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There is something about the number “100” that makes it Bryan Herta's favorite. Appropriately so since the retired Indy car driver and current team owner claimed victories in two of the most noteworthy Indianapolis 500 Mile Races – each with a significant “100” attached to it.
In 2011, Herta was team owner of Bryan Herta Autosport with the plan of competing in just one race – the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500. Herta hired his old friend from the Andretti Green Racing days – Dan Wheldon – to drive the car after Wheldon had left Panther Racing and was unable to find a fulltime ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Wheldon was fast all month in the No. 98 Honda and drove a very smart race in the Indy 500. The team decided to make an extra pit stop so Wheldon could run full throttle late in the contest while other drivers were trying to stretch fuel mileage.
Cars were running out of fuel in the closing laps until then-rookie driver JR Hildebrand had the No. 4 Panther car in front on the final lap. As he was approaching the last turn of the last lap of the iconic race, Hildebrand came up on Charlie Kimball's car as it ran out of fuel and was low entering Turn 4. Hildebrand went high, got into the marbles and crashed into the outside of the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier as the checkered flag was about to wave.
Wheldon weaved Herta's car through the carnage, passed Hildebrand's crumpled, skidding car and won a thrilling centennial running of the Indianapolis 500.
Five years later, it was the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and Herta had merged his team with his former boss Michael Andretti to form Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. It was still a Honda and still car No. 98, but this time it was rookie Alexander Rossi of Northern California behind the wheel.
Rossi was fast all month and also drove a smart race. But a pit stop malfunction midway through put Rossi’s car to the back of those on the lead lap. It forced Herta to make the decision to go to a fuel mileage strategy, so he called Rossi in a few laps later to top off his tank.
Rossi blew through the field and quickly made it to sixth place while hitting his fuel conservation number. After his final pit stop, Rossi was able to maintain enough speed to be in position to have a shot at the victory while also conserving enough fuel to make it to the finish.
Car after car came into the pits in the closing laps of the race to top off with Sunoco E85R fuel, but Rossi remained on the track until he was the leader with four laps to go. His race pace slowed dramatically but he was far enough ahead of the next car that, if he could make it to checkered flag, he would win the race.
Rossi was coached on the radio by Herta, who kept telling the driver to “clutch and coast” to save fuel.
As the final lap began on the 2.5-mile oval, Rossi's engine was barely running, but it was just enough for the driver to cross the finish line at a drastically reduced speed and win the 100th Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion.
Rossi, Herta and Andretti were together again this month at the Performance Racing Industry Show at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis to present the winning Indy 500 car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. The No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda will be on display along with other great cars in the history of the “World's Most Famous Race,” including the Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
“I wish I knew why 100 is such a good number for me,” Herta told the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. “The thing I do know is I have our team scouring the record books. This year (2017) has to be the 100th anniversary or the 100th race of something. We're going to find out what.”
The two wins were huge surprises and fuel strategy played a key role in each. But they were also vastly different because of which side Herta's team was on when it came to the winning strategy.
“They were really different – almost opposites,” Herta said. “(In) both races, fuel mileage became a factor towards the end of the race. Ironically in 2011 with Dan, we opted not to try and make it to the end on fuel, so we made the extra stop and went fast enough to make up the difference.
“This year with Alexander, we went the other way where we stretched and many others didn't and we were able to stay out far enough ahead.
“It's interesting to me the more I think about it how diametrically opposite those two races ended up being and how we ended up on the right side of it both times, even though we opted for the complete opposite strategy.”
The victory was worth $2.54 million to Rossi, Herta and Andretti. Or in Herta’s terms, it was 2,500 “$100 bills."