Marco Andretti has known Bryan Herta since the age of 7, when Marco’s dad befriended a fellow racer and the Herta and Andretti families embarked on vacations together.
Now, one of Dad’s best friends is preparing to lead Marco’s racing efforts.
Herta, who once raced with and for Michael Andretti and is partnered with him at Andretti Autosport, will be Marco Andretti’s pit-stand strategist for the No. 27 Honda in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season that begins March 12 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (noon ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). He replaced Michael in the role in a mutual agreement to help Marco turn potential and speed into victories that have admittedly been sparse.
“He’s helped me put the fun back into it,” Marco said of Herta. “It’s never fun when you’re not doing well, but you’re not going to do well if you’re not having fun, so you’re sort of in that hole that you have to dig yourself out of. As bad as things have looked, if everyone can just improve a little bit, it can be a bigger gain than you’d expect.”
Herta agrees. If Marco’s career can be edited into a single sentence, it’s 11 years of potential and speed that haven’t garnered many race wins. After winning three of his six races in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires as an 18-year-old in 2005 and winning at Sonoma in his rookie year in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2006, Andretti has just one victory since then and none since 2011.
However, Herta and Andretti see promise in other statistics. Despite the two wins, Andretti has 20 podium finishes during his Verizon IndyCar Series career. He’s just 10 laps led away from leading 1,000 in his career and – if he starts every race in 2017, he’ll become the first driver to begin a career with 200 consecutive race starts.
“There’s great potential here,” said Herta, who in his final season as an Indy car driver in 2006 was an Andretti teammate with then-rookie Marco. “I believe in what we’re doing. I came into this program because I feel like I can have an impact, but there’s not a lot missing already.
“I feel like all the elements are there to be successful. The crew guys are great. They do really consistent, fast pit stops. We’ve got a good group of engineers on the stand. I know Marco is capable because he has shown us plenty of times in the past the type of performances he’s capable of putting up there.”
At times, the father-son combination made for tense radio conversations, but Marco is quick to point out that circumstances – not the relationship – may have added to the pressure.
“I don’t want to say it didn’t work with me and Dad; I think it did,” Marco said. “I just think the environment and the stress level is up. You have the boss’ son in the car. Dad and I are both used to working at a passionate level, but it can sometimes be disruptive. In the end, it could be counterproductive. It’s just having a whole new, calm approach and trying not to get upset about things we can’t handle.”
Herta has a reputation for making the right calls at the right time. Most notable was his calm coaching of rookie Alexander Rossi through the final laps of a running-on-fumes victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last year. It was Andretti Autosport’s second Indy 500 win in the past three years.
“I’ve had some things go really right, and there are a lot of things that go into that,” Herta said. “I’m really fortunate that some of the occasions when things went right, it was the right time and right place for that to happen. Certainly, I enjoy that aspect of it. I enjoy trying to read the race and control the chess pieces, as much as we can control from the pit lane. But ultimately the race is going to be decided by the guys out on the track.”
That’s why Herta is optimistic about May. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen some of Marco’s best potential; he has four podium finishes there, including a memorable runner-up finish to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. Andretti shares the optimism.
“It’s easy to get distracted and derailed when you focus on things you can’t control,” Andretti said. “He’s very good at keeping us focused on how the 27 (car) can go faster. That’s the only thing we can control, so we need to maximize that. He’s a good counter to my very passionate, up-on-the-wheel driving style. He’s able to come back with a very calm delivery, which helps.”
For the record, Herta doesn’t recall if he suggested the change or if Michael asked him to assume the duties as Marco’s strategist. They’re both confident it will work.
“More times than not – and I think this is why it works out so well between us – Michael and I are thinking the same thing,” Herta said. “We talked about it. I was excited about it and Michael was excited about it. … I appreciate that I was asked to work with Marco and that I was entrusted with it.”
One of the above-mentioned statistics bothers Marco Andretti more than others: Nearly 1,000 laps led with only two races won. His goal in 2017 is to not be motivated by negative numbers. Instead, he’s taking a forward-looking approach.
“To have two wins and 1,000 laps led, that defines my career so far to me,” he said. “That’s what’s frustrating, and that’s what I need to stop bringing forward with me. All I’m going to do is drive pissed off and frustrated. If you look back at all the missed opportunities, that’s a frustrating way to get in the race car. To go forward, you need to look forward.”
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