It’s a new year and a new driver for Bryan Herta and his racing team. Par for the course; Herta Autosport has a habit of making huge changes every year. Alex Tagliani drove a Lotus powerplant for Herta in the team’s first season in 2012. A year later, Tagliani entered with a Honda engine. Jack Hawksworth drove last year. This year, Herta will have Gabby Chaves behind the wheel. Herta and Chaves spoke yesterday at an Indy Car press conference.
THE MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, to today’s IndyCar conference call. Yesterday morning Bryan Herta Autosport announced that 2014 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion Gabby Chaves will pilot its No. 98 Honda for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
We’re pleased to be joined today by Bryan Herta and his new driver Gabby Chaves.
Bryan, give us a little insight on how this agreement came about and what sort of impression you have of Gabby and your experience with him thus far.
BRYAN HERTA: I mean, obviously the impression was good. It really started with some conversations a few months back and evolved to agreeing to go do a test at Sebring in December to get to know each other. I’d say that went really well on and off the track. Gabby was highly recommended. Obviously his credentials in Indy Lights speak for themselves.
For us, we’ve seen from recent past that the guys who have been coming out of Indy Lights into IndyCar have been doing a great job. We had a good experience with Jack Hawksworth coming out of Indy Lights. Gabby was obviously right from day one a very competitive driver. It was just a case of how can we put a deal together.
We worked very hard to get everything together and we’re pleased to go racing together this season.
THE MODERATOR: You mentioned last year you ran another Indy Lights graduate Jack Hawksworth. As a former driver, is it becoming more and more important for you to support the up-and-coming talent in the series?
BRYAN HERTA: I think it’s important for the series. As a team owner, I have to take a narrower view. Frankly, it just comes down to getting the very best guy in our car that we can get.
I’m very pleased with where we ended up this year. I believe Gabby is going to do some great things this year in the car and I believe he’s a guy that we want to try and hang on to and keep on the team for several years to come.
I think we can build together and we can grow together.
THE MODERATOR: As I mentioned earlier, Gabby Chaves is the 2014 Indy Lights champion which he won with four victories.
Gabby, congratulations to you. I know you were working hard to secure a ride for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. How much of a relief is it for you to have that deal come together with a team like Bryan Herta Autosport?
GABBY CHAVES: The relief is only temporary because as soon as the deal is done you have to get your head down and start focusing on what’s next.
As soon as the deal was announced, I was very happy. It’s been a long journey to get to where I am. We’ve had a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard times. This is only just the first victory we can get out of it.
Now it’s time to get back to work and really looking forward to enjoying a great season.
THE MODERATOR: Gabby, I know you haven’t been on track all too much, but from the experience you’ve had so far, how much of what you learned in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system have you been able to apply and what adjustments have you had to make?
GABBY CHAVES: Oh, everything that I’ve learned so far in the last three years in the Mazda Road to Indy and the last two years in Indy Lights I’ve been able to apply to the IndyCar Series. Especially when it comes down to the first race on the ovals, the whole oval schedule that we have, I think that’s where it’s going to make a bigger difference.
I’m really happy. I think the ladder series is how it should be and it’s preparing the drivers, as Bryan said, not only Jack Hawksworth showing some amazing speed, but Carlos Muñoz having demonstrated the quality of drivers that we’re feeding into IndyCar is very high.
Q. Bryan, not only have you signed Gabby but you made an engineering addition with John Dick coming onboard. What do you hope to achieve with him and how do you think he and Gabby will have the chance to work together?
BRYAN HERTA: John was with us at the Sebring test. He and Gabby worked together there. I’ve known him for many years. I never worked physically with John when I was driving. He’s a guy I have a lot of respect for.
When we were looking for that right combination for Gabby, we had kind of an opportunity signing the driver first and making sure that we’re building a group of people around him that fits.
Gabby had a good experience working with John. Frankly for me, we wanted to pair a lot of experience around Gabby, and John certainly fits the bill for that. He’s been around a long time. He’s been in IndyCar for a long time. His experience will definitely be a great benefit to Gabby as he’s learning this year.
Q. Gabby, you’re going to be a rookie in a year where aero kits are coming into the season. What do you make of the opportunity to help develop the car with something that is going to be new for everybody throughout the year?
GABBY CHAVES: Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity. I mean, not only for that, but for myself as a driver to really develop and enhance my skills at developing the car.
I think it’s going to be a great challenge. Like I said before, it’s going to be harder than ever before. Like I said, I’m just ready for the challenge and I’m excited to get going.
Q. Gabby, you’ve been part of a class of upcoming drivers that have had flashes of brilliance along the way. Reviewing your history with Star Pro Mazda, a couple that come to mind is Sage Karam and Zac Veatch. How does it feel to come up with a full season Verizon IndyCar Series ride before Sage and Zac?
GABBY CHAVES: I mean, I don’t ever try to take anything away from anyone. But I guess before Zac, you’d like to see Sage have a ride as well. He’s a deserving champion, as I am. But essentially we want to have all these guys get a ride, not only Zac, not only Sage, we want to have all the young drivers that are eventually going to be the future stars of the sport get a ride.
It’s a difficult question to answer. Mainly I like to be happy for what I have accomplished. I have a great team behind me working very hard to make this happen as well as working with Bryan’s team.
I think we’re just happy that we made it happen on our side.
Q. How did you enjoy driving in the Rolex 24?
GABBY CHAVES: I mean, it’s a great experience. It was my second year driving for the same team. It’s always a great experience. It’s something very different that I’m not used to driver changes, long three-hour stints. It is a very unique experience that definitely broadens I guess my professional career.
Q. After coming from Indy Lights, are you looking forward to competing again in 20-plus car fields?
GABBY CHAVES: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s definitely a big challenge stepping up. Obviously every time you step up, drivers just get better and better. It’s going to be a big challenge.
I think with Indy Lights, you can’t take too much into consideration the car count, even though it is slow and it’s growing thankfully, because when you look at how guys like Jack Hawksworth impressed everyone, and everybody thought he would be a nobody last season, he impressed everyone, as well as Carlos Muñoz in his rookie Indy 500 and his rookie year. You can’t look too much into the car count when you have to look at the quality of the drivers.
Q. Bryan, do you have plans to be adding any more drivers this season? Seems a lot of teams have a strategy to have many drivers because that allows to have more testing time with the aerodynamic kits.
BRYAN HERTA: Well, we are going to run a second car at the Speedway this year, which will be a first for us, running two cars. I think as long as that goes well, we want to make sure we keep the focus on Gabby and his program this year, that we’re doing everything we need to do for him.
But we do want to grow the program. We would like to be a two-car team sooner than later. I think we’re open to the idea of doing more races later in the year as we work towards hopefully a full two-car program next year.
Q. How is the change with finding out about Brazil in such a sudden fashion, how has that affected your plans going forward?
BRYAN HERTA: It really hasn’t affected us too much. If anything, frankly, it helps us a little bit from the planning standpoint just because you’d like to have your deals done a little earlier than January, but this is the timing we had to deal with. We got everything done. We’ve got a little more time to get prepared, do a little more testing prior to the first race at St. Pete.
Logistically it’s great for us. Competitively obviously we’re racers and we want to do as many races as we can. But we understand the reasons for the change.
Q. Being a car owner, I assume it’s always better to maybe have the same set schedule in terms of numbers of races. If they were to add another race, where would you most likely like to have it? Long Beach, Detroit?
BRYAN HERTA: I mean, if it were up to me, I’d love to see us go to new markets. As a racer, Road America is such a great track. Love to be there. I always enjoyed racing in Portland. There’s certainly places that we can do a lot of good.
Circuit of America, I was there for the F1 race. Beautiful, beautiful facility. Would love to see us go there as well.
Q. I saw the PR release saying the March 8th date that would make sense going with the PWC, coinciding with that, since so many of the other races have that as a complementary series, that’s not going to happen sadly. What else are you looking forward to this season?
BRYAN HERTA: In terms of other races, adding races, we’re trying to keep our heads down, keep focused on building our team. What I’m excited about is a little bit of a fresh start for us this year, having Gabby in. He’s very enthusiastic. He’s been in the shop almost every single day since we signed the contract, which is great. Really just focus on building our program and continue to evolve and achieve more and more results on the track.
Q. Gabby, Carlos Muñoz has admitted that Juan Pablo Montoya is his role model. Who do you consider to be your racing role model?
GABBY CHAVES: That’s a difficult question. I mean, I’ve had various role models throughout different stages of my life, even before I was racing. I loved watching racing. Especially at those times, when I was eight, nine, ten years old, I would get up every morning at 4 or 5 in the morning to watch the Formula One races where Juan Pablo Montoya was racing. I followed his career closely. As I started building my career, you started almost picking role models for who you wanted to be almost at that time.
As I started racing in Europe, I would take a few guys there that I’d like to follow kind of their footsteps. Then I came back to the States. I really enjoyed my time here and realized this is where I want to be. I started out in the Pro Mazda Series, then two seasons in Indy Lights.
At that time it’s almost like you’re getting so close to the guys, the IndyCar guys, that you almost want to pick a role model, but you don’t want to get too involved with that admiration because sooner or later if you achieve your goals, you’re going to have to go head-to-head against them.
Q. As a rookie this year, you’re about to embark on some new races, courses. What race or track are you looking most forward to in this 2015 season?
GABBY CHAVES: I guess I could break it down into two categories. I really look forward every year to racing at Long Beach. It’s one of my favorite street courses. So that’s definitely my favorite there. I really want to experience that in an IndyCar.
Then also you can never leave behind or forget about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s incredible. To experience that first in Indy Lights, getting close to 200 miles an hour, then to make a jump to being over 240 miles an hour, to me that’s what I’m looking most forward to this year.
Q. Bryan, with the cancellation in Brazil, is there any indication from IndyCar that they’re going to try to speed up the delivery of aero kits to the teams?
BRYAN HERTA: Frankly, even though it happened suddenly, I think IndyCar has done a really good job internally of communicating with the teams what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do. Obviously it’s all a little bit fluid still in a lot of areas.
But I don’t believe that aero kits are going to become available any sooner, frankly because everybody’s production is based on that March 1st date, and I don’t think there’s an ability to make any additional parts sooner.
Q. Have you been able to see any sketches of Honda’s kit compared to Chevy’s as far as the differences in how the cars are going to look?
BRYAN HERTA: I’ve seen some sketches, but we haven’t seen any of the actual production parts. I haven’t seen any drawings of the Chevy aero kit. I only saw the spy photos of Penske’s car when they ran at Circuit of the Americas. I am sure they have evolved a lot since then.
It’s a real point of entry. I think we’re all very curious and looking forward to seeing the cars turn up at Barber for spring training and see what we got.
Q. Gabby, could you comment on the importance of the scholarship prize that you were awarded with your championship last year with Indy Lights, and also the just the preparation that your years in the Road to Indy has provided you to make this step up to the IndyCar Series.
GABBY CHAVES: I think the scholarship prize, it almost makes the deal happen sometimes. I mean, I think it’s great that they’re giving the champion sort of a head start into their IndyCar career. Without the scholarship, it would have been very hard to make a deal happen anywhere. So I’m very happy. I’m very grateful that that program exists.
I think it’s not only in Indy Lights but the whole Mazda Road to Indy is coming along very strong. Ever since my first year in Pro Mazda in 2012, you know, just started building on that, getting myself familiarized with the tracks, with the people, the whole atmosphere. Everything is different.
So just to be able to work from those years of experience just makes my transition to IndyCar that much easier.
Q. As the reigning Indy Lights champion, talk about your optimism of the direction of the Indy Lights Series. And Bryan, do you plan to be involved again at any point?
GABBY CHAVES: I’m very happy with what’s happening right now with Indy Lights and the new car. I think that’s something that the series needed, and definitely is attracting a lot of attention, even new teams from overseas, new drivers, drivers that have competed in Formula One before, now coming over to Indy Lights. I think that’s great for the series. I think it’s great for IndyCar as well because it’s going to expand that feeder system. I’m very pleased that’s going in a positive direction.
BRYAN HERTA: From a team standpoint, I think we’re very open to coming back. We started our team in the Indy Lights Series. We wouldn’t even exist without it as a team. I believe in the importance of it, what it does for the development of drivers. I really think that the new car is a huge plus for the series.
From our standpoint, we feel like we needed to take a step back from it so we could really focus on making a step forward in the IndyCar program this year. But I would love to see us come back into Indy Lights again at some point in the future.