One of the more intriguing storylines for tomorrow’s 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 revolves around Bryan Herta’s remarkable ability to put his drivers in a position to win this race.
The IndyCar racer turned team owner and race strategist helped propel the late Dan Wheldon to glory in 2011. Then, like clockwork, he called a masterclass with the famous “clutch and coast” strategy that took then rookie and Formula 1 castoff Alexander Rossi to victory lane in 2016.
With those wins five years apart, could the cycle be ready to return him there on Sunday?
“I don’t consider myself particularly superstitious, but it does put a smile on my face to be aware that there’s that significance — and that this is a year that it would be amazing,” Herta told RACER. “I feel like I tend to be a part of some amazing stories at this place. I don’t know how to put into my head the idea of something else amazing like that happening, but obviously that’s what we’re all working really hard towards and trying to make happen.”
Unlike those previous two efforts, Herta no longer is the strategist for the race team he also has an ownership stake in. On Sunday, he will be planted on the No. 26 Andretti Autosport timing stand and call the race strategy for son Colton, who starts from the middle of the front row. Marco Andretti, who starts 25th, is piloting the entry that Herta shares ownership in — the No. 98 Andretti Herta-Haupert Autosport with Marco and Curb-Agajanian Honda.
“It would be amazing to see Marco win in the No. 98. It’d be, on a different level, amazing to see Colton win and be part of that with him. So, I’m very excited about the weekend and the opportunities that it affords, for sure,” mused Bryan.
When looking at if he’d rather be a three-time Indy 500-winning car owner or strategist, Herta doesn’t believe he can be disappointed in either scenario.
“I really am of two minds on this,” Herta said. “Obviously, my heart is with Colton because he’s my son and I want him to do well. As a strategist for him, I really kind of see my role as just trying not to screw it up. Try and keep them in the game as much as I can so that he does his thing on track. But, I’m so close with Marco and we had the pole last year, and there’s so much history with the No. 98 with Mike Curb and Cary Agajanian. To see Marco win Indy would be such a big, big, big story and such an amazing thing. They’re different, but they’re equally amazing ideas to kind of think about.”
Herta admits he has “less of a game plan” for the Indy 500 than anywhere else, and that mostly has to do with how 500-mile races play out. Not only are they much longer than other races, but also usually involve numerous yellow flags and other variables.
“I found if you come in and try and have a set plan with how you think the race is going to go, it’s very difficult,” Herta said. “It’s the same as a start, right? If I put myself back to when I used to race and I think about when I had good starts and bad starts sometimes, you decide, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the inside on the start.’ You try and make a plan and then you do it, and then five guys pull down in front of you. Now, you’re lifting off the gas and the outside lane all goes around you. Where if you just say, ‘I’m just going to look for an opening. I’m just going to look for a gap and when I see it, I’m going to react and go for it,’ it usually works out better that way. That’s kind of how I try and do the races and not get too caught up in setting a plan, because then it’s harder to recognize when there are moments to change course.”
The last few years at Indy have been themed as somewhat of a track position game, and that could very well be the case again on Sunday. Leading has been known to come at the cost of a fuel-mileage disadvantage. Equally, though, being mired deep in the field puts greater wear on the Firestone tires. So, what’s the magic formula?
“I have to be a little general in how I answer this,” he admitted. “I think what you have to do is understand your strengths and try to play to your strengths, because not everybody is going to have the best-handling car or the best fuel mileage or the best car in traffic or the best tire life. As the race starts to unfold, you start to get a pretty clear picture of where your strengths are and the guys you’re racing, what their relative strengths are. In general terms, you’re always best trying to play to your strengths.
“I’ll use the 2011 race as a great example with Dan. By the point in the race when there was a yellow, it was at a point where it was going to be really tough to make it to the end, without some yellow help or without saving significant fuel. And we’d been racing in close proximity with a couple of Ganassi cars that day. At that point, it was clear to me that the Ganassi cars were better on fuel mileage than we were. So, when you get to that point where you’ve got to make a decision and you’re racing somebody who you know has better fuel mileage than you, well, if you try and play the fuel mileage game, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure.
“What we had was pace. So we said, ‘Well, we’re probably not going to beat Ganassi or the John Barnes car (Panther Racing) on fuel mileage, but maybe we can try and beat them on pace.’ So, we picked what we thought was playing to our strengths, and then you need a lot of things to go right: Yellow flags, all that stuff. And it all did.
“To me, it’s not about having a set plan. It’s about trying to let the race tell you what is best for you. Then, you just try and play that hand to the best of your ability. Dan said it and I’ve heard many people say it since then: ‘This race, you don’t win it as much as this place picks you.’ I believe there’s something to that. So, you just try to keep yourself in contention, play to your strengths and you hope that IMS decides it’s your day.”