Once Inside the Oval

Two weeks after his friend, IndyCar racing owner Bryan Herta, took the checkered flag with rookie driver Alexander Rossi, Indiana native Rob Cleveland reflects both on his own time working in auto racing as well as the current state of the open-wheel circuit.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he most fun I ever had in a car was in the back seat of Michael Andretti’s rental car. That statement not only speaks to how uneventful my high school love life was but also to how cool it was as a passenger with the 42-time race winner.

I was in the back of the Chevy Tahoe and Mike was driving – extremely fast – yet I have never felt safer in any vehicle – car, boat, airplane or train. I worked in the NBA, next to Hall of Famers, watching some of the most talented hoopsters in history, but never have I experienced God-given talent like I did from behind Andretti. It should also be pointed out that you should never, ever, purchase a car that was previously used as a rental.

On that September day in 2004, outside Joliet, Illinois, Andretti was already a very successful race car team owner and I was one month into my four-year stint as a public relations guy for a couple of his drivers.

I was the go-to-guy for Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta. It was like being assigned to work with DiMaggio the day before he started the 56-game streak or how Christian Laettner must have felt in the Summer of 1992. Little did I know what the next four years would bring. Looking back, it’s a textbook example of “I wish I knew then what I know now.”

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I was the go-to-guy for Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta. It was like being assigned to work with DiMaggio the day before he started the 56-game streak or how Christian Laettner must have felt in the Summer of 1992.

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I liked Bryan right away. He was an easy guy to cheer for, and not because he was an American, not because we were similar in age, not because we were both fathers of young kids. Bryan was easy to like because he wasn’t an asshole. The paddock has its share of them and to be working directly with one who wasn’t a dick is akin to finally being dealt that royal flush.

Everyone liked Bryan, but most of all, everyone respected his technical expertise. The engineers, the crew, his teammate, and the executives at Honda. The CART fans, the IndyCar fans, the sponsors and media. All enjoyed working with him.

The stories you have read and heard about the Fantastic Four are all true. Herta, Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan were competitive and would disagree, but it was always on the track. Off the track, it was the pinnacle of success for a large team of friends and jokers – and Herta was the strategist behind most of the jokes.   I was the undeserving recipient of a number of Herta’s pranks, like the time he had his henchmen cut all of the pockets out of my work pants at a test in Homestead, Florida. That stunt earned me the nickname “Pockets” from his son Colton, who you most likely will see pacing Indianapolis…or Monaco.

Herta was always the brains behind the operation, the Godfather. Careful to keep his powder dry, but present enough that you knew he was pulling the strings. Herta always came out on top. Andretti Green Racing had the most successful season of any IndyCar Series team in Series history in 2005. The team won 11 of 17 races, accomplished a 1-2-3-4 finish in St. Petersburg – a first in Series history – and had three of its four drivers win races as the series came to Michigan International Speedway in August.  There are so many successes to be proud of. All of the wins, the poles, the Indianapolis 500 victories, and, without a doubt, July 31, 2005 was my favorite day in more than four years at Andretti Green Racing.

Just like Herta himself, the XM Satellite Radio team was full of people you couldn’t help but like. Guys like George Klotz calling the race strategy, crewmen like Dave Sharpley and Doug Bradley who showed up each day to do their jobs well and a junior engineer in Brian Page, whose family history synonymous with the IndyCar Series.  It was a magical weekend that saw Herta qualify on the pole, lead 159 of the 200 laps, and become the fourth AGR driver to get a victory in 2005.

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Myers Banner

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Although not yet retired as a driver, Herta’s found an opportunity to get into team ownership and it could not have started off any better.  He called his former teammate and Indy 500 champion, Wheldon, to Indianapolis in 2011 and left with a 500 win of his own. Herta and Wheldon will be forever linked as teammates and champions. Two guys who showed up at racing’s greatest platform, took on the Goliaths and pulled off what many believe to be the biggest upset in Indy 500 history.  Much of the same will be said about 2016. Although, partnered with one of the Big Three in Andretti, Herta’s new driver, rookie Alexander Rossi, was a far bigger underdog in 2016 than was Wheldon in 2011.

While both the 2011 and 2016 Indianapolis 500 results may be unexpected to outsiders, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knows Herta. If you think it was luck that his strategy prevailed at the 100th running, you’re dead wrong. IndyCar’s biggest crybaby, Will Power, was on the same strategy and he couldn’t do it. Power is a former IndyCar Series champion whose team owner has won 16 Indy 500 victories. Charlie Kimball was on the same strategy and couldn’t do it. Kimball was one of three cars in the Chip Ganassi stable…..who has won 10 IndyCar Championships and four Indy 500s.

Herta and Rossi didn’t get lucky. Furthest thing from it, actually. They outmaneuvered, outsmarted and outraced the sport’s biggest names, on the sport’s biggest day.   And, it was the second time Herta has done it in five years!

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Rob Cleveland in the background as the late Dan Wheldon talks to reporters. Photo by Tom Savage
Rob Cleveland in the background as the late Dan Wheldon talks to reporters.
Photo by Tom Savage

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So as I reflect on my friend’s second Indianapolis 500 win, I am proud and I am elated for him and his family. What I am not, is surprised. I’m not surprised that he won with Dan Weldon in 2011. I’m not surprised that he won five years later with a rookie racing his second oval. In fact, I will be surprised if he doesn’t win several more. And I will be further surprised if he and his team don’t win a championship.

I just hope Herta and his team get the opportunity. The IndyCar series is struggling. It has been struggling for decades. Most certainly because of “the split.”  But just as certainly due to other factors that no one at 16th and Georgetown can control: like hundreds of television options and a changing public appetite for sports and recreation. Despite their God-like status among IndyCar Series fans, not AJ, nor Mears, nor Big Al, nor Lone Star JR can control a changing culture.

I don’t know what the series needs in order to right the ship. I know that adding a bunch of street and road course parades certainly isn’t going to move the needle. I just hope that the American public comes back to the most competitive, entertaining and daring racing in the world.

I am so glad that we had the opportunity to experience the 100th running.  Most unfortunately, a good friend of mine passed away just one day prior to the race. As those things often do, his death made me reflect on the things that are truly important to me.

While I pondered life’s mysteries and my own mortality, I kept coming back to the fact that I would have been so disappointed to have not seen the 100th Indianapolis 500. As ridiculous as that may sound, it is completely true. No matter how long I live, I’ll never spend enough time with loved ones, never spend enough time fishing, and I’ll always wish I could have witnessed one more Indianapolis 500.

So, while my opinion matters no more than anyone else’s, there are a few things that I sure hope we see in the next 100 years. I want to see 40 cars attempting to qualify again. I want to see different chassis, different engines, and more sponsors than there are cars available. I want to see my friend Herta win a championship, win more Indy 500s. Most of all, I want there to be a 200th running of the Indianapolis 500.

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[author title=”About Rob Cleveland” image=”https://coachnobodydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/clevland.jpg?w=161&h=225″]Cleveland grew up in Leesburg, Indiana and graduated from Warsaw Community High School and Ball State University.  Currently the president and CEO of Benton Harbor, Michigan’s Cornerstone Alliance, Cleveland also worked as a video coordinator for the Indiana Pacers and Fever and worked in communications for Andretti Autosport.

Rob Cleveland
Author: Rob Cleveland

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