Santa Clarita's Herta Half a Dynamic Duo : Auto racing: Former Hart High cross-country runner and go-kart racer teams with A.J. Foyt in 78th running of Indy 500.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One is a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, arguably the greatest race-car driver of all time.

The other is only a few years removed from the Santa Clarita Valley, where he raced go-karts at Saugus Speedway, ran cross-country at Hart High and held a part-time job at Magic Mountain.

So why are A.J. Foyt, 59, and Bryan Herta, 24, being mentioned in the same sentence?

They are a match made in Indianapolis. On Sunday, the unlikely pair will be teamed among the 33 entries in the 78th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Foyt, who in 1958 made the first of a record 35 consecutive starts at Indianapolis, retired from Indy car racing only days before last year's race. He is now a car owner. Three weeks ago, he found a protege in last season's Indy Lights champion, Herta, who has zoomed to the zenith of motor racing since graduating from Hart in 1988.

Herta will make his Indy 500 debut behind the wheel of Foyt's Lola-Ford Cosworth. Herta will start in 22nd position, seven rows behind pole-sitter Al Unser Jr.

"I guess I really have come a long way in a hurry, going from go-karts to Indy in only five years," said Herta, who resides in Dublin, Ohio, and attends Ohio State. "But it's been a dream of mine for such a long time. I've never said I wanted to be here by this year or that year. I just wanted to hit each stop along the way and be successful at every level I was competing at.

"Indy is absolutely unbelievable. It's so different than anything I've ever done. Speeds are so much higher. You have to teach yourself to look much farther down the race track."

Although Herta competed in cross-country for four years and placed third in the Foothill League junior varsity finals as a junior, his passion always has been racing cars. He began driving on dirt at Indian Dunes north of Valencia shortly after his family moved to Newhall from his native Michigan.

"I was always a better driver than I was a runner," Herta said.

Herta may be Indy's new kid behind the wheel, but he's hardly wet behind the ears.

"He's very impressive for a rookie," Foyt said.

In six years racing go-karts throughout California, Herta won six championships. In 1988, he won 14 of 18 main events. Herta also competed for two years in the Barber Saab Pro Series, winning the championship in 1990 with four victories in 12 starts.

In 1992, Herta moved up to Indy Lights. Last season, he took the series by storm, winning seven of 12 races, including the final four of the season. He also won a series-record eight pole positions.

Herta planned to join the Indy Car World Series this season as a driver for owner Steve Horne. But when Horne contacted Foyt about conducting Herta's orientation program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Foyt was impressed by the young driver.

"I had the chance to work with Bryan and I had taken him around the track and showed him the groove I always liked," said Foyt, who last won at Indianapolis in 1977. "He ran a real nice pattern. The computer showed he was consistent. And when I made a change to the car, he could read it back to me, even if it was a small change."

Foyt had just released Davy Jones as a driver and was looking for a replacement. Herta was eager to sign. "It was a great set of circumstances," Herta said. "I was absolutely thrilled from the beginning. A.J. is a fascinating man. He knows more about this place, probably, than anybody ever. There's a lot I'm going to learn from him. He puts you at ease right away. He's got that sort of Southern charm."

Herta will need to be a quick study if he expects to take the checkered flag. His qualifying time of 220.992 m.p.h. is slowest among the field of 33 drivers. On the final day of qualifying, Herta watched nervously as Willy T. Ribbs, Geoff Brabham, Mark Smith and Gary Bettenhausen all failed to qualify ahead of him.

Moreover, only six rookies have won at Indy, the last in 1966. But Herta's hopes are high. "Our goal is to win," Herta said. "Anybody who tells you otherwise is a liar. I don't think we expect to (win), but we've got the right equipment. We feel we've got all the pieces."

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