By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Former Indy car/sports car driver Bryan Herta humbly downplays the suggestion that he and longtime running buddy Michael Andretti are positioning themselves as team-owners who eventually will emerge as the second comings of motorsports moguls Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.
“I don’t know about that. Those are some pretty huge shoes to fill,” Herta said, with a laugh, while discussing the partnership of Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb Agajanian and Hyundai Motor America. “I think Michael’s a lot more down the road on that than I am. But I will say I love the sport. I love being involved, I love having the chance to compete in various different championships.
“I hope some day to earn the right to be mentioned amongst those names, but we’ve got a ways to go before that. You can call me again in 20 years and we’ll see.”
Judging by Herta’s current to-do list, those next two decades will be contested at warp speed. Founded in 2009, Bryan Herta Autosport has grown from a single-car Indy Lights team into a championship-winning auto racing franchise. BHA has won races in Indy Lights, INDYCAR, Global Rallycross and Pirelli World Challenge. BHA entered the Pirelli World Challenge in partnership with Hyundai last season and promptly dominated the TCR class, winning seven of 13 races with drivers Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkins in the Hyundai i30N TCR while also securing team and manufacturers championships.
Herta and Hyundai have switched to the 10-race IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series for 2019, fielding the No. 98 Hyundai Veloster N TCR shared by Lewis and Wilkins and the No. 21 car driven by Harry Gottsacker and Mason Filippi. Round 2 of the series, the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120, is a two-hour event scheduled for Friday afternoon on Sebring International Raceway’s 3.74-mile/17-turn airport layout.
“We weren’t sure what to expect from our first year in TCR competition last year,” Herta said during a telephone interview with RacinToday.com. “But to win the team and manufacturer championships kind of set the bar really high right out of the gate. We got excited about the idea of looking at new challenges and the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series kind of represented that, going to some really iconic races like the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours but also proving the car in a different format.
“The Pirelli World Challenge is a sprint race format, meaning 40-minute races, one driver, we don’t make pit stops. In IMSA now, the races are two or four hours in duration, we make pit stops, we re-fuel the car, we do driver changes, we change tires _ so it’s a different endurance racing format. And it’s also a different, bigger challenge for us.”
Gottsacker and Filippi, the Pilot Challenge Series’ youngest rookie pairing at the respective ages of 19 and 20, earned a top-five finish in their debut on Daytona International Speedway’s roval in late January in the No. 21 Veloster N TCR. They are ranked fifth in the championship with 26 points. Sports car veterans Lewis and Wilkins finished eighth at DIS in the No. 98 Hyundai.
Wilkins qualified third at Sebring Thursday evening, while Gottsacker bagged the eighth starting spot. “Sebring is highly technical in nature compounded by the bumps and variations in track surface/grip levels,” said Wilkins, a 35-year-old resident of Mulmar, Ontario, Canada. “Sebring will bring a new set of challenges but ones that should really highlight the many strong points of the car.”
Wilkins won three PWC events and one pole for Hyundai last season while Lewis, a 28-year-old resident of Laguna Beach, Calif., won four races and six poles.
Gottsacker was full of confidence following his first qualifying session in the series on Thursday. “I’m excited to start the race before handing it over to Mason to bring it home,” said Gottsacker, a resident of San Antonio, Texas. “I think we have a good opportunity to build upon our top-five finish at Daytona.” Filippi resides in Alamo, Calif.
BHA rolled into Florida after having completed a much-needed test at Buttonwillow in California last month. That was the first test for the team since taking delivery of its Veloster N TCRs from Germany prior to the season-opener at DIS.
“It was such a whirlwind leading up to Daytona,” Herta said. “We received the first car and then almost immediately took it to the unveiling at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, and then headed to Daytona. We had hardly caught our breath before the first race, so we welcomed the break between races and we made very good use of the time and had a chance to go track-testing.”
While Lewis, Gottsacker and Filippi are new to Sebring, they are surrounded by experienced winners at the Florida layout. Wilkins won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2016; Herta won the event in 2007. In addition, team technical director John Ward has engineered two cars into Victory Circle.
“In some ways, Sebring feels like the first race of the season for us…it’s the first one where we’ve been able to test and be fully prepared,” Herta said. “We’re optimistic based on everything we’ve learned, and from the speed and reliability of the Veloster N TCR.”
Herta said the idea of transitioning from the cockpit into team-ownership did not begin as a long-term goal. It just happened. “At the end of ’08 I was without a ride and wasn’t really sure what I was going to do next,” said Herta, who studied economics at the University of California-Irvine and The Ohio State University. “My race engineer (Ward) at Andretti in the Acura sports car program approached with the idea of starting a team. So we bought an Indy Lights car and started with a one-car program and everything has grown out of that in the last nine years.”
BHA’s association with Hyundai is the result of some old-fashioned due diligence. “Toward the middle of 2016 we were competing in the Red Bull Global Rallycross championship and I wasn’t really sure what was happening in terms of the series,” Herta said. “We started looking at other opportunities and approached several car manufacturers that we’ve got a capable team of people, we’ve got a shop, we’ve got equipment, we’re looking to go racing and we’re open for business.
“Hyundai was one of those companies we approached and they came back a few weeks later and said we’re actually looking at entering the TCR series and wondered if that was something we would be interested in. That was where we started the conversation with Hyundai and it’s blossomed into a really great program.”
Case in point, in addition to racing the Veloster N TCR, Herta’s organization has been designated the U.S./North American sales agent and parts support representative of Hyundai TCR race cars for customer teams.
Like its i30 stablemate, the Veloster N TCR is designed and produced at Hyundai Motorsport Headquarters in Alzenau, Germany. The two cars share around 85 percent of their core components, including a 350-horsepower/2.0-liter turbocharged engine.
“The Veloster is a perfect fit for the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge as we expand our motorsports efforts,” said Dean Evans, vice president, marketing, Hyundai Motor America. “The all-new 2019 Veloster and Veloster N are fun-to-drive cars and thanks to Bryan and his team we’re excited to introduce them to racing fans across North America.”
Herta, who has scoped-out and driven all manner of race cars, is intrigued by Hyundai’s current touring car package. “This car has very much a production heritage,” Herta said. “It runs a production-based 4-clyinder engine, it’s 100 percent a production-based chassis but they’ve added really aggressive fender flares and aerodynamics with a front-splitter and side skirts and a rear wing. And what all those things have done is make it really look kind of cool in addition to being production-based.
“The old TCR was kind of a more boxy-looking street car to me. These are proper race cars and the level of performance bears that out. I mean, these cars pace-wise are very similar to a GT4 race car. And if you look at the prices, a GT4 race car is three or four times as expensive. Value for money, I really like this class. It makes a lot of sense and I think that’s why you’re seeing it grow in the U.S. and around the world.
“There’s another two or three manufacturers that compete in Europe, but here in the U.S. we compete against Honda, Audi and Alfa-Romeo.”
Herta said Hyundai’s decision to go racing mirrors that of any OEM _ improve the breed, raise the brand’s profile and transform consumer interest into a purchase off the showroom floor.
“Hyundai’s been known for a few things over the years,” Herta said. “They started off being known for economy, right _ building inexpensive cars, low-cost cars. And then more recently they started becoming known for quality when they came out with their 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. Now they’re evolving again and they’re focusing on performance.
“So the Hyundai Veloster N is the first _ that ‘N’ designation is their performance brand _ and this is their first performance car in the U.S. You’re going to start to see more and more of that. And when you start to talk about performance, it makes all the sense in the world if you’re going to create a performance image and performance heritage to go prove it on the racetrack against other manufacturers. That’s where we come in.”
Hyundai Motor America is headquartered in Fountain Valley, Calif., and is a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company of Korea. BHA will provide technical assistance, spares and parts support to teams campaigning Hyundai TCR models out of its facility in Brownsburg, Ind. Domestic pricing is dependent upon exchange rates, which are subject to fluctuation. Based upon current rates, for example, the Veloster N TCR retails for approximately $155,000 plus shipping.
“We’re getting a lot of interest in the car,” Herta said. “Obviously, the on-track performance is helping a lot. The Veloster this year was an all-new car, so we’ve launched the car, we’ve competed in our first race and now we’re very much focused on building a customer program and that’ll center around not just the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series and the TCR America Series that runs in the Pirelli World Challenge Championship. This car also is eligible for SCCA Club racing, track days, you name it. It’s got a lot of utility and there’s a lot of potential markets we’re going to be reaching out to for this car.”
Bryan John Herta, 48, was born in Warren, Mich., a General Motors town noted primarily for Pontiac production back in the day. “My dad (Tom) worked at General Motors,” Herta said. “Funny enough, he worked in the real estate department, so he’d go around and do site evaluations and decide where they were going to put plants and things like that side of the car business.”
Herta said his interest in racing began as an experience shared with his father. “My dad was a fan of racing, just a casual fan,” Herta said. “We had no connection to the sport at all. But I remember sitting around on Memorial Day weekend and he’d listen to the Indy 500 on the radio or he would take me to races at Michigan International Speedway _ he took me to both Indy car and NASCAR races at MIS. And it was really through that exposure with him that I became a fan of racing. But his working for General Motors was kind of coincidental because he wasn’t really working on the cars.”
Herta accelerated his march up the open-wheel ladder by winning the 1993 Dayton Indy Lights championship with Tasman Motorsports Group. Herta’s Indy car career began in 1994 with an abbreviated rookie Championship Auto Racing Teams season driving for open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr., first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Herta’s CART career, which included 121 starts between 1994-2003, peaked with back-to-back victories from pole position on the twisting road-course known today as WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Calif., for Team Rahal in 1998 and 1999.
Herta also scored oval-track Indy Racing League victories at Kansas Speedway and Michigan International Speedway driving for Andretti Green Racing between 2003 and 2006. AGR later morphed into Andretti Autosport under the leadership of former CART star Michael Andretti.
Operating under the banners of Andretti Autosport, Andretti Rallycross and Andretti Formula E, the Indianapolis-based team fields multiple entries across the NTT IndyCar Series, Indy Lights, the FIA Formula E Championship, the GT4 America Series and Americas Rallycross. Additionally, the team competes as Walkinshaw Andretti United in the Australian Supercars category through partnership with Walkinshaw Racing and United Autosports.
Andretti’s organization boasts four IndyCar Series championships, three Indy Lights titles, one Pro Mazda championship and one USF2000 championship, and has captured five Indianapolis 500 victories. Additionally, the team holds two X Games gold medals and four U.S. rallycross championships.
“It’s interesting, everything has kind of come full-circle because now my Indy car program, I’m partners with Michael on the No. 98 car that his son Marco drives,” Herta said.
In addition, Herta’s 18-year-old son, Colton, made his NTT IndyCar Series debut last Sunday with an eighth-place/lead-lap finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., for first-year Harding Steinbrenner Racing. “I’m super-proud of Colton,” the elder Herta said. “He had this opportunity this early-on in his career…I think it’s amazing. I’m hoping he’ll have a great rookie season; I’m sure he will.”
For the record, Bryan Herta made five Indy 500 starts between 1994 and 2006, compiling three top-10 finishes with a best result of third in 2005 driving for Andretti Green Racing.
Fans with a love of the Indianapolis 500 are well-aware that BHA rose to prominence after winning the 2011 Indy 500 around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the late Dan Wheldon. Five years later, BHA partnered with Andretti Autosport to win a second Indy 500 with series rookie Alexander Rossi.
“The win with Dan was amazing,” said Herta, referring to race-leader JR Hildebrand’s last-lap/Turn 4 crash that opened the door for Englishman Wheldon’s improbable second Indy 500 victory. “We weren’t even running the full season and that was our only race planned for the year, the Indy 500. We were able to make a really strong team alliance with the (Sam) Schmidt team, which accelerated our pace.
“But the big element there obviously was Dan. Dan was amazing at that track but what he also brought to us was a real expectation of winning. Which really on paper, we had no business expecting to win. But he came in expecting us to win and kept telling us that, and his insistence that we could win the race I think really did wonders to convince us that we could.
“It was his energy and his sort of drive to push us to not just show up to compete but to win the thing that made us better. I think we try to carry that with us to this day.”
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