Practice starts Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500 on May 30 and Bryan Herta couldn't be happier.
It has been nine years since Herta, the former karting, CART and sports car driver from Valencia, was at the Speedway with a ride and this year he will be there as a full-time member of Michael Andretti's four-driver international team with Brazil's Tony Kanaan, Scotland's Dario Franchitti and England's Dan Wheldon.
"Getting back to Indy will be special for me," Herta said before leaving for Indiana. "Indy is always special, but it was where I made my first Indy-car start in 1994 for A. J. Foyt. I was there again the next year, but when the [open-wheel] split came in '96, I was on the other side, with CART."
After winning races at Laguna Seca for Bobby Rahal in 1998 and 1999, Herta found himself without a steady ride in 2000 and no one called at all in 2002 so he raced sports cars for Panoz Racing.
"Michael Andretti single-handedly saved my career last year," Herta said. "I had dropped off the screen. I was only 31 and nobody called. It was like I had retired. I was driving sports cars and still making a living racing, but I felt I was too young to be driving sports cars. That's for old men. I did it, but I felt a little antsy doing it. I still thought I should be driving open-wheel cars."
In the meantime, Andretti had announced his retirement after the 2003 Indy 500 and had formed his team, Andretti Green Racing, with Kanaan and Franchitti as his drivers and Wheldon as his post-Indy replacement.
In April, Franchitti suffered back injuries in a motorcycle accident near his home in Edinburgh. Wheldon filled in for him in one race. Then Andretti called Herta, saying he needed a part-time driver until the Scotsman recovered.
"That call resurrected my career," Herta said. "It meant I had another chance. Getting called when someone is injured is never the way you want to get a break, but when it happens, you've got to make the most of it."
Herta drove one race, at Texas, but Franchitti appeared to have made a remarkable recovery and took his seat back for the next race at Pikes Peak.
"Michael kept saying he'd have a place for me, but he had already signed Robby Gordon to drive for him at Indy, so I did a little testing," Herta said. "That was all."
Then Franchitti decided he had come back too soon and Herta was back in the car. In his third race, at Kansas Speedway, Herta scored his first victory in the Indy Racing League, which also was his first on an oval. His two CART victories had been on Laguna Seca's road course.
In November, Andretti announced that Franchitti would return to the team for this season with Kanaan and Wheldon.
"I was heartbroken when there was no place for me after 2003 with Dario coming back," Herta said. "The other guys felt as bad about it as I did. They knew I had really put out an effort for the team, but I had no commitment.
"It was Michael who kept fighting for me and he finally convinced his partners that with four happy drivers, a four-car team could work. Honda gave us great engines and we felt we had the right package to win."
Wheldon won the pole at Phoenix and the pole and race at Motegi, Japan. Kanaan won the race at Phoenix. Wheldon and Kanaan are one-two in the IRL standings.
"I had never been on a team where another driver won a race," Herta said. "I was always in the wrong place. Now, I wouldn't trade places with anyone.
"I have never been with drivers before who got along so well with one another and that traces right back to Michael. I fit right in with the mix of personalities he had put together. I don't think it happened by accident. I am certain he had a plan to create this environment.
"We've won two races in a row and I don't see why we can't keep winning. Indy is next, so I told Dario, 'I'll take this one,' and he can have Texas. Michael never won Indy as a driver but, for sure, one of us will get it for him this year."
Kyle Moyer, the team's general manager who was associated with Indy 500 winners Al Unser Jr. in 1992 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1995, agreed.
"This is when having a four-car team is really going to pay off, because we can do more things and cover a lot more ground than anybody else," Moyer said. "But, you still have to prepare for the roller-coaster ride that you are always on at Indianapolis. Even if you've got the favorites, it still seems like there are a lot of ups and downs."
When not testing, training or racing, Herta and his teammates try to get the best of one another.
"It's dangerous to give four drivers too much free time," Herta joked. "I have a devious streak. I got this idea of going to Dan's house when he was testing, take all the furniture out, put new stuff in and move a family in so when he came back, it would look like he had the wrong house.
"I never did it, but I still got some satisfaction from the idea because when Dan got wind of it, he went out and changed all the locks.