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Indy 500: Herta has a dog in fight

Hart grad and former racer has car running in Sunday’s race

Posted: May 28, 2010 11:46 p.m.
Updated: May 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The green flag hasn't even dropped for the Indianapolis 500 and Bryan Herta Autosport has already gained a spot.

After securing the 33rd and final spot on the starting grid for Sunday's Indy 500, the team owned by Valencia's Bryan Herta moved up to 32nd after Tony Kanaan's team switched to a back-up chassis and will have to start last.

No team has ever won the Indianapolis 500 from the 32nd starting spot - or the 33rd for that matter. Herta doesn't expect his team to be the first. His driver, 19-year-old rookie Sebastian Saavedra, will start the race on the last row and from the 32nd spot on the grid. The goals for Bryan Herta Autosport are much more realistic than winning the Indianapolis 500. Herta and Saavedra want to finish the race, all 500 miles, and stay out of trouble. Herta wants his driver to finish well enough to be considered for rookie of the year honors.

"It's a good rookie class," said Herta, a Hart High graduate. "It's going to be very competitive. That is still absolutely achievable. Wherever we end up finishing, I'll be thrilled."

Herta knows the odds are against him and his team for the Indianapolis 500. They were against him when he decided to enter a car in the race. He said after qualifying that his team's race was making the race, making it through all the trials that Indianapolis Motor Speedway offers in May to get a car in the greatest spectacle in auto racing. His team passed the trials, survived Bump Day and rookie orientation, and now faces the real test of 500 miles around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Saavedra wants to finish well enough to add to the legacy of Colombian-born drivers who have raced in the Indy 500.

It's a short list of drivers from Colombia who have raced in the Indy 500. Roberto Guerrero was the first. He won the rookie of the year in the Indianapolis 500 in 1984 and won the pole for the Indy 500 in 1992.

Juan Pablo Montoya followed Guerrero and won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 as a rookie. Saavedra will be only the third driver from Colombia to start in the Indianapolis 500.

"My goal is to finish the race," Saavedra said. "I really want to keep the image of the race for my country. I'll try to give 120 percent of everything to make that possible."

Saavedra is one of six rookies starting the Indianapolis 500. The list includes Formula One veteran Takuma Sato from Japan and two women drivers, Ana Beatriz from Brazil and Simona de Silvestro from Switzerland.

Beatriz, driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, earned the highest-qualifying spot among the rookie drivers and will start 21st.

Saavedra already made a painful rookie mistake in qualifying. He crashed his team's only car while he was preparing to make a qualifying run when he was bumped out of the starting line-up. Luckily, two other drivers decided to re-qualify as well. Saavedra was bumped back into the starting grid when the other two drivers failed to improve their qualifying efforts.

Saavedra found out he was in the Indianapolis 500 while be examined at a nearby hospital.

Herta said the accident, while scary, shouldn't affect Saavedra too much come race day.

"I've done enough of these races to know a lot of things happen," said Herta, who raced for 13 years in the CART and Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. "It's something all of us go through as drivers. Drivers are aware that an accident is a possibility. When it happens, you can't be surprised."

Saavedra is still bruised up from the crash. He said he was pulling 175 Gs when he crashed into the Turn 1 corner. He had an MRI on his back at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis as a precaution after the accident. The results came back negative, but Saavedra said he was still "a bit sore" on Wednesday.

"He's pretty sore," Herta said. "Being in the race helps a lot. He was complaining of back pain. Other than that, just some bumps and bruises."

To help mentor Saavedra for the Indianapolis 500, Herta brought in Guerrero to the team's fold. Guerrero and Saavedra first met during the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. Saavedra said he asked Guerrero to come to Indianapolis, but never expected him to become part of his team.

"It was an honor just to meet him," Saavedra said. "The first thing I wanted was for him to be at my race. He was happy to do it. He wanted to be part of something big. What better than a driver from his own country? Every day he has a new story to tell me - more than a story, a lesson."

One of those lessons was about crashing on the race track. Guerrero told Saavedra there are two types of drivers: Those who haven't crashed and those who will crash.

"He told me don't think too much on it," Saavedra said. "That first lap is going to be a bit scary going into Turn 1. The best medicine is to go out and try to go flat out and release all those fears."

The team's car needed a lot of work. The rear suspension needed to be replaced. The engine needed to be inspected by Honda. The team didn't have a spare gear box and had to find one from another team at the track. Herta said the car was about 90 percent repaired on Wednesday. Saavedra added that putting the car back together hasn't dampened the spirit of his team.

"They're all happy," Saavedra said. "It's still getting together. We have the energy and positivity to make it work."




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