I'm looking forward, of course, to working with Honda again, as well.
Q. Last year, really, you weren't really at the top of your game on the ovals. How much of that was Bryan Herta's confidence and how much of that was really the package and the situation at Team Rahal? BRYAN HERTA: Well, I don't know that I can really put a specific value to each thing that you've asked there. But certainly, we didn't run as well on those particular tracks as I would have liked to and the team would have liked to. So that's an area for improvement that we're looking to this year. And I think that, you know, certainly working with Swift -- and Swift is has an engineer who worked with Helio last year, and he had a very good oval package, a very good feel on the ovals, and I think we're definitely going to look to him to help us in that area a lot.
Q. Can I follow that up with: Now you're really a sole guy in a one-car team. Are you looking forward to that, or did you enjoy the two-car team and having the teammate? BRYAN HERTA: I think having a teammate definitely has particular advantages. Number one, you get more test days available to you; so that you can take turns, hopefully, helping to develop the car. And also, that you can share data on a race weekend. One guy can go one direction on the setup, and the other guy can go the other direction. And you have more options to available to you because you have more chances to try things. So that's definitely a downside. Really, probably the only particular upside is the team is very, very focused on there's only the one car. And as a driver, that's a good thing, you know, that you're getting 100% of their support, 100% of their attention; and they have got all their eggs in one basket, so they are going to make sure they do everything they can to give you the tools that you need.
Q. I know it's very early now with your new car and your new team, but what kind of expectations do you have this year? What will satisfy you at the end of the year when you look back from the standpoint of mixture of road course success and oval success? BRYAN HERTA: You know, speaking broadly, I would just like to see us have a very consistent season and a very competitive season. I don't have any particular goals in terms of number of race wins or poles or things of that nature. But really, I've kind of had an interesting sort of last year, almost, from last year this time to now. You know, I think what it's really made me think about and realize is that, you know, I do this because I love to do it, and I feel really fortunate to be racing these cars. You know, my goal for myself and my expectation for myself this year is I'm just really glad to be out with what I feel is a very competitive team and a very competitive package, and I want to try to get 100% out of everything every single time I get in the car; I don't want to leave anything on the table. For my own self, if I can do that and if I can leave every race weekend feeling like I drove as hard as I could and did everything I could possible, then regardless of where we wind up, I'm going to be really happy with my season.
Q. You talked about -- mentioned possibly just growing into a two-car team at some point. Did you come in with the expectations or hopes of any indications that this might get into a two-car team some time down the road? BRYAN HERTA: I think there's definitely been discussion. I actually had been in contact with the team initially, talking to them about the possibility of a second car as a teammate to Tony. So my relationship with Jerry Forsythe and his organization really started there where they were looking at going to a second car; and so we had been in contact about the possibility of that happening. But really, I think right now, we've got plenty on our plate as a one-car team to get up and running. I don't think that you want to rush in expanding to a two-car team until you can at least feel like you've got your feet on the ground with the first car. For the long term, I think that's the goal of the team. And for me, that's definitely the direction that I think would be good for us to go long term, to help develop the combination.
Q. We talked to Mr. Gurney. He was very fond of you, and was quite high on your talent. How close did that deal come to getting put together from your standpoint? BRYAN HERTA: I think on an emotional level, it came very close to coming together. I would definitely say that I was fortunate to spend time with Dan Gurney and to -- we talked a lot about the possibility of working together. I went down to the shop several times and went we went to lunch and he showed me around the facility. And I definitely gained a great deal of respect for him as a person in that time. And emotionally, I was really hoping that that was going to work out. In reality, I don't know how close we ever were because it all hinged on money. That was the only stumbling block. If the money had been there, it would have been a done deal instantly, and it just didn't work out that way. Regardless of whether I'm there or not, I really do think it's a shame that Dan is, at least in the short term, not going to be able to participate. And I certainly hope we'll see him back.
Q. I'd like to ask if there's a sense on your part of having anything to prove to anything to Team Rahal, or if you just see it as something that's part of the business you're in? BRYAN HERTA: I do. I think it's, you know, it's a business thing. It's a commercial thing. And I think it's a chemistry thing. I don't -- I certainly don't feel like I'm going out this week to test or approaching the season because I want to prove Team Rahal anything. I think, as I said, I think all I can do is drive the car to the maximum of my ability all the time, and we'll let the chips fall where they may.
Q. How much does, in essence, being able to stay at home for another season help lessen the impact of the team change? BRYAN HERTA: What do you mean?
Q. The team is located in roughly the same area of the country; you'll, in essence, be feeling almost at home, won't you? BRYAN HERTA: I guess geographically. I live in California.
Q. My apologies --? BRYAN HERTA: I was living in Columbus, which is a great city, but I moved back to California for family reasons. But I guess it's good, in a way, because I certainly know my way around, and I clearly will still be spending a fair amount of time in Columbus, particularly during the season; so, that aspect is good. Although, I wouldn't say that that is an overriding influence one way or the other.
Q. But does it make you feel a little before comfortable? Will you also be testing at Mid-Ohio or mainly at other courses? BRYAN HERTA: We'll test everywhere. Even when I drove for Team Rahal, even though Mid-Ohio was -- had the home track aspect to it, because geographically we were close to it, we didn't test at Mid-Ohio more than other places. Matter of fact there were other teams from other parts of the country that tested at Mid-Ohio more than we did.
Q. Do you have a sense of how quick the new Swift will be? BRYAN HERTA: I can't really predict that at the moment, because, you know it's an all-new car and we have a slightly new set of aerodynamic changes. You know, the indications are very good, and the thing I would say at this point is having spent four days down at the factory now, I'm extremely impressed with the quality of the car and the quality of the work that's gone into the car. And if it runs half as good as it looks, then I think we're really going to have something -- we're going to have something to work with.
Q. Kind of sandbag everybody else? BRYAN HERTA: Hopefully, we won't have to. I'm not big on sandbagging. If we're fast, I'd just assume go out and blow everybody out during the winter and go on through the season.
Q. Was there a point in the last couple of months when Bryan was saying, "I may have to buy a ticket this year"? BRYAN HERTA: No, there wasn't. There's always things going on behind the scenes. And I would say it was a very interesting ride throughout the winter here. Because of the way things progressed, I was always in contact with good people and there was always interest. So, you know, as long as that's there, then I felt quite good. And I did have some offers and some interest from in other areas, some sports cars and some IRL teams. So, you know, I guess as a -- as a business or as a commodity, there was still some interest; there was still a demand for my driving services, and that was quite comforting. I felt very strongly that this was going to work out one way or another. And if you'd asked me two months ago if this was the way it was going to work out, I might not have believed it, but I'm glad this is the way it has gone.
Q. I remember when you and Steve Horne were paired together before, and it seemed like a perfect match then. When you started seeing this thing with Steve come together, with Forsythe, and, of course, as president, Steve, did you start going back to the old days and thinking, "Okay, here is where we were strong, here is where our relationship was strong, here is where we need to work"? BRYAN HERTA: Maybe not in that specific of terms. But certainly, as I was talking to different teams and evaluating what strengths and weaknesses I thought were there and what was possibly the best program, the prior relationship with Steve was a huge strength on this program, you know, and Jerry Forsythe, obviously a large commitment to racing. And, you know, his propensity to giving his teams the tools they need to do the job was a big plus for me. You know, I guess you do go through the process of weighing out the pluses and negatives of any situation, and I certainly did that.
Q. You mentioned a few moments ago that you didn't -- you had a fresh outlook on this season; you didn't want to leave anything at the racetrack. In a sense, did you look back when you were kind of looking at different scenarios, did you look back last year and go, "Wait a minute, did I leave something at this racetrack? Have I given it everything that I could give it"? BRYAN HERTA: No, not in those terms. But I think you can always look back or go back and look at particular team things that you could have done differently, and not specifically just in the driving sense and a setup sense and approach to a weekend and approach to a test program. You know, I think that if you -- there's some sort of saying: Those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Q. And a final, one if I may: McDonald's, if ever there was a high-profile sponsor, McDonald's is a high-profile sponsor? BRYAN HERTA: That's true.
Q. Talk about that relationship and what could that do for your future career? BRYAN HERTA: I think this it's nothing but positive. And because the deal has come together, really, in an extremely short amount of time -- although, there's been talk about it for a period of time, I would say the wheels really went into motion early last week. Though it's been less than a week, really, since this thing started. I haven't had an opportunity to meet with the folks from McDonald's and a lot of the other players involved yet. I've met a lot of them, but I haven't met others. So, you know, we're still in the get-to-know-you phase. But certainly, I'm very excited to be able to work with them.
Q. Have you been to the drive-in window yet? BRYAN HERTA: I've been in the drive-thru window at McDonald's plenty of times.
Q. Looking at coming up to an oval test for spring training at Homestead, there have been some changes to the Hanford device, and it seems like the engineering is starting to take care of that; is that the right way to go to slow the cars down? BRYAN HERTA: Well, I haven't driven the new wings yet so -- so I can't say from personal experience yet. But I would say that the couple of drivers that I have talked to, Michael Andretti and the couple of others who have driven them had some fairly positive comments to say; that at least at the Homestead configuration, it seems the car has a very similar feel on the corners to what we had last year. Although, it's slower down the straits because of the drag from the new wing. So it's kind of slowed the top-end speed down and kept a similar corner speed to last year, which was still significantly down from the old wings. So in theory, I think it sounds like a great idea, and I think it will be very good. But until -- I think until we really race it for the first time and see how it works in practice with traffic, and, you know passing situations, we won't know for sure. T.E. McHALE: Bryan, we want to congratulate you on joining the McDonald's team. Wish you best of luck at spring training and throughout the year 2000 FedEx Championship Series season. Thanks for being with us, and have a good afternoon. BRYAN HERTA: Thanks to everybody for calling in. T.E. McHALE: Again, for those of you on the line, we're going to start the regular weekly CART teleconference probably in mid-March. Certainly there will be an alert sent out before we begin, and we're going to try to start with the Top-5 finishers in the 1999 FedEx Championship Series. Thanks again for being with us and good afternoon.