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Herta in Fast Lane Before the Race

April 05, 2001|DARIN ESPER

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is Bryan Herta's favorite race on the Championship Auto Racing Teams FedEx Championship Series schedule, and his busiest.

Because he resides in his hometown of Valencia, Herta becomes a media favorite in the week before the race.

With the race Sunday, Herta's interview schedule was so busy Wednesday he was unable to attend the annual media luncheon, and his schedule today is equally as hectic.

After taping a segment Wednesday for Southern California Sports Tonight scheduled to air tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Fox Sports West, he was a guest on Loveline airing on KROQ-FM (106.7).

Today, he will guest on RPM Tonight on ESPN and participate with fellow driver Alex Tagliani on a live broadcast from a restaurant in Long Beach of the CART Hotline radio show at 5 p.m.--heard locally on KIEV-AM (870).

"It's a good problem to have, that there's a lot of requests out there," Herta said. "We have to maintain that balancing act, because on the weekend I have to go racing and I have to make sure that I am not losing my focus on that."

Herta's appearance on Loveline has become an annual event when the series stops in Long Beach, and he enjoys the opportunity.

"That's always been a lot of fun, because it's a quirky, fun show," Herta said. "It's an interesting, different kind of show, and I'm always amazed by some of these teenage kids who actually have these kinds of problems."

Adding to the interest in Herta is his track record in the race, where he has finished in the top six four consecutive times.

"Without question, Long Beach is my favorite event of the year," Herta said. "Not just because it is my home race, but because of the atmosphere, the fans, and especially because this is the race that made me want to become a champ car driver."

Herta first attended the race in 1985, when he was 14. He was already racing go-karts, but had not decided what type of cars he wanted to drive as he got older.

His experience as a spectator had been limited to stock cars at Saugus Speedway and sprint cars at Ascot Park.

The atmosphere and energy hooked Herta on the CART series, with the help of a crew member from one of the teams who noticed Herta standing by the pit gates and gave him a tire to carry into the pit area. The experience gave Herta his first up-close look at the 700-plus horsepower machines.

"[Race promoter] Christopher Pook's probably going to hate me for telling that story because the pit gates will probably be overrun with underage kids wanting to get in," Herta said. "I don't remember the man or even remember what team it was, but he had a profound impact on my life."

Herta's return to the series as a full-time driver after racing a limited schedule last year as a substitute driver following owner Gerald Forsythe's preseason withdrawal in a franchise dispute has also attracted attention. He drove a car owned by Derek Walker to fifth place at Long Beach last year while filling in for injured Shinji Nakano.

The layoff, which was frustrating to Herta, has made him feel as hungry as he was as a rookie in the series in 1994. In the season-opener at Monterrey, Mexico, on March 11, Herta ran as high as second but finished 18th after he was forced to refuel while the pits were closed.

"Although we had some bright spots, we didn't execute well," Herta said. "At this point, we are back in the swing of things and we're in race mode."

The exposure gives Herta the opportunity to promote his Stars of Tomorrow go-kart event at the Las Vegas Karting Center which he owns with Hollis Brown.

The inaugural event, which was founded to recognize the brightest young go-kart racers and assist them in moving up the racing ladder, was held Nov. 3. This year, it has become a four-race series, scheduled to begin in May, and the grand prizes have been expanded to include a full season in the Barber Dodge racing series as well as a test in a champ car.

The response has been so favorable that the promoters of a CART race in Cleveland arranged to hold an on-track demonstration race for 125cc shifter karts when CART holds its annual race at Burke Lakefront Airport on July 1.

Herta said three other CART promoters will be holding similar demonstrations.

"The tracks contacted us and said, 'This is unbelievable, how can we get involved?' " Herta said.

Speedvision has made a one-hour show of the inaugural event, and is planning to air the show in May.

Herta competed in Mexico without a primary sponsor and although he has been told the Zakspeed/Forsythe team expects to have a permanent sponsorship deal, possibly before the green flag drops Sunday, he is not worried about being forced to the sidelines again.

"We've got Jerry's commitment for the full season and to do it right," Herta said. "That's the advantage we have in having an owner like Jerry. He's willing and able to get us out there running."

*

Cory Kruseman of Ventura maintained his lead in the Sprint Car Racing Assn. points standings after finishing fourth Saturday in a 30-lap main event at Perris Auto Speedway. John Scott of Hesperia, who trails Kruseman, 489-401, won the race. Troy Rutherford of Ojai, was fifth. . . . Joe Benson of La Crescenta, morning host on KCBS-FM (93.1), will make his 15th consecutive appearance at the Long Beach Grand Prix. In addition to signing autographs, Benson will take part in a live broadcast Saturday. . . . Dan Moore of Burbank finished 10th in the Ultra Wheels SuperTruck race Saturday at Irwindale Speedway. Moore is fourth in the points standings after two races. Jim McGill of Temecula won and Jake Hodges of Simi Valley was seventh.

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