IRL: Herta breaks through

INDIANAPOLIS - The 2003 season has been one of change for Bryan Herta, a man who was out of open wheel racing last year, plying his trade in the American Le Mans Series rather than in CART, where the Californian had forged his career. Things ...

INDIANAPOLIS - The 2003 season has been one of change for Bryan Herta, a man who was out of open wheel racing last year, plying his trade in the American Le Mans Series rather than in CART, where the Californian had forged his career.

Things didn't look much different for 2003 as Herta, who tested for Formula One backmarkers Minardi last season, started this year in the ALMS series again, racing at Sebring in the 12-Hour opener. Herta also had the opportunity to drive a stock car, starting 15th and finishing 5th in the Winston West race at familiar California Speedway in Fontana.

What would be next? Herta went to pre-qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, only to get a call from Michael Andretti, a good friend over the past several seasons, who has had a changing array of drivers on his three-car Andretti Green Racing (AGR) team in this year's Indy Racing League IndyCar Series campaign.

Why has AGR been a carousel of pilots? Even before leaving for race #3 in Japan - of the 16-event season - Dario Franchitti was injured in a freak motorcycle accident in his native Scotland. At Twin Ring Motegi Tony Kanaan was hurt in a crash with Scott Dixon as the duo fought for the lead of the Indy Japan 300.

Andretti had a lot of decisions to make and turned to Herta for help at Texas Motor Speedway and Pikes Peak International Raceway, thinking Franchitti would be unable to drive the #27 Alpine/Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda in those events. Smart move. Herta started ninth at Texas and finished fifth, exclaiming, "I'm the fifth happiest guy here tonight" after a tight contest saw Al Unser Jr. take his third IRL win.

Franchitti returned for the Pikes Peak race a week later and finished fourth, but that was it for the Scot in 2003, as he opted for surgery to make sure his broken back healed well. That surgery opened the door for Herta to complete the season in the #27 Indy car, and he's taken the job with relish, finishing 14th on the tight confines of .75-mile Richmond International Raceway and winning just two weeks ago at the Kansas Indy 300 in extreme heat on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway oval.

"It was an emotional win for me," Herta explained. "It's great to be with this team and give them a victory my third time out in the car." Was this a fluke? Not really. Herta, known for his prowess on road courses like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he owns two CART victories - and had a third snatched by Alex Zanardi's famous "Pass" in 1996 - Herta had success on ovals since he broke into the open wheel ranks.

A second-place finish at Michigan in 1996 was the closest he came to visiting Victory Lane on an oval, until now. "I guess I hadn't tried to get press directed to my oval abilities in the past. I've learned to be more vocal about it and hopefully people will remember. This is a fickle business," he said.

The 1993 Indy Lights champion joined A.J. Foyt's racing stable in May of 1994 at Indianapolis and ran for Super Tex until crashing hard on the Toronto streets that summer. He'd sit out the balance of the season as he healed from injuries similar to those suffered by Felipe Giaffone in Kansas this year. Herta went on to drive for Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal and Gerald Forsythe in CART, but was unable to find employment for the 2002 Champ Car campaign.

That's when he turned to the Panoz LMP01 and finished tenth in the ALMS series in 2002, also taking time for that Minardi F1 test and wandering the CART paddock in search of another fulltime open wheel ride.

Herta's glad he landed with Andretti Green Racing and teammates Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon. "What strikes me is the way they all work together among three cars and drivers. The engineers all share data and we drivers do the same," he said. He fits into the team extremely well, as "Michael and I have been good friends for years and I'm good friends with Tony and Dario.

"We keep the chemistry intact. I felt when I arrived here that I'd fit well with the team. It's been a very natural fit for me. I feel like I've been with Andretti Green Racing for a long time and I feel we can run up front. But I'm not taking anything for granted, because this IndyCar Series is so competitive. We've got to keep our heads down and work to get better" as the season progresses.

Bryan Herta has been "forced to bounce around" over the last few years. "Sure, it's better to be with a team in top cars like now and it's great to take advantage of this chance. Driving different cars over the last couple of years has, I believe, made me a better driver," he asserted.

Herta had a back-up offer from PK Racing in the Champ Car World Series to race at Laguna Seca in June, and it might have turned into a fulltime ride down the road, but when the chance to work with Andretti, Kevin Savoree and team manager Kyle Moyer came about, the Warren, MI native wasn't about to think long. He jumped at the opportunity.

"I'm glad I kept driving when I didn't have a fulltime ride because the worst thing you can do is just [sit and wait]. You get stale by not driving."

To those who believe it was Kyle Moyer's strategy alone that took Herta and the #27 team to victory at Kansas, Bryan begs to differ. "We had a strong car in Kansas. Yes, fuel strategy won the race but we would have been third or fourth no matter what. We always had confidence things would go well. We knew the team was good and when things go well, you get a pat on the back like this. When things don't go well, everybody tends to theorize about it."

This weekend, Herta and the balance of the IndyCar Series regulars head for Nashville Superspeedway, the concrete 1.33-mile circuit just east of the city for which it's named. Herta and AGR had a good test at Nashville and he looks forward to competing on concrete, something he's never done before. "I understand it gets pretty slippery offline there and you can slide to the wall pretty easily. It's hard to tell where the track ends and the wall starts, except for that one blue line of separation.

"We had a great test there and I think we have a good car. It's quite a bumpy circuit and with the white surface, it feels different to drive. We'll work on our setup Friday morning so we can go to the bottom of the track and stay there." He intends to examine video from last year's contest, when another road course veteran, Alex Barron took the checkered flags.

Herta doesn't know what the future holds for him, but at age 33 he's learning to adapt to everything. "I'm hoping Michael can find sponsorship for a fourth car in the IndyCar Series next year, but who knows? I have learned to adapt quickly to different cars and tracks over the last few years and I think I'm a better driver for it." He aims to enforce that belief on Saturday night in the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Bobby Rahal , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Gerald Forsythe , Chip Ganassi , A.J. Foyt