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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ A refreshingly surprising Indy 500

by Gordon Kirby
Well, that was one for the history books wasn't it? Team Penske were out to lunch with all three cars and didn't come close to leading a single lap. Team Ganassi were dominant, collectively leading 130 laps, but faded at the end as Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti struggled with fuel shortages. Polewinner Alex Tagliani looked good in the race's first half but crashed after his car became tail-happy. Oriol Servia led a bunch of laps for Newman/Haas while Belgian Bertrand Baguette shocked everyone by leading some of the closing laps in one of Rahal-Letterman's cars before having to make an eleventh hour stop for fuel.

And of course rookie JR Hildebrand then looked like a surprise winner only to crash in the race's final turn, handing victory to Dan Wheldon in Bryan Herta's one-off Indy 500 entry. Nobody could have invented a more exciting race or finish.

Despite finishing second in the last two Indy 500s Wheldon was disappointing in most road and street races last year. Consequently he was dropped by Panther Racing and found himself struggling to find a full-time ride for this year. Without a competitive regular ride he decided to accept Herta's offer of an Indy 500 ride.

"Bryan has been a teammate and a good friend for a long time and he gave me a fantastic opportunity to win this race," Wheldon commented. "I think him and Steve (Newey) were very astute to collaborate with Sam Schmidt and we can't forget that Alex (Tagliani), Townsend (Bell) and all the engineering guys and mechanics did a phenomenal job.

"Everything that Bryan put together with Steve has worked phenomenally well and they have worked very, very hard, very diligently. They've done everything in their power to give me the fastest race car possible. I was going to drive that thing like I stole it until I saw the checkered flag whether that was first, second, whatever the position.

"I knew when I started this race that I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver a win, not just for myself--I didn't feel we had anything to prove--but for such a great group of people. The people that form this team and the relationships that we've all bonded very quickly has been extremely good. With a Cinderella story we took on the might of Roger Penske's and Chip Ganassi's organizations. We've had a very, very quick car all month. I don't think I saw a Penske in front of me all race and that's a testament to this team."

Herta discussed the effort that went into Wheldon's storybook win.

"Our guys worked as hard as they possibly could," Herta said. "Every rain day we had those guys worked non-stop from the time the garage opened 'til the time the garage closed, just finding little things on the car like body fit they could make a little better. It was the attention to detail that found us speed throughout the two weeks and ultimately it was their dedication to detail and their hard work and Dan's amazing drive that got us here.

"There was a lot of work and a tremendous support system from the Sam Schmidt Motorsports people who helped us bridge that enormous gap we were facing competing against all the full season teams. I really believe the caliber of people in Sam Schmidt Motorsports is as high as any out there and I think we were able to add a little bit more to the ingredients with our engineering and mechanical group.

"It was really a great month. We had a good time. It was very smooth and completely open in sharing information between all of us and that goes for the drivers to the engineers on down. I really have to credit them a lot for helping us."

Herta was abe to hire Wheldon after Wheldon's hopes of finding a full-time ride fell through.

"Dan had come to a crossroads because a couple of full season opportunities that he thought might happen hadn't happened," Herta said. "So he was looking at a couple of offers to come race at the Indy 500. We were planning and wanted to race at the Indy 500 this year so as soon as he knew for sure that he wasn't going to have a full season opportunity that he thought was worthwhile his focus became, 'How can I win Indy?' I knew as soon as I heard those words out of his mouth that I had to find a way to put a program together that was worthy of him. I knew he'd bring a lot to the table.

"Obviously you dream of winning the race but I can't say that I realistically thought that was how it would happen. But Dan did. I don't know where he found the inner fortitude and the strength and the belief in us, but he believed in us so much that he made us believe in us. Once he switched his sights on Indy only we put the deal together extremely quickly. In the meanwhile the guys were working in the shop and getting everything ready.

"He was adamant from the time he signed that we were going to win this race. He pushed us and made me promise him that I'd give him a fast race car. And I did promise him that and the weight of that responsibility weighed heavily on me and on Steve. We knew we had to come through and do that.

"At the time I told him I didn't know how we'd do it. We didn't have the deal with Sam and we didn't know how we were going to accomplish it. But his belief that we could do it made us believe we could do it."

Wheldon talked about the situation from his perspective.

"I believed I was going to get a full-time ride," Wheldon said. "I had that confidence, but come the end of January things hadn't panned out as I expected. It was important for me to put myself in a very positive situation. I called Bryan to talk about something else and we happened to talk about Indianapolis. I mentioned that I had a couple of options and asked his advice. At that point he said, 'Would you be interested in running for me?'

"I said to him that it's obviously very important for me to feature very strongly and I think anybody that knows Bryan will say he's a rarity in IndyCar racing. He's a man of his word and he's provided me an opportunity. When he said that he would give me a fast race car I never doubted that. I knew that if Bryan said it was going to be a good deal it would be a good deal.

"The people that Bryan and Steve have been able to put together are a great group of people. It's not really like a partial program. It's like a full-time program with just one race. The talent within the team shouldn't be underestimated by anybody. There's some quality people individuals there--some people that I think are the best I ever worked with."

Herta believes not running any of the early season races meant his team was better prepared for the month of May.

"You're never as prepared as you want to be but I felt like our guys did a great job to get us prepared," he observed. "I think not having to go to Brazil and do some of the early races helped us. It was a struggle for all the teams that had to come back from Brazil and turn their cars around and get them ready for this race. We didn't have to deal with those things and I think that helped us too.

"All those things combined helped us, plus the fact that the other teams hadn't run any oval races this year. They'd all been wind tunnel testing and doing simulations but they hadn't track-proven any of it. So the advantage that maybe the bigger teams had was muted a little bit.

"But that's not to say it's ever going to be easy. You put a gun fighter in the cockpit and you put a bunch of solid, experienced guys over the wall. They didn't make any mistakes. Everybody was asking me this morning whether I was nervous. But I said, 'My job's done. It's all in their hands now.'

"We've been building our infrastructure and our organization to become a full-time entry. We didn't bring in a bunch of weekend warriors and most of the guys were on our car last year as well. We've got Don Lambert, who's tremendously experienced and won the Clint Brawner award last year. We had Brian Page as our second engineer and just a lot of great mechanics and very experienced guys. We weren't a rag-tag group of guys. They're very familiar faces in the paddock."

Herta said it's unlikely that his team will race again this year. His operation will do the initial testing of the prototype 2012 Dallara.

"Our plan has always been to race here at Indianapolis this year," Herta commented. "We've got a project that we're going to be working on a little later this year that we're committed to. We never had a plan to do more races this year. Our plan was always to try and come back and compete full-time next year and right now that's still the plan.

"Does this change anything? I don't know. I think it's going to create some opportunities for us for sure and I think we're going to have to decide if we stay the course or if we take advantage of any opportunities that may come up. But for me there's nothing else that we can do this year that's going to be any better than this. All we can do now is come down the mountain. If I were to look ahead what I really want is to sign a sponsor and sign Dan Wheldon to go racing next year full-time and try to win the championship."

In closing Herta explained why he's in favor of IndyCar's much-discussed 'aero kit' package when some of the bigger teams aren't.

"There are two reasons," he remarked. "One is because we told the fans that we were going to do it and the other is because I like IndyCar racing to be cool and innovative. I want to bring innovation back to it and I think the fans want to as well.

"I don't have to buy an aero kit. It doesn't cost me one penny because I get a Dallara with an aero kit and I can go race that. Nobody's forcing us. We had an 800 mile engine program here at Indianapolis for example. We could have bought a 1,200 mile engine program but we decided to use our resources differently.

"I can decide to use my resources for an aero kit or I can decide not to. It's my choice as a team. Nobody's forced to spend money on that. I hope the aero kits will be adopted, but it's not up to me."

This year's Indy 500 appears to have kick-started Dan Wheldon's struggling career and established Bryan Herta as a potentially topclass IndyCar team owner. If both those things come to pass they will be very healthy turnarounds for the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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