Herta Will Emerge As A Great Owner
The 1994 CART season began with a thud for AJ Foyt Racing. Super Tex had signed Davy Jones to drive the famous No.14 Lola, but after three very forgettable performances, Jones was summarily dumped after Long Beach. Heading into the Month of May, AJ made what I thought to be one of his best hires in Foyt’s post-driving era—Bryan Herta.
Herta was coming off of a championship season in Indy Lights. He was bright, humble, funny, and seemed more than ready to snag a plum ride in IndyCars. His attitude meshed well with the tempestuous team owner.
AJ was eager to coach, while Herta was willing to learn. The combination produced a ninth place finish at Indy. He essentially was second in class; being saddled with the ’94 Lola. This was a pretty strong performance for someone making their debut in the big cars on the world largest stage.
He followed that up with two more top-10’s in the next two races and a decent 13th at Cleveland. It looked as if Foyt had found what he wanted—a young driver who kept his mouth shut, and had his foot on the throttle. The future appeared bright for both driver and team. Then disaster struck in Toronto–Herta spun violently coming out of turn 11. He slapped the wall hard, destroying the entire right side of the car. The result was a broken pelvis and internal injuries for Herta. His season was over. Eddie Cheever replaced Herta for the remainder of the year, did a decent job and ultimately kept the seat.
For 1995, Herta found himself at Target Chip Ganassi–replacing Michael Andretti. Ganassi then announced he was expanding to a two-car team by adding Jimmy Vasser, whose team owned by Jim Hayhoe had folded over the winter. Neither driver had a good first half of the season, but Vasser came on strong in the second half to finish eighth in points. Herta continued to languish and finished a disappointing twentieth. Ganassi showed him the door at season’s end, replacing him with Alex Zanardi.
Herta again landed on his feet, securing a ride as teammate to driver-owner Bobby Rahal for 1996. He rebounded nicely to finish eighth in points, but his unwanted signature moment came in the last race of the season at Laguna Seca. Herta had led most of the race and appeared headed for his first win. On the last lap however, Zanardi made an incredible banzai move in the corkscrew section of the track–diving underneath Herta into the dirt, to take the win. Herta went on to win at the track the following two years, but will always be remembered for the 1996 race that he lost in the corkscrew.
His years with Rahal were his most consistent, but he never even approached the great potential he showed as the 1993 Indy Lights Champion. In 2000, he was replaced at Rahal by Kenny Bräck. The next few years saw him bounce between stints with Forsythe, Nunn, Walker, and PK Racing.
In 2003, he subbed for the injured Dario Franchitti at Andretti-Green for several races in the IRL and won the race at Kansas. This ultimately led to a full-time ride with AGR in the No. 7 XM-Radio car for 2004. Beginning in 2007, he gave way to Danica Patrick and moved over to AGR’s ALMS team. Midway through the 2008 ALMS season, Herta was fired by Andretti-Green Racing. He resurfaced at Vision racing later in the 2008 season as a driving coach for Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV, primarily for road courses.
The reason for this long chronology is where we find Bryan Herta today. He now owns an Indy Lights team in association with Vision Racing. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that this is where he will flourish. Herta never carried the swagger of a Paul Tracy or Robbie Gordon, nor did he ever have the sheer speed of a Michael Andretti. He may have been guilty of being a bit too conservative and thinking too much, which probably explained why he never anticipated such an unthinkable move by Zanardi. But the traits that held him back on the track, will serve him well in the role of a car owner.
He was working on an effort for this year’s Indianapolis 500 until last week, when things fell through. Rather than scrounge around to find a warm body to put in the cockpit, he has opted to wait a year and do things the right way–other owners should be so patient.
He is still bright, humble, and funny. But fifteen years later, he has endured the physical and emotional scarring that this sport can bring. My guess is he’ll use that experience in building a successful team and developing young drivers. I’m willing to bet that, over the next several years, Bryan Herta will see much more success as an owner than he ever saw as a driver. The best drivers do not always make the best owners, and vice versa. One of his former employers did not have the most illustrious driving career, yet he’s done OK as an owner. His name is Chip Ganassi.