Bryan Herta had himself quite a day last Saturday.
While he was battling the elements at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, strategizing and coaching his son Colton to a composed NTT IndyCar Series race win for Andretti Autosport, his six-car Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai phalanx was putting together a 1-2 finish in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Bryan was a fine racer, as evidenced by the four race wins and nine pole positions he earned in IndyCars, and an LMP2 class win in the 2007 12 Hours of Sebring. But the soon-to-be 52-year-old California native has made an even bigger impact as a team owner, notching two Indianapolis 500 wins (with the late Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Alexander Rossi in 2016) and spearheading Hyundai’s entry into American motorsports.
BHA Hyundais dominated the last three years of IMPC Touring Car (TCR) competition, winning championships in 2019 (with drivers Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkins), ’20 (Gabby Chaves and Ryan Norman), and ‘21 (Lewis and Taylor Hagler). Lewis and Hagler lead the 2022 TCR standings on the strength of three second place finishes in the first four races of the season.
Herta’s driving career didn’t end on his own terms – he was released from Andretti Green Racing’s Acura sports car program midway through the 2008 season by Michael Andretti. What happened next came somewhat of a surprise.
“I was 38 and felt like I could have raced a couple more years, but not a lot more than that,” Herta recalls. “I really wasn’t sure what to do, and at the Performance Racing Industry show, [engineer] Steve Newey said, ‘What do you think about starting an Indy Lights team?’ I hadn’t really thought seriously about it, but it intrigued me.
“I bought a used Indy Lights chassis, and we rented space in a corner of the Vision Racing shop from Tony George and put a little team together. That’s how it started. I didn’t know what would come of it, but I found I enjoyed it more than I thought I might and it just kind of took on a life of its own. I became very passionate about it and about growing it.”
BHA won a Lights race in its first year, then entered a car for Sebastian Saavedra in the 2010 Indianapolis 500. Herta jokingly called it ‘Two Men and a Truck Racing,’ but by 2011, the team was much better prepared and Wheldon scored a memorable victory after running near the front for the full 500 miles.
But racing is a fickle business, and hard times were yet to come. Once again, Michael Andretti was to play a key part in helping Herta change his course. Herta and Andretti became friends in the mid-90s when Michael returned to the U.S. after his disappointing 1993 Formula 1 campaign.
“I think he helped convince Chip Ganassi to put me in the car in 1995,” Herta says. “Then when he needed somebody when Dario Franchitti was hurt (in a 2003 motorcycle accident), he gave me a call. It was just meant to be, like, three Indy car races, and it turned into this whole second career that I never really expected. It was an amazing time.
“Then he gave me the opportunity to spearhead the launch of the Acura LMP2 sports car program. That was an amazing car, and a really fun time in my life. But then he fired me mid-season, which really upset me at the time. I didn’t handle it well; I was mad, I was hurt. But time heals all wounds.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Andretti offered Herta a lifeline when BHA was deeply in debt due to sponsors not honoring their commitments. Herta had the elements needed for Andretti to run a fourth car for Rossi, whose F1 career had ground to a halt. The rest is history, as Herta’s daring fuel-saving strategy and Rossi’s perfect execution culminated in another Indianapolis 500 win. That triumph – plus a bit of generosity on Andretti’s part – got Herta out of debt and the BHA/Andretti Autosport association continues to this day.
“Michael allowed me to keep the sponsorship I had for that year – put the logos on the car and keep the money,” Herta reveals. “That’s how I was able to pay off the debt I had. So, he became the most important person in my life, kind of overnight. He helped me solve all these big problems that I didn’t know how to solve. It’s been a great partnership. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated it, and I think it has worked well for them. I’ve been able to as much as I can bring value to what they have already there.
“It’s funny when you look back at any one of these moments, in 2008, when he fired me and how mad I was, or in 2016, when he saved me. I never could have envisioned fast-forwarding another five years, and here we are. I can’t imagine what the next five years will look like. It’s kind of crazy.”
What Herta has built with his factory-backed Hyundai team is truly impressive. Run out of the Speedway, Indiana race shop originally built by Sarah Fisher Racing, the BHA Hyundai effort has the scale and polish of the most established Daytona Prototype International (DPi) teams competing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
BHA boasts a diverse driver lineup, featuring proven sports car champions like Wilkins and Lewis, up-and-comers including Hagler and teenager Tyler Maxson, and wheelchair-bound pilots Michael Johnson and Robert Wickens. Any of Herta’s six cars is capable of winning on any given weekend.
Having proven its mettle with the Hyundai TCR program, Bryan Herta Autosport is well-positioned heading into what looks like could be a golden era for IMSA and worldwide sports car racing. It would come as no surprise to see BHA line up a manufacturer alliance that will allow the organization to expand into the WeatherTech Championship with a GTP prototype effort in 2023 or ’24.
But for now, Herta is taking things one day at a time.
“One thing I learned from all the team owners I drove for: even when it looks easy on the outside, it never ever is,” he says. “There’s always a dumpster on fire somewhere. It’s not a Monday morning to Friday afternoon kind of job, and I’ve had to learn that. If my phone rings at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night, I still have to answer it. That could be one of my trucks stuck on the side of the road, or one of my employees is having a problem at home. It could be anything, and you have to live like that every single moment of your life.”