Bryan Herta brings a wealth of experience as both a successful driver and team owner, and also a different perspective as a parent whose son is embarking on a racing career. His answers to your questions will be posted daily this week.
Indy 500 Winning Team Owner and Accomplished Driver
Bryan Herta has “been there and done that” in the world of auto racing since attending the Skip Barber Racing School as a teenager. He won the Barber Saab Pro Series in 1991, added the Firestone Indy Lights Championship two years later, and went on to claim success in INDYCAR and sports cars – as well as testing a Formula One Minardi – before making a successful transition into team ownership in conjunction with former race and design engineer Steve Newey.
Bryan Herta Autosport made its debut in Firestone Indy Lights competition in 2009 and secured its first victory at Chicagoland Speedway. The team endured a difficult INDYCAR debut at Indianapolis in 2010 but bounced back in sensational style 12 months later by guiding the late, lamented Dan Wheldon to Victory Lane in the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500. In 2012 BHA fielded the #98 Barracuda Racing entry in the IZOD IndyCar Series for veteran Alex Tagliani.
BHA also has run cars successfully in the F1600 Championship Series, while Herta’s own son, Colton, is just embarking on his own car racing career after an impressive background in karts.
Bryan Herta answers your questions!
I am looking to move on from karting and Skip Barber and have received offers from several different teams wanting me to run with them – and in different series. How do you suggest I make that decision?
Start working backwards from where you aspire to race. If your goal is INDYCAR, then the Mazda Road to Indy is laid out with the steps you would take starting with the Skip Barber Race Series on up. If you want to race in F1, you must get yourself over to Europe ASAP. I’d suggest F1600 as a great starting point. If you dream of racing in NASCAR, then starting on short tracks in Late Models and then into ARCA and Trucks, etc. is a proven route, as is coming through the USAC dirt track ranks. Since you mentioned you have done karting and some Skip Barber I will assume you are hoping to race at Indy someday. As long as you have had some reasonable success in your Skip Barber races, then USF2000 would be the most appropriate next step. If budgets would not allow you to do USF200, I would suggest looking at the Pro F1600 Championship Series on the East Coast or the Formula F Super Series on the West Coast as other great places to learn and improve, and seats there can be less than half of a competitive USF2000 ride.
SAFEisFAST Videos: Career Development
I am currently a high school senior and am very interested in working as an engineer in any form of racing. I love racing, always have and am trying to break into some form of road racing but am not quite sure how to do it. I am going to West Virginia University next year to major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. What would be the next step for me to move into an engineering role in Le Mans or INDYCAR?
We had a similar question a couple days ago as well. Our team’s race engineer provided great advice in this regard – supplement your engineering courses with some practical experience to best prepare you for a career. But don’t waste your time writing to INDYCAR teams offering your services; instead get to some tracks and network out through small teams in amateur racing and junior formula to make your bones. Many do not have the resources to hire any type of engineering help and may be more than happy to pay a few of your expenses to provide you some real world experience. Also, seek out the Formula SAE program at your school if they have one.
SAFEisFAST Videos: Race Car Systems and Dynamics
In 2009 I won the SCCA Southwest Regional F1000 championship after one season as an amateur racer. I was 19 at the time. That same year, my dad lost his job and with it, my hopes of joining a racing series. I’m 23 now, I still have my F1000 in storage and the dream remains. Have you any suggestions as to how I can get back into the game? Is 23 too old to begin again? Is there even any chance of sponsorship or any other avenue? Thanks for your consideration.
Twenty three is certainly not too old to start anything. When you get a little older you will realize this as I have…. So, I’m gonna give you the tough love talk on this one. If you want this bad enough, you need to work your ass off trying to make it happen – and I mean 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A former teammate of mine had a successful karting career as a teen, but sadly his father passed away right as he was starting to race cars. He took jobs at the kart track after that, training other drivers just to stay involved in the sport. He worked tirelessly to create another path for himself. Finally, he was offered the chance to move to Italy to race for a team in F3. He bought a one-way ticket, he did not know the language or the people, he had no money for a flat so the team locked him in the workshop at night where he slept on a cot until they returned the following morning! But the struggle paid off; he won races, people saw his ability, and more stepped forward to help him because they understood his talent and desire to succeed. Now he has become one of the most well-known and popular drivers in INDYCAR, a series champion and multiple race winner. If you are willing to chew your left arm off to get into a race car, I believe you will find a way to restart your career.
What is the one piece of advice you would pass along to a young driver who wants to make a career in the sport?
Racing is not fair, just like life. You are not owed a career. You can win every race you enter and still run out of funding, or you can find a sponsor that will back you all the way to Indianapolis regardless of your results because you fill some marketing niche for them. In the end, though, the cream does tend to rise to the top. As long as you look at it through that prism, you will be ready for the ups and downs that come with a career in racing.
I have enjoyed a lot of success in karting and I am ready to move into cars. Whenever I ask people for advice about what I should do, I always seem to get a different answer. Some people say I should race in Skip Barber, some say I should race in USF2000 and some say I should jump straight to Pro (Star) Mazda. What is your take on this?
Well, I do not advocate jumping over too many steps in the ladder on your way to INDYCAR. Each step is important and you need the lessons learned in each step to prepare you for the next. Look at your junior formula career like an education, since really that is what it is, a school to prepare you to race professionally. Would you, at say 6 years old, ask if you should go to grammar school, or jump straight into junior high or high school? Of course not. There is no substitute for experience, and the higher up the ladder you climb the more expensive the education will cost you, and you will end up competing against drivers whose experience will give them an advantage. Certainly, it may be appropriate at some stage to skip a step along the way, but the first couple years are critical in your development and you should want to go through that in a series with other budding superstars at a similar stage of experience. My son is just moving from karts to cars and he is competing in the Skip Barber Series and F1600, so either of those series or both would be my best advice to you.
How do you “shake” being hesitant after a bad testing incident?
Get back out as quickly as possible. As long as your desire is larger than your fear you will be fine. If you ever come to find that your fear is greater than your desire, then I am afraid it is probably time to find something else to do.
SAFEisFAST Video: Mental Preparation
I’m sure this question has been asked countless times before, but what route do you recommend for someone (such as myself) with no racing background or experience (with the exception of laps around the local racetrack and simulator time) in order to break into motorsport, whether as a driver, pit crew member, etc.? I’m already planning on attending Skip Barber’s three-day MX-5 racing school to fully experience just what it takes and see if I’m cut out for it; I’m starting to maintain a healthy diet and get physically fit; and I’m trying my best to make connections and expose myself to the racing world. I’m sure there are many other like minded people in the same “situation” I’m in and would appreciate any feedback you might give. Thank you.
Sounds like you have already taken many steps in the right direction. The Skip Barber Series is a great next step after you have completed a Three Day School; it combines a learning environment with many instructors providing feedback and coaching after every on-track session, with real racing on some great tracks around the U.S. You might want to ask about what the hiring criteria is for their mechanics while you are there; besides training many drivers they have also trained a great many mechanics.
SAFEisFAST Video: The Ladder System
Bryan, I am 52. I have spent 30 years racing motorcycles, the last few racing Midgets. So far I have been competitive in every type of racing I have tried. Am I too old to hope for any chance of a “ride” from anybody?
Yes, I believe that although you are certainly able to compete and enjoy racing, the chances of getting “the call” are infinitesimally small. I don’t have any statistics at my disposal, but I cannot think of one professional driver that was first hired over 50 years of age, even A.J. and Mario stopped by then and they had some pretty decent resumes on their side. The positive side is there are no restrictions preventing you from racing and continuing to enjoy the sport.
My son is almost one and like most motorsport loving dads I dream he will be Formula One champion in 2030! Unfortunately, we just found out he is deaf in one ear. My question; is it possible to be a serious driver with only one ear? We’ve all seen athletes with disabilities do amazing things, but I didn’t know if this would disqualify him or keep him from being taken seriously. Thanks for your time!
No reason at all that a loss of hearing in one ear would impede his progress in motorsports. David Brabham has very limited hearing in one ear and he made it to Formula One, not to mention winning a British F3 Championship and a few wins at Le Mans to boot. Jaki Scheckter is completely deaf and was able to drive competitively. Take a page out of the Charlie Kimball notebook, when he was diagnosed with diabetes, instead of letting that hold him back from his dream of racing in INDYCAR, he marketed himself as the first driver with the disease to compete at Indianapolis. His entire sponsorship package has come from a drug company that treats the disease because Charlie has become the ultimate example to others suffering with diabetes that it does not have to prevent you from living out your dreams. I can see how your son’s story and hopefully success can be very motivating!
Greetings, Mr. Herta. With regard to drivers trying to secure sponsorships, what would you say are specific things that a driver can offer that provide real value to potential sponsors? Thanks very much.
Don, there are books written on the subject but I will do my best to put it in a nutshell. My #1 tip is to engage any sponsor by asking a ton of questions about their business, where are their challenges and opportunities for growth, who are their major suppliers and customers, and really listen to what they tell you. Motorsports sponsorship can be an excellent way to engage customers, build brand awareness, motivate employees, generate new business, entertain clients and key suppliers, etc. But the key is to learn what they are trying to achieve in their business, then design a program that can address their most important concerns. So often I see presentations that tell the sponsor what they should want. How would you like a car salesman telling you what color and model of car is right for you? Always try to look at any sponsorship proposal through their eyes and you will be well on your way.
SAFEisFAST Videos: Marketing and Sponsorship
What an honor to be able to send a question to you, Bryan! I have some karting and Formula Ford experience and I drive a front-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed3 now. It’s just a street car that I take on track occasionally. I am figuring out that late-apex cornering might give me a better exit angle so as not to power off of track-out after the corner. What are your thoughts on FWD cornering? And what can you recommend to improve lap consistency? I can be a bit wild – but safe – and not able to put together lots of good laps in a row. Keep in mind, I don’t have that much track seat time. Thx!!!
Thanks, Greg! To be honest, I am probably not the best guy to ask about front-wheel-driving technique as my total experience in a FWD race car was a Firestone Firehawk race in around 1991 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, in an Eagle Talon as I recall. The thing I do remember is that you can either turn or accelerate but not both at the same time. That would lead me to say that definitely you would want to turn into the corner later than the traditional RWD line and work on getting comfortable letting the car rotate on corner entry as much as possible. Those two things will find you at a later apex and will give a better angle of attack for the exit, which will allow you to unwind some steering from the wheel and take some of the corner work off the front tires so they have some capacity. The Friction Circle has been used since the 1960s to describe tire capacity and dynamics, here is a decent explanation of the Friction Circle that might help you connect the dots: http://www.auto-ware.com/setup/fc1.htm. As far as building consistency you answered your own question, nothing beats miles in a car for that, so try to get out to the track more often!
I’m not a young driver – at 62 starting my fourth season in F1600 club racing. I met you at Cleveland when you were racing for Bobby (Rahal) – even have a picture to prove it! Always thought you were one of the classy ones. My question: most of the books I can find on race-car setup are either really simple or so highly technical that even as a professional engineer (albeit non-automotive) they are beyond me. This year I’m experimenting with intentionally dialing in some understeer, then some oversteer, etc., to learn what they feel like and how to correct. But when the car is pretty good, I’d like to be able to work on the minor tweaks that make the last few percent of difference. Any suggestions for good resources?
Thank you for the kind words. Engineering a race car can certainly be a daunting task but I applaud your desire to look beyond the steering wheel and pedals to understand how to make the car do what you need it to do to go faster. Carroll Smith wrote a series of books several years ago that I think could be just what you are looking for. I’d start with Tune to Win http://www.carrollsmith.com/books/#tune2win-detail. I read this book when I was starting to race cars and it helped me to understand how a race car worked and what tuning tools were available, and it is written in an easy-to-read format. Bonus benefit, understanding basic vehicle dynamics will not only help you tune your car better, it will make you a better driver too.
Hey Bryan, it’s great to have you online! How did you go from car racer to team owner?
Hi Tristan. My journey from driver to team owner was quite by accident actually. I was at the PRI Show racing a kart when my race engineer from Andretti Green, Steve Newey, approached me with the idea to start our own team. We purchased one Indy Lights car and signed Daniel Herrington to drive for us, then Tony George leased us a corner of his Vision Racing shop, a transporter and a few tools to get started. We had a plan to build a team from the ground up from Indy Lights to the Indy 500, and eventually full time in the IZOD IndyCar Series. So far, it’s been quite a journey. When the team started I did not necessarily plan to stop driving, but I quickly found that for me I felt it was impossible to do both jobs to the level I wanted – it gave me new appreciation for guys like Bobby Rahal and Adrian Fernandez who had success as drivers and owners concurrently.
Hi Bryan, first of all thanks for doing this Q&A! As an INDYCAR enthusiast, I am always trying to learn more about what the car is doing and how to make it behave better. Can you give some insight as to how you, your team and your driver all utilize telemetry to improve the handling and aerodynamics of the car? Would you happen to have any good resources for helping a novice understand these concepts better? Thanks!
As far as electronic tools and telemetry go, they have become invaluable in understanding and optimizing a race car at the track, as well as finding time for the driver. You will need someone who knows how to read and explain the information to you in the beginning; I don’t think that is something you can necessarily learn on your own. Depending on budget, bringing in a data guy as a consultant to teach you the basics could be a great investment. Driving and running a car is very difficult to do well alone, so my best advice is surround yourself with the best people you possibly can and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. At the IndyCar level, we have several engineers looking at very large amounts of data from every time the car is on the track. Some of that information is real-time telemetry, such as engine monitoring, tire pressure, driver inputs, etc. that help us make adjustments on the fly. Much more information, largely vehicle channels such as speed and RPM, damper travel and velocity, etc. are reviewed and compared to the driver’s notes and feedback after each session. Together, telemetry information and driver comments are combined by the race engineer and utilized to make adjustment between sessions to improve the car.
I am 17 years old and have a passion for racing. Although neither my parents nor I have the funds to pursue my passion for racing, what would be the best opportunity for me to enter this career? I believe I have great potential and only strive for the best. Thank you for your help.
Karting is always the best first step into motorsports as far as I am concerned. I would suggest search out the kart track nearest you, find out when the next race will be, and go check it out. Ask questions. Karters all share your passion for racing and will be more than happy to give you information about local kart shops, costs for a used kart, what class would be appropriate for you to enter, etc. Of course, even karting is not free and if you find that the budget required even for karting is beyond your reach, then there are a great many other positions in the sport that could be available to you. We employ mechanics, engineers, truck drivers, janitors, accountants, PR and marketing staff, office managers, and beyond that there are agencies, series officials and many other positions available to someone who loves racing and wants to be part of the sport.
Hi Bryan, I am 25 years old and have recently gotten into sim racing and simple lower-powered karting (soon getting into faster karting). I’ve done very well and I am interested in pursuing the possibilities of a pro racing career. I’ve noticed that so many drivers, though, all have the same story… they are in karts out of the womb, and by the time they are 18 they’re already into cars. Is there such a thing as “too late” to get into auto racing? What would you recommend to someone my age who wants to figure out whether or not he has what it takes to participate in serious racing?
If you have done some karting and feel you have talent behind the wheel, the next step is to get yourself into a car. Nobody has trained more drivers in this country than the folks at the Skip Barber Racing School (www.skipbarber.com). They have schools and race series’ for both open-wheel cars and Mazda MX-5s. The instructors are all experienced racers themselves and can help you progress your ability; you will find they cater to racers of all ages. My opinion, you are never too late to start racing and there are loads of avenues to pursue that could lead you still to a career in racing if you have the talent and work ethic necessary.
At the start of a race with cars everywhere around me, do I have to worry about what is going on behind me or can I do whatever I want as long as I leave enough space for cars next to me and I don’t crash into the cars in front of me?
The old adage says that you cannot win the race in the first turn, but you can certainly lose it there. The other reality, though, is that starts and restarts present you with one of your best chances at improving track position, so there is a balance that you need to reach in how aggressive you approach a start. Racing etiquette would tell you that the primary responsibility in a pass lies with the overtaking car, so as long as you are acting in a predictable manner then you do not need to go out of your way to create a lane for the cars behind. Check out some old YouTube videos of Tony Kanaan or Michael Andretti on race starts, they are two of the best I ever raced against at making positions on a start but rarely jeopardizing themselves or the cars around them. Here’s one to get you started, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8LNzcfsni0. Also, check out the video entitled “Overtaking” on this website which features the comments of many other professional drivers. You’ll find it under the Advanced Driving Techniques tab: http://safeisfast.com/video/overtaking#.UMdeMzbTmM8.
Is there anything in your current role as an INDYCAR team owner that you feel could have helped during your career as a driver?
The roles are definitely very different from one another. The cocktail party answer I usually give is that both sides involve tons of risk, but when you are the driver the risk is all physical while as a team owner the risk is all financial. It is not really in my nature to look backwards at what I could have known then that I know now, but I will say 100 percent that I learned a great deal as a driver for such great teams as Foyt, Tasman, Ganassi, Rahal, Forsythe, Walker and Andretti that has given me a very strong base of knowledge that made the transition to team owner possible for me.
What was the most fun you had racing?
I have tons of great memories from my time as a driver and as a team owner. Favorite will always be the years at Andretti Green with TK (Tony Kanaan), Dario (Franchitti) and Danny (Wheldon). We had so much fun and success in those years that will never be topped for me.
I am currently in high school and I would like to become a race engineer and I was wondering what colleges are best to prepare me for this field?
I will defer this one to our Lead Engineer at Bryan Herta Autosport, Todd Malloy, who has certainly been there and done that. Malloy: “That’s not an easy answer; good race engineers have come from many different schools and backgrounds. Most, myself included, have participated in Formula SAE, which is a collegiate engineering competition to design and build a small open-wheel race car. So certainly selecting a college that has a strong FSAE program would be a consideration. There are a few schools that offer some “motorsports engineering” curriculum. This is relatively new, and we’ll see over time if that becomes essential to getting hired by a race team or not; at the moment it is not. There is no substitute for “real world race experience,” so most aspiring race engineers will start at a young age by volunteering with some small “mom & pop” racing teams, or racing themselves. That experience combined with a solid engineering education is a pretty good recipe for an engineering career in professional motorsport.”
I have a son racing Junior Rotax in Canada. Would you suggest still running Rotax or doing more European races as it seems the competition is so much different over there?
I’ve had some recent experience here taking my own son over to Europe for some karting. What I found is that the number of “fast” kids over there is certainly greater, but the top level is actually fairly similar. If you are having success in Canada and your budget allows, going over for a couple races is a very memorable and worthwhile experience. But, you will get more seat time for less money searching out good competition closer to home. The Florida Winter Tour is tremendously competitive and features a Junior Rotax class if you want some quality racing during Canada’s winter period. In short, you should do what your budget/time/school schedule allows you to do well, and don’t feel like if you don’t get to Europe that your son can’t continue to improve and grow as a driver.
In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of owning an INDYCAR team? And what do you look for in a driver? Thanks!
The quick answers are raising sponsorship is the toughest challenge in owning a team and we look for a driver who is FAST above all else. Of course, those are grossly oversimplified. Starting Bryan Herta Autosport with Steve Newey has been the hardest and most rewarding experience I have had in my life, but I still love INDYCAR racing and feel blessed to be able to continue to be a part of the sport. From a driver standpoint, it is always a balancing act between finding a guy that has some experience, is quick, and that makes the sponsors happy. The experience part is one of the most important, and what makes it so hard for new guys to break into the sport, as testing limitations mean that it is truly on-the-job training.
I am a 16-year-old SCCA racer. I want to try to acquire sponsorship for my team for the 2013 season. What is the best thing to tell potential sponsors to entice them to sponsor a small regional team? Thanks.
Network out from your friends and family; you probably already know some of the people most likely willing to support your racing efforts at the grassroots level. And always start by asking a lot of questions, understand the business you are approaching, find out what you can do for them. You already know what you want, money to go racing. Be creative in your thinking, the best deals are ones where you can connect people you know in business (B2B in marketing speak) that benefits both parties.
Bryan, I started with Skip Barber as you did and now I’m racing Spec Miatas with an eye on joining the Continental Tire Series. This was my first year and I had several podiums and wins, even vs. some Grand-Am pros. There are many tracks I will need to learn before I get to them. Can you tell me your thoughts on the value of a simulator and what are must-have features… for example, three screens or one, movement/vibration or not etc.? I currently use a Playseat, an old laptop and a cheap TV sitting on a table. Maybe that is good enough but I want to give myself every advantage I can. Who are the top simulator systems makers out there, particularly if you don’t have the time to figure out the tech/computer side of it? I live in the northeast. Thanks and good luck in 2013.
Great question Matt. My experience is that iRacing has the most cost-effective and useful racing simulator. Here is the setup I purchased for my son to race online with: Logitech G27 Wheel (http://www.logitech.com/en-us/product/g27-racing-wheel?crid=714), Bob Earl’s MK II Virtual Racing Chassis (www.bobearlracing.com), a desktop with a good graphics card, and a high-speed internet connection. I think one monitor is fine, and frankly the seat is a luxury that you don’t need if you are on a tight budget. iRacing laser scans all their tracks, so the realism is pretty impressive and there are plenty of fellow racers online to compete against. There is of course no substitution to real seat time in a real car on a real track, but this is certainly the next best thing and will shorten your learning time when you come to an unfamiliar circuit.
I am an 18-year-old girl who wants to start a racing career, but it seems like everyone starts with karting at a young age. Is there any way to have a successful racing career as an adult with only a love for speed?
Starting later does not make things any easier for you, but having said that people have started late and gone on to successful careers. Townsend Bell is an example that jumps quickly to mind. Believe in yourself and don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do something that you believe you can. I still recommend karting as a starting point; it is the cheapest and most accessible form of racing there is. Once you start racing, you will need some time to get fully up to speed; from there you will know if this is something you can continue to pursue or not. After a short spell in karting, search out a racing school and work towards transitioning into cars as soon as possible. I wish you luck.