By Jeff Olson
MONTEREY, Calif. — During the course of his driving career, Bryan Herta never considered owning a race team after retiring.
Sometimes the best decisions aren’t planned in advance.
Twelve years after he ended a successful IndyCar and sports car racing career, Herta is focused on his ownership role. Specifically, he’s looking at a rare three-car class sweep in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. When Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian’s four entries fire up Saturday for the start of the Pilot Challenge race in the Hyundai Monterey Sports Car Challenge at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, they’ll all be fighting for the Touring Car (TCR) class championship.
None of which Herta, now 50, expected when he was 35.
"I remember people asking me back then if I ever saw myself having a team when I stopped driving, and I was like, ‘No!’" Herta said with a laugh. "When I was driving, I could only ever imagine driving. It was only when I could imagine stopping driving that suddenly I realized that I still love racing. I still want to be involved in motorsport. It’s still what I want to do with my life. All of that competitive thing continues unabated. It’s just channeled in a slightly different way now."
That channel is a team that’s involved in two series – the Pilot Challenge and the NTT IndyCar Series. It started in 2009 as a single-car Indy Lights team. Since, it has won two Indianapolis 500s – with the late Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Alexander Rossi in 2016 – and two TCR championships with Hyundai (2018 in Pirelli World Challenge and last year in Pilot Challenge). In all, BHA has won races in all five of the disciplines raced in its 12 years of existence.
The reason behind the success? Finding the right people and managing them properly.
"Bryan really puts an emphasis on the people involved, and that’s what drives the success in everything he does with his racing teams," said Gabby Chaves, who drove the 2015 IndyCar season for Herta and now shares the team’s No. 33 Hyundai Veloster N TCR with Ryan Norman in Pilot Challenge. "He knows it’s a people business, so he doesn’t cheap out on the people he hires. He hires the best people available, and I think that’s why every team he’s involved with or any team he starts or any organization he’s involved with will be successful. He understands that it comes down to the chemistry and the level of people working for you."
Chaves and Norman are second in the TCR driver standings, eight points behind BHA teammates Mason Filippi and Michael Lewis, who share the team’s No. 98 Veloster. Harry Gottsacker and Mark Wilkins are third, 11 points behind the leaders, in the team’s No. 21 car. Parker Chase and Spencer Brockman are sixth in the standings in the No. 29 Veloster.
The reason for the success, Herta says, lies with the effort and experience.
"We work really, really hard at it, so the success is really a result of that," said Herta, who drove for such team owners as Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, A.J. Foyt, Mo Nunn, Gerald Forsythe and Michael Andretti during his 15-year racing career. Herta’s IndyCar team is in partnership with Andretti today.
"From a driver’s point of view, I worked with mechanics and engineers and crew chiefs and team managers," Herta continued. "I learned what I liked and didn’t like. I had a chance to drive for some of the best teams in the sport, so I was really fortunate to see how those teams worked from the inside out. That knowledge has helped me in trying to focus the team on winning."
Some of the faces at BHA are familiar from Herta’s IndyCar career, and – in spite of a completely different vehicle – so is the approach.
"If you look at our team, you might recognize some guys from IndyCar or Champ Car paddocks of the past," Herta said. "The type of prep and maintenance we do is the same; it’s just a different type of race car. We haven’t taken the approach that we have to do it differently because it’s a TCR car or because it’s front-wheel drive. We just decided we were going to put a kick-ass team of people together, and the car is the car."
But this car isn’t an average car. The team’s factory-backed fleet of 350-horsepower, short-wheelbase, front-wheel drive Velosters is regarded by BHA’s drivers as a blast to drive.
"Other than just having to be a little bit judicious with throttle application on the corner exit, you drive it just like you would a GT car," Herta said. "Guys like Parker and Gabby who have come out of GT or Prototype cars and get into one of these things have been pleasantly surprised. They’re really fun to drive."
Chaves calls the Veloster "a big front-wheel-drive go-kart." The joy of driving it, along with the positive results – the team has won five of the eight TCR races so far this season – has made 2020 a memorable season for BHA. Chaves and the team’s other drivers are able to focus solely on their primary objective: making the car go fast.
"You know you’ve got a competitive car underneath you, and you know you have the trackside support and manufacturer support," Chaves said. "You’ve got all the ingredients to focus on your job and have fun. A lot of times drivers end up doing a little bit of everything – you’re half-engineering the car, half looking for sponsorship for the car and the team, looking for engineers and then driving the car as well. You’re tapped out and it’s not fun anymore. With a team like this, you can focus on your job. It makes it a lot more enjoyable."
That’s Herta’s objective as a team owner. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and keep it successful. None of which he imagined when he stepped out of a race car for the final time in 2008.
"It’s easy to get distracted in this sport," Herta said. "It’s easy to spend money on things that don’t really help you win. But I think the biggest thing is that I’ve been very fortunate to be able to attract really good people and give them the tools to be successful. It’s almost corny and cliché to say it, but it really is as simple as that."
The Pilot Challenge weekend at WeatherTech Raceway unfolds with a pair of practices today, followed by qualifying on Saturday morning. Live race coverage of the two-hour race begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday and is available on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold, along with IMSA Radio on IMSA.com and SiriusXM Radio (Sirius channel 217, XM 202, Internet 972).
The Pilot Challenge season concludes Nov. 13 with the Alan Jay Automotive 120 at Sebring International Raceway.