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Herta Knows Driving Is Only Half the Formula for His Future : Auto racing: The other half is finding the sponsorship money to take him where he wants to go.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even though the roster of drivers who can’t get steady Indy car rides--Arie Luyendyk, Roberto Guerrero, Mike Groff, Willy T. Ribbs, Tom Sneva, John Paul Jr., Jon Beekhuis, Dominic Dobson and others--would make a first-class starting field, names of talented youngsters clamoring for a chance keep cropping up.

Series champions, track record-holders and race winners post records that give them a can’t-miss label--providing they can find sponsorship money.

Bryan Herta, 22, is one of that breed. A graduate of Hart High in Valencia and a senior in economics at UC Irvine, Herta is a rookie in Indy Lights--a developmental series for Indy car drivers.

The series, founded in 1986 as the American Racing Series, calls for all competitors to drive similar Buick-powered Wildcats with the same specifications. The theory is that identical cars will ensure driving talent will be the major factor in determining the winners.

Herta, who moved up to Indy Lights after winning the Barber Saab Pro Series last year, scored his first 1992 victory two weeks ago in Toronto after a late-race duel with points leader Robbie Buhl of Grosse Point, Mich.

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“I could tell that Robbie’s car wasn’t handling as well as he would have liked, but it took me a couple of tries before I managed to pass him,” Herta said. “It was really great racing someone like Robbie--especially when I won.”

Once he got the lead, Herta pulled away and won by 6.7 seconds.

“The series is really fantastic,” Herta said. “I’ve gone from Formula Fords to Barber Saabs to Indy Lights, and they’re all designed for the driver. All the drivers run the same car and the same engine, and when you get beat, you know it’s not because someone went out and bought themselves a faster chassis or a stronger motor.”

Herta is undecided which way he would like to go--Formula One or Indy cars. Realistically, he’ll take whichever route--if either--is available.

“I would like to do Formula One at some time in my career, but it seems difficult for an American to get a chance over there at this time,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy to stay in the United States. I love Indy cars, and after another year in Indy Lights, I would love to move into an Indy car, but I know how much it means to find some sponsorship help. Maybe in another year, when some money comes back to racing that went to Olympic Games budgets this year, there’ll be more available.”

If past associations mean anything, Herta might be headed for an Indy Lights championship by next year. His Canada-based team, Brian Stewart’s Landford Racing, won championships with Paul Tracy of Canada in 1990 and Eric Batchelart of Belgium in 1991. Both are now racing in the Indy car series.

Like so many other prominent drivers, Herta got his start in karting.

“I went to a race with my dad in Connecticut when I was about 6 and really became interested in racing,” Herta said. “Every Halloween, I had to dress up as a race driver. I kept bugging my dad until he bought me a racing kart when I was 12.”

The Herta family had moved to California by then, and Bryan found himself racing against youngsters such as P.J. and Page Jones of Rolling Hills. P.J. won his first major International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GT race last Sunday at Portland, Ore., in one of Dan Gurney’s Toyotas, and Page won the same day in a United States Auto Club midget race in Sun Prairie, Wis.

In karts, Herta won six national championships in six years and finished third in the 1987 World Karting Championships at Daytona Beach, Fla. In 1989 he enrolled in the Skip Barber West racing school at Riverside and entered the school’s Formula Ford championship. He won 14 of 18 races and moved into professional racing in 1990 in the Barber Saab national series.

Last year, in his second season, he won the series title with victories at Lime Rock, Conn.; Portland, Ore.; Laguna Seca and New Orleans.

He was rewarded for his Barber Saab series victory by being selected as one of two American drivers to compete in the annual Formula Ford Festival and World Cup at Brands Hatch, England. He finished 11th and, with Bobby Carville, brought the United States its highest finish, seventh, among 19 nations represented.

“I never thought I’d be pleased with an 11th-place (individual) finish, but it paid off in other ways,” Herta said. “Representatives of the Lola factory liked the way I drove and offered me a contract that could help me get into Formula 3000 if I decide to race in Europe, or help me next year in Indy Lights when Lolas will replace Wildcats as the series chassis.”

Herta next will compete Sunday at Cleveland in a companion race to the Budweiser Grand Prix for Indy cars. Other Southern Californians in the Indy Lights race will be Robbie Groff of Los Angeles and David Kudrave of La Canada, in their third seasons, and Scott Wood of Tarzana, a rookie.

Although winless in seven races, Buhl leads the series with 105 points to 103 for four-time winner Adrian Fernandez of Mexico, 86 for two-time winner Franck Freon of France, 71 for Groff, 59 for Marco Greco of Brazil and 52 each for Herta and Sandy Brody of Boca Raton, Fla. Freon and Greco are also on the Landford team.


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