The Way It Is/ Bryan Herta's unfolding second careerby Gordon Kirby
Before tackling the chore of becoming an IndyCar team owner Bryan Herta forged a successful career as a driver. Herta raced Indy cars for thirteen years winning two CART races with Bobby Rahal's team at Laguna Seca in 1998 and '99 and two IRL races with Andretti-Green at Kansas in 2003 and Michigan in '05 before retiring at the end of 2006.
In 2009 Herta struck a partnership with highly experienced Indy car engineer Steve Newey to run an Indy Lights team. The following year they again ran an Indy Lights team and also scraped into the Indy 500 field with Colombian rookie Sebastian Saavedra. Last year Herta and Newey focused on running a car at Indianapolis for Dan Wheldon who came through in style to win the Indy 500 for Herta in only the second try for Herta's team.
But neither Herta nor Wheldon had the sponsorship to run any more races and Herta was fortunate to keep his team in business last summer and fall running the prototype Dallara-Honda test program with Wheldon driving.
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His team may be the defending Indy 500 champions but in truth Herta is a little guy trying to establish himself as a team owner, a tough task in today's world. He admits to occasionally asking himself why he decided to become a team owner.
"Sometimes I ask myself that," Bryan grins. "But the honest answer is I love Indy car racing. I love everything about it. I enjoy the series and want to be part of the series. I had the opportunity to drive for some really great teams. I drove for Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, A.J. Foyt, Michael Andretti and Jerry Forsythe, some pretty iconic teams and individuals. As I was nearing the end of my driving time I guess the more I was in it the more opinions I had on how things should be done. As a driver, naturally you don't get as much say."
One day in 2008 Steve Newey chose exactly the right moment to pitch Herta on the idea of starting an Indy Lights team.
"Steve Newey approached me one day when we were together at a kart track and said, 'Let's start a team together.' He asked me just at the right time and the right day. If he had asked me two weeks later or earlier I probably would have said no and it never would have happened. But it just hit me at the right time and I thought, 'Why not? Let's do it.'
"We started really small with an Indy Lights team and tried to learn the business from the bottom up again from that side of it and it's been a really rewarding experience. I really feel fortunate to be able to continue to participate in the IndyCar series no longer as a driver but as an owner. If somebody walked up to me with a $100 million check and said, 'Bryan, here's a $100 million. Go do whatever you want.' Well, I'd still do what I'm doing.
"Steve is the guy in the background but he doesn't get enough credit. My name is on the door and I'm the one who does the interviews and stuff, but this thing doesn't work without Steve Newey. As much as this is about our team it's important to point out that Steve Newey is the guy that makes Bryan Herta Autosport work."
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"Tony George was instrumental in helping us get started," Herta remarked. "He rented us a corner of his Vision Racing shop and we ran our car out of there. Tony also ran a car that year for James Davidson so we ran that car for him. It kind of made us a two-car team even though one of the cars was Tony's and one was ours. We ran Daniel Herrington, a really good kid.
"Because we didn't have a lot of investment or infrastructure it would have been really easy for us to pull up stakes if the first year hadn't gone well and say, 'This is not for us. Let's go do something else.' But largely because Tony made it easy for us and we had a great kid in Daniel Herrington driving the car and just had a fun year, I think that really spurred Steve and I to say, 'Okay, let's make a real serious go at it.'
"The first year both of us really had one eye on the door. We were both asking, 'Do we really want to do this or not?' We were enjoying what we were doing and having some level of success that really spurred us to keep it going."
Herta and Newey made a much more serious commitment in 2010, running two Indy Lights cars and one car in the Indy 500.
"We expanded to two cars and moved out to our own shop," Herta explained. "We're in the old Fernandez Racing shop so Tom Anderson is our landlord and a really good guy. We ran Sebastian Saavedra in Lights as well as in the 500 as a rookie so that was our first entry in the 500. And we ran Stefan Wlson in the second Lights car so we ran a full, two-car Lights team and had our first entry in the 500.
"Sebastien and Stefan did a good job in the Lights series and the 500 was a trial by fire. That was a huge eye-opener for Steve and I. We showed up on our own with a rookie driver in a stock Dallara that we bought and damn near missed the race. We really should have missed the race. It was just a weird set of circumstances right at the end of qualifying with guys bumping each other out and withdrawing times and not getting back in the field. We were more lucky than good to get back into the race.
"That was a really scary experience because Steve and I had really kind of hung ourselves out buying a car and making all the investment to have an Indy car team. We needed to make the 500. We needed that $250,000 in prize money just to keep the thing going. So it was really a scary time for us because if we hadn't made the race we would have put ourselves financially in a really tough position that might have been the end for us.
"It probably costs around $2 million to buy the trucks and pit equipment and cars and all the spares and things you need to get started. There's probably about $2 million investment before you hire your first employee, let alone turn your first lap.
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Herta and Newey decided the best approach to 2011 was to put all their effort into running one car in the Indy 500.
"After barely making the race in 2010 Steve and I said we were really going to have to make a serious investment to make this work in 2011. So we went out and looked for a partner and Sam Schmidt was an ideal choice for us because they had great experience at the 500 and were a really strong group of people with Rob Edwards, Allen MacDonald and Don Oldenberg, guys that we knew well. So we leased the car from them and worked as a teammate to their cars.
"Obviously, the key was convincing Dan to come and drive our car at Indy. I'm still not sure how we got him to do it, but he was phenomenal as everybody knows, especially at that place. He really put the whole thing on his back and got us that win and that was a huge turning point."
Wheldon's surprise win has been the key to Herta and Newey's ability to put together a full season this year with Tagliani.
"It's one thing to say you're an Indy Lights team and you want to be an IndyCar team but it's another to make it happen," Herta observes. "We were able to dine off that Indy 500 win for the rest of the year and use that to help close our sponsorships that we needed to field a fulltime car in 2012. Being the Indy 500 winner is about as good a selling point as you can have and we were lucky to be able to have that to use. I'm sure we wouldn't have been able to sell the sponsorship we have without having won the 500. I'm glad I don't have to find out."
Another key element was securing the 2012 Dallara-Honda prototype test program.
"It was an ideal way for us to keep our Indy car team together after the 500," Herta said. "We didn't have the money or equipment to keep racing but we had Todd Malloy and Don Lambert and all these great guys we had put together and we wanted to keep them together. So that was a perfect opportunity for us to generate some work for the team so we could keep that group intact heading into 2012."
Herta couldn't be more pleased to have put together Team Barracuda BHA for this year with sponsorship from Barracuda Networks, Bowers & Wilkins and Agajanian/Curb.
"Again, it was just a whole bunch of good circumstances and good timing," Bryan remarks. "Alex and Sam had agreed to part ways and we had a good sponsor and were looking for an experienced driver. Alex had a couple of good sponsorship relationships with Bowers & Wilkins that helped fill in the gaps that we needed in our budget.
"First and foremost we learned with Dan that, especially for a small team or one-car team, having an experienced guy in the cockpit was critical. We needed that to make us better and to help us grow. All the stars aligned for us and we were able to put a nice, full package together to go racing this year."
Herta considers the new car and engine a boon to him and his team.
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"We actually saved money because of the new car. There was more cost for those teams that had a lot of existing equipment. But it was time for a new car. We all agree on that."
Herta's team was compelled to miss IndyCar's last race in Brazil as they worked through a change from Lotus/Judd engines to Hondas.
"The Brazil thing was a tough call," Herta commented. "We're out of the top 22 in points and the biggest race of the year is Indy. So Steve and I felt like with an engine change and the work that goes along with that and the biggest race of the year coming up the smartest and best thing we could do was to take a step back and re-focus everything on hitting the ground running at Indy from the first practice and coming out strong for the rest of the season.
"It's really disruptive because we've built relationships with the Lotus and Judd guys and the other Lotus teams. That's something I think we'll miss because there was really good communication among the Lotus teams. Even though we didn't get to test as much as we wanted I think there were other really positive benefits that we're definitely going to miss from that program.
"It wasn't as simple a decision as bailing out for short term reasons. A lot more thought went into it than just that."
Herta is well aware that his team is going into this year's Indy 500 in a much more difficult position than last year.
"Our particular challenge at the Speedway is we're going to come in with a new engine package without having the opportunity to test at Indy or with that engine package. We did a little bit of testing at Indy with the prototype car so I feel like it kind of evens out for us, but I still feel like we're a little bit behind. We haven't done as much testing or development as a lot of teams and a one-car team is always difficult. So I don't really know where to set our expectation level.
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"Alex has always been good at getting around that place. I feel like we should have a good competitive month. That's our expectation. I'm not as bold as Dan was last year when he was predicting we were going to win."
As tough as he's finding life as a team owner Herta says he couldn't feel better about his second career.
"I would say this whole thing has been by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and in different ways than I thought it would be, but probably also the most rewarding thing. I think I'm more proud of what we're doing with the team now than anything I ever did as a driver. Maybe that's by virtue of the fact that I'm working even harder for this.
"It's surprising. It becomes all-consuming. It's just really a big project and there's no finish line. You can always try to raise more money, you can always try and do more development. There's never a point where you say that's as much as needs to be done. Whatever point you're at there's always a list longer than you can possibly tackle of things you still want to do."
Herta and Newey hope to establish themselves next year as a two-car team.
"I think we just have to keep growing," Herta concluded. "When we started this team we really had a plan and this was the year we wanted to be a fulltime IndyCar team. One of our sources of pride is that we've been able to clear each benchmark so we need to continue to grow and ideally next year we'll be a two-car team. That's where we ultimately want to be--a two-car team with the two best guys we can go hire to drive the cars going out there trying to win races. That's what we want to do.
"Steve and I hope we can become part of the furniture in this series. It takes years to earn that but we're willing to put in the work and the time to get there."
New blood is essential to any sport and IndyCar is fortunate to have a committed young team owner like Bryan Herta with one Indy 500 win under his belt pushing hard for much more of the same to follow.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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