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Good memories of Wheldon carry Herta through month of May

The late Dan Wheldon will be remembered by the huge throng of race fans that gather to attend the 96th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday as the reigning winner of the race will not be in the starting lineup. And while two-time Indy 500 winner Wheldon, who drove to a dramatic and improbable victory last year, is no longer here to flash his trademark smile and give a friendly greeting, the defending winning team owner is back in the Indy 500.

Bryan Herta will always remember the feeling when he realized that Wheldon had won the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 last year after leader JR Hildebrand crashed in the fourth-turn SAFER Barrier on the final lap of the race heading to the checkered flag. He vividly remembers seeing Wheldon’s No. 98 Dallara/Honda flash by Hildebrand’s sliding car and take the checkered flag.

Herta and the No. 98 are back for Sunday’s race with Alex Tagliani as the driver. Tagliani starts in the middle of Row 4 after qualifying 11th with a four-lap average of 224.000 mph in a Dallara/Honda on Pole Day.

Herta admits mixed emotions – a sense of pride for what his team accomplished last year and a sense of loss that Wheldon is gone. Wheldon suffered an unsurvivable head injury in a crash on Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“So many fans have been really, really great, and there are a lot of people feeling Dan’s loss,” Herta said. “It’s not just our team it’s the whole pit lane, all the fans. People have been really great. A lot of people have brought me really cool pictures of themselves with Dan or pictures of me with Dan and with the car. It’s memories that they had of Dan that they wanted to share. It’s still a difficult situation and it still feels fresh, but it’s really nice to see the continued outpouring of support for Dan and his family and everything he has done for INDYCAR.”

While Wheldon’s loss will always be felt, Herta’s team has gone back to work in an attempt to compete for another Indy 500 victory on Sunday. And while Chevrolet has enjoyed the speed some believe Honda has an advantage in fuel mileage and over the course of a 500-mile race that could be an advantage.

“Our story is a little different because we just switched to Honda from Lotus, and we are thrilled right now with the Honda power,” Herta said. “It was great that they took us on, and they are doing a great job for us. I feel very strongly that in the race things will be much closer than in qualifying. We are looking forward to a good race. We have a good race car, and Alex feels very confident with the car he’s got. We had a really good day running in traffic in practice last Sunday, so we are going in feeling like we have another shot at winning this race.”

Tagliani was last year’s pole winner while Herta’s driver was last year’s race winner. And Herta can attest that in the Indianapolis 500, it’s the way the race falls and how circumstances come into play that can determine the winner of the biggest race in the world.

“The length of the race makes this one a little different,” Herta said. “The fact because it’s Indy, people will make decisions or take chances we wouldn’t do at other places. It’s an all-or-nothing place. We all feel like this is a race we treat different, even with strategy. At other races where we play it safe for points, at Indy you will risk it all if it’s a chance to win.”

Last year, this was the only IZOD IndyCar Series race that Bryan Herta Autosport had on its schedule. Herta was a full-time team owner in the Firestone Indy Lights Series race but had entered a car at Indy in 2010 with Sebastian Saavedra and in 2011 with his former teammate on Michael Andretti’s team – Wheldon.

So as an Indy-only team, BHA was in it to win it.

“The easy call was to pit when the Ganassi cars pitted, but they had been better than us all day long with fuel mileage, so we felt like if it was a fuel economy run at the end, we wouldn’t be able to beat them that way,” Herta said. “So we really queued off what they did and did the opposite. We thought if we can’t beat them on fuel economy, we’ll have to go flat-out and hope we don’t get a yellow flag. And in the end, that is how it played out.

“It really surprised me how well that gamble worked out. I was as surprised as anyone else on pit lane when it all came right for us. So many things had to happen for us to win that race, and to win it in our second attempt, you wouldn’t have that expectation.”

Herta knew that Hildebrand was close on fuel, and Wheldon kept pushing him. Herta admits if Wheldon had finished second, the team would have been proud of that accomplishment.

“We were fourth or fifth with two laps to go, so there was a lot of stuff happening in those final laps – stuff that even TV was missing,” Herta said. “There were so many positions swapping and cars pitting that a lot of it was lost on TV. We were very happy to be where we were at.”

But Herta had a secret weapon.

“Dan was the difference maker,” Herta said. “He didn’t lift over his last green-flag stint until he caught Ana Beatriz in Turn 3 on the last lap. He ran that whole stint flat out, going through traffic, passing good cars like Scott Dixon. He went by a lot of fast cars and never cracked the throttle. He was on it the whole time. If he hadn’t run every single lap that last stint like a qualifying lap he wouldn’t have been close enough to put pressure on Hildebrand. The spotters were telling Hildebrand that Dan was coming. If Dan had been another five or six seconds back, they might have been telling JR to take it easy, and he might have taken Turn 4 a little bit easier than he did.

“Hildebrand couldn’t afford to sit back. That changed the outcome of the race.”

Herta realized Hildebrand hit the wall as soon as it happened because he was standing on the pit wall to watch the cars come out of the turn on the last lap. As soon as Hildebrand hit the wall, Herta turned to his team partner, Steve Newey, and said, ‘We just won the Indy 500.’

“We were jumping around like crazy having a great time,” Herta said. “We didn’t know we were going to win until the last 50 yards of the race, and we were unsure if the yellow had come out yet.”

While Herta was celebrating the victory, Hildebrand was handling his huge loss with class and grace that won him tremendous respect from his fellow competitors.

“I’ll tell you what: For a kid as a rookie to come that close in what was obviously a crushing disappointment, he showed so much maturity in the way he handled it,” Herta said. “For me, the guy had a championship response. He showed me that it can go one of two ways for somebody. It can be a crusher or it can be a motivator. From what I have seen of him, he has put it down as motivation to do it again.

“To me, his stock went nothing but up on that that.”

The Indy 500 victory set the stage for Herta to field a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series team in 2012. Without Wheldon’s win, there may have been no chance to put together a team that would compete in every race this season.

“Completely,” Herta said. “Would we have raised the sponsor we had? Would we able to sign Alex? I don’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t have to find out because it was still hard.”

Even if Wheldon were still around, Herta knew that he probably wouldn’t be able to have him as his driver in 2012.

“We wanted Dan to stay with us, but there was no part of us that would stand in the way of Dan taking the opportunity he had with Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I told him he had to take over the GoDaddy ride because it was a great team and a great opportunity, and we couldn’t give that to him yet.”

Herta knows that for the rest of his life he will be an Indy 500 winning team owner – the same as Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti or Bobby Rahal.

“Bobby Rahal told me at the banquet last year I should just retire now,” Herta said. “Maybe he was right. I still pinch myself over it because I know how hard it is to win this thing. If you win this one, you know you have beat everybody’s best shot. It’s a very humbling feeling, but it’s a tremendous sense of pride that we were part of this things. Dan Wheldon won this thing, and we were just happy to be a part of this thing. We get a chance to return as the defending winning Indy 500 team.

“Really, Dan Wheldon won and we were a part of it. We were just lucky to be a part of Dan’s win.”

Herta admits he will be emotional when Wheldon is honored before the start of Sunday’s Indy 500 and the fans put on the cardboard white sunglasses that had become part of Wheldon’s trademark look. Or when he sees Wheldon’s widow, Susie. Herta also will drive Wheldon’s winning No. 98 Dallara for ceremonial laps shortly before the start of the race Sunday.

“It’s a hard thing and it’s a shared loss,” Herta said. “The emotion will be very much felt on Race Day, but I also know this is something Dan loved. You can never replace a guy like Dan, but we can remember and honor him and that is what we will see on Sunday.

“This is a celebration of Dan Wheldon and that is the way it should be.”

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