Drivers Living With the Tag of Infamy

Being a sports fan can be unfair at times. For all the joy and drama it brings to us, it can also be brutal. It’s even more so for the participants. An athlete can do everything the right way over a lifetime, yet have one ten-second moment define their entire career.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez has not had a stellar pro career, but he is reportedly a nice guy and a great teammate. Yet if you are a football fan, you know that Sanchez is known for one thing and one thing only – the butt-fumble. For those that don’t know, it was Sanchez and the New York Jets against the New England Patriots. Sanchez tried handing the ball off to the running back, who didn’t take the ball. In a quick reaction, Sanchez instead tried running up the middle himself. As he was about to collide with his own lineman, Sanchez stopped, but his feet slid out from under him. As he slid into the lineman, the football ran straight into the rear-end of the Jets lineman causing the ball to drop harmlessly to the ground. The Patriots quickly scooped up the ball, and ran it back for a touchdown.

Sanchez has not been able to shake the “butt-fumble” tag since then. It has become a punch line and made him a laughing stock. To his credit, Sanchez has been a good sport about it and laughed it off.

Chris Webber, of Michigan’s Fab-Five in the early nineties was not such a good sport after his gaffe of calling a timeout when Michigan had no more timeouts against North Carolina in the NCAA championship game. Webber had a fifteen year career in the NBA, but has always carried the burden of his failed timeout call in the Final Four.

Bill Buckner played baseball for twenty-one years across four decades in the major leagues. He won the National League batting title in 1980 with a .314 batting average. During the 1985 season, Buckner had a career season at first base for the Boston Red Sox – with 184 assists. But what is Bill Buckner famous for? Blooping a routine ground ball in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, that ultimately gave the series title to the New York Mets. He became the scapegoat of the series among angry Red Sox fans, and even received death threats. He kept his sense of humor over the incident, but it defined him and his baseball career for the rest of his life. Bill Buckner passed away this past May at the age of 69.

IndyCar has a long history of career-defining moments that infamously define a driver’s career – some deserved, some not. Ryan Briscoe isn’t remembered for his eight IndyCar wins or his thirteen poles (one pole being the 2012 Indianapolis 500). Instead he is known for two things – one being the horrific crash at Chicago in 2005 that wasn’t even his fault. He made a valiant comeback after recovering from severe injuries in that crash, but that has been forgotten by many. The other infamous tag that still follows him is brushing the wall exiting the pits, while leading at Motegi in 2009. It was an unforced error that ultimately cost him the championship. He had a twenty-five point lead heading into Motegi and lost the championship to Dario Franchitti at the next and final race of the season at Homestead. That was as close to a championship as Briscoe ever got.

When someone mentions the name of JR Hildebrand, most likely the first thing you think of is his rookie year in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Hildebrand had driven a good race, and was even leading at the halfway point of the race. Stretching his fuel mileage, he found himself in a position to win in the late stages of the race. While leading on the final lap, Hildebrand came upon the slower car of Charlie Kimball in Turn Four. With the checkered flag in sight, Hildebrand altered his normal line exiting Turn Four and slammed the outside wall. As he skidded toward the yard of bricks, Dan Wheldon soared past the rookie in the injured car to take his second Indianapolis 500 win.

In the aftermath, Hildebrand was compared to Buckner as suffering one of the biggest chokes in sports history. He climbed from the cockpit of his car, with his body uninjured but a bruised and battered ego. Hildebrand was pure class in his post race interviews, but the incident has dogged him ever since. No one ever brings it up to him, and I’m sure it is something he’d like to forget about. But fans have long memories and I have an idea if you were to take a poll and ask each fan what is the first thing they think of when they hear the name JR Hildebrand – the finish to the 2011 Indianapolis 500 will be the usual answer, fair or not.

Hildebrand has been living with that tag for the past eight and a half years. But during this championship weekend at Laguna Seca, we will be constantly reminded of something that happened almost a quarter-century ago.

Today, Bryan Herta is either known as Colton’s father or as the co-owner of Marco Andretti’s car. But he was an accomplished driver in his own right. He won twice in the IndyCar Series; at Kansas in 2003 and Michigan in 2005. Prior to that, he won two races in CART; both at Laguna Seca in 1997 and 1998. But it was for a race when he finished second, that Bryan Herta is most famous for.

The year was 1996, and Herta was in his first year with Team Rahal, as a teammate to Bobby Rahal. Herta had previously driven for AJ Foyt as a rookie in 1994, where he did fairly well before breaking his pelvis in a practice crash at Toronto, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Then he had an ill-fated season with Chip Ganassi as the lead driver in the No. 4 Target-Scotch video car that only saw one podium finish for the season. After a disastrous first half of the 1996 season with Rahal, Herta magically turned it around in the second half, with two podiums and no finish worse than sixth.

But one of those two podium finishes was assumed to be a Herta win by everyone in attendance and watching on television – everyone except for Alex Zanardi, that is. Herta pretty well dominated at the season finale at Laguna Seca. But in the final stint, Alex Zanardi was charging in second place. On the final lap, it appeared Zanardi was too far back. Even if Zanardi caught Herta, Laguna Seca was a tough place to pass and the two had already gone past the prime passing spots for the final time. Zanardi would have to settle for second – or so it seemed.

The corkscrew at Laguna Seca is a very famous tight set of turns that drivers are forced to navigate blindly, immediately after topping a steep uphill climb. As the cars reach the top of the hill, they are immediately sent through a series of downhill turns that are tough to get through correctly, much less while trying to pass or defend. Suffice it to say that the corkscrew is not considered a passing zone.

As Herta approached the top of the hill just before the corkscrew, he had Zanardi close behind. Surely Zanardi would patiently follow Herta through the corkscrew before possibly making one last passing attempt at the last turn before the checkered flag. Think again. As Herta braked for the corkscrew, Zanardi shot past him and almost lost control in the middle of the corkscrew. The key word is almost, because Zanardi didn’t lose control. He made the pass stick and went on to win the race, while the bewildered Herta sat wondering how his first career IndyCar win got away from him. It didn’t help any that Zanardi was in the same ride that Herta had been thrown out of, just one year earlier.

Jimmy Vasser won the championship that day, but Alex Zanardi took an improbable win that set the stage for what was to come in his next two championship seasons. Meanwhile Herta spent and entire offseason as the butt of a lot of jokes that seemed harmless on the surface, but questioned his mental toughness and abilities as a driver underneath.

Bryan Herta would go on to avenge that day at Laguna Seca by winning races there in 1998 and 1999. Although Herta has been involved in the sport in some capacity ever since, his driving days are not remembered for winning four IndyCar races. Instead, fans immediately recall The Pass and how Alex Zanardi took him to school in the corkscrew in 1996.

There are many, many more examples throughout sports of how one unfortunate incident can label a career. There are just as many in IndyCar lore that have overshadowed an otherwise great career over one silly episode. Some of those involve Lloyd Ruby, Michael Andretti, Scott Goodyear, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jim Hurtubise and Jack Turner.

So with this being the first weekend back to Laguna Seca since 2004 and the Herta family being regular fixtures in the NTT IndyCar Series this year, be prepared to see the Zanardi-Herta clip a lot. But I have an idea that Bryan Herta would prefer that his brush with infamy be completely forgotten.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Drivers Living With the Tag of Infamy”

  1. I’m not usually one to get my knickers twisted about track limits, but “the move” would be penalized now and probably should have been penalized then. All four wheels completely off the track after forcing his way through the braking zone, not exactly a textbook move.

  2. Another favorite of mine is Andretti baiting Sullivan at Indy in 85, didn’t quite work for him though. Herta was so patient with Zanardi, he probably should have had more fire. Especially after Alex dumped him at Vancouver in 1997 while he was leading and Alex was a lap down. Time heals wounds but I sure was not a Zanardi fan for a long time!

  3. Sonoma 2006. Marco leading but running out of fuel …… his teammate Herta spun for no apparent reason bringing out a yellow and guaranteeing Marco his first ever win. The drivers were pissed. The fans were pissed but Marco had his first win ( I still think he earned only one career win) and THAT is my ONLY memory of Herta.

  4. Bryan Herta’s stats at Laguna Seca (1995-2001, 2003): 2 wins, 3 podiums, 3 poles, 5 front row starts, and 226 laps led. It’s a shame that “The Pass” overshadows how successful he was there.

    • billytheskink Says:

      He was so good there that Gerry Forsythe even put together a one-off ride for him at Laguna Seca in 2000. Granted, that 2000 one-off should have been a full-season ride had it not gotten de-railed by CART’s board attempting to limit owners to two cars and the beautiful 2000 Swift chassis being appallingly slow in testing.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Herta, at least, is not infamous for causing or being in a crash like most “infamous” race car drivers are. *cough* Larry Gunselman *cough*

    But seriously, guys like Stan Fox, Memo Gidley, and even Salt Walther did much more in their careers than get in an awful wreck.

  6. johnoreovicz Says:

    Herta is equally famous for intentionally spinning to give Marco Andretti the yellow he needed to make the finish to win at Sonoma in 2006.

  7. Then there’s Kevin Cogan’s 1982 Indy 500 incident…..chances are a half shaft broke. Or as AJ famously quoted “Coogan”

  8. I can’t believe people voted Buckner over Chris Webber 🙂

    Buckner should have been pulled for defensive purposes as he was ALL year, but John McNamara left him in so he could be on the field for the win. His name is unfairly tarnished, but he was a professional player put in a position to fail by his Manager.

    Webber was just a kid and had teammates motioning to call TO from the bench!

    Unfortunately, first time I think of them, or Herta, first thing I think about is ball-through-the-legs; Timeout turned Technical Foul; The Pass.

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