Andrew Hines said he felt like his Vance & Hines team threw new rider Gaige Herrera “to the wolves” at the NHRA’s season-opening Gatornationals this March.
But Herrera tamed the wolfpack handily, scoring the No. 1 qualifying position and winning his first start for the powerhouse Pro Stock Motorcycle organization. (He wasn’t the ninth in NHRA history to win in his first pro start, for he debuted last September at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, then qualified at St. Louis, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona, all for the Stoffer-Underdahl team. So he already had five events to his credit).
“We are really proud here at Vance & Hines for him going out and showcasing the efforts of our team and race-facility employees,” crew chief Hines, a six-time champion himself, said. “We kind of threw him to the wolves at that first race. We brought new Suzuki GEN 3 Hayabusa bodywork, brand-new Vance & Hines four-cylinder engine cases, and also threw him on it as a new rider to our team. I felt the pressure on me as much as he felt: if I didn’t bring a bike capable of winning, I would have failed. That was a big deal to have that all align and come away with a win in our first 2023 outing.”
However, he said, “Honestly, it didn’t surprise me. He has been in pressure situations outside of NHRA racing. I knew if I gave him a great motorcycle that he would be capable of what we accomplished. When I watched him through the later part of the ’22 season, he showed the traits that he was ready to win.”
Herrera, a 29-year-old fourth-generation drag racer from La Habra, Calif., indeed was ready. He had a couple of titles in other series and for the past several years had been a force in Outlaw and XDA Pro Street competition before taking on Vance & Hines’ Mission Foods Suzuki. Running in the 6.30-second range in the 1/4-mile at more than 200 mph was commonplace for him, and he has had extensive experience on a Suzuki, even as the fastest Suzuki Hayabusa racer in the U.S.
Herrera called the feat “awesome” and “an unreal experience” and said, “I definitely didn’t expect the first weekend to be like that: No. 1 qualifier and then win the race.” But he knew that the elation of victory is fleeting and grind of achieving it again and again all too real. He said that pragmatic realization that “I can’t do this every time” is “the hard part. Then you expect so much out of it every week, out of yourself every weekend. That’s the hard part.
“I think I put more pressure on myself than anything. I always want to go out and win. That’s the main goal. So I think I always set my own expectations high. I mean, know I’ve got a good team and a good bike to ride, so I have no doubt and it all lays on me. I definitely put more weight on my shoulders myself.”
Hines has been through it, and he said, “I’m sure this season will come with some bumps in the road. There are some scenarios that we haven’t gone through yet, such as four-wide racing, and a Countdown with a different pressure on the line.
I definitely didn’t expect the first weekend to be like that: No. 1 qualifier and then win the race. – Gaige Herrera
“Winning a race, has fortunately been proven already, along with riding a motorcycle fast enough to be able to reach the records,” he said. “A lot of skill is required to understand how to go 6.6 [seconds] and 203-plus mph. These bikes don’t just run that fast for no reason. Navigating a racetrack, although it is only a straight 1/4-mile, can be tricky. We have helped him learn the chassis setup of these 10-inch-wide tire ‘bar bikes.’ It’s quite different from the Pro Street/grudge bikes he was accustomed to. These Pro Stock Motorcycles require fitness to extract the performance. They don’t have the aid of hundreds of more horsepower to help lower the e.t.
“With Ed [Krawiec] and myself, I feel we can be a real benefit to him when we get to new territory. We understand the class and racers really well and can make him aware of scenarios that may unfold.”
Teammate Eddie Krawiec said he has been impressed that Herrera “is not looking for someone to reassure him he can do it or a pat on the back telling him how well he did on the run. He comes back [to the pit] and is asking or looking for little things that can make it better. That is a display in his confidence coming out.”
That, Krawiec said, is evidence Herrera will mesh similarly to how he and Hines blended their skills and personalities when he joined the legendary team in 2004.
“That is how Andrew and I pushed each other over the years to be better. It’s not that we picked on each other. It’s more so we talked about our flaws to help each other be better. Each weekend I’d pick one thing to fix. I wouldn’t move on until I could make it the rest of the weekend without thinking about having to fix it. It just had to happen from muscle memory or naturally happened. When it was fixed I would work on the next thing. I just wanted to be better,” Krawiec said.
“We have that with Gaige now, and it will show over the course of the season,” he said. “And he’s only going to get better. He will make me get better, as well.”
That’s a remarkable concession from a four-time champion with 49 victories, nearly 400 round-wins, and 50 No. 1 qualifiers.
Krawiec said, “You can learn every pass down the track if you’re willing to be open and become better. That is what makes me keep doing it, being better each run I make.”
Hines, too, noticed that about Herrera: “He wants to extract everything from each run. He isn’t worried about winning. We work really well together on what it takes to make the next run better, and that should lead to success, whether it be a qualifying run or an elimination round.”
Herrera has a strong self-awareness. He said, “I’m definitely very competitive, and I put 120 percent into everything I do, whether it’s riding a bike, building a bike, whatever I’m doing. So I think they’ve seen that side of me, definitely, especially on race day. I kind of flip a switch – and I still have fun joke around, because I think that’s my way of having fun or relaxing, I guess, and being focused. So I think they’ve seen that when I was riding the Stoffers’ bike. Andrew was helping us out with Stoffer’s bike here and there. So was Eddie. We had a few transmission issues and tuning issues. And I think they, they’ve seen that part of me, and I think that’s what kind of drew them towards me.”
Hines said he knew of Herrera before he emerged on thr NHRA scene with the Stoffer/Underdahl camp.
“He has been around the motorcycle scene for a long time, and he is well-respected in his efforts outside of NHRA, racing in XDA and NHDRO in Pro Street and Grudge, and “No-Bar Bikes” that run into the 6.4s range [in elapsed times] at over 210-plus [mph],” Hines said. “We talked a bit in Dallas when he was riding the Stoffers’ rental bike. They needed some assistance with a transmission fix. And then in Las Vegas I asked his father [Augustine] if Gaige would be around on Monday, because we wanted to try some different things with Ed’s bike. He jumped all over that, since it was an option to ride one of the best bikes in the class.
“When we tested with him after Las Vegas [fall race] last year, he rode Ed’s bike, and he did everything asked. It was a tough day to ride – we had cross-winds that would come and go – and he navigated the bike safely down the track, shifting on time. And the same time each run has opened up the availability of finding performance from run to run. The way he trained himself to leave with the motorcycle has really showcased the chassis and clutch setup,” Hines said. “We were consistently the quickest to 60 feet, and that added up to easier runs through testing and the race weekend.”
Herrera said, “I started with Gary Stoffer and Karen Stoffer and then, getting the ride for Vance Hines, I mean, that’s the biggest dream come true. When I test-rode for him in Vegas, it didn’t feel real. I was just looking at it as opportunity: I get to ride one of the best machine out there. So to get that phone call from Andrew to join the team, I was speechless. Just going from out there with the Stoffers and I’m just having fun, getting my feet wet, not knowing what was going to be in the future, if I was going to continue with it, get some sponsors and stuff. And then get that phone call to ride for ’em, it was definitely a surreal moment, for sure.”
Hines said, “I was the big push for him to be part of this team, once we decided a change needed to be made for ’23. We sat down and looked at our options. [2010 champion] L.E. Tonglet was high on the list with Gaige, so that was also a tough choice. I talked to him in late November to get a feel of what his plans were for ’23. We set up a meeting for the week of the PRI show here in Indy, and Terry [Vance] also came to see who this ‘kid’ was.”
They found out that Herrera, an iron worker and pipefitter during the day, works in his De Motte, Ind., shop doing “custom wiring harnesses on mainly drag bikes,” he said. “I do custom harnesses. I build motors, build exhaust systems, basically build complete motorcycles besides chassis. So, I definitely branch out and do a lot. And then I do a lot of tuning. I fly all over, doing tuning, or I do remote tuning almost every other day.” Via the Internet, he has tuned bikes in Dubai. “So I’m definitely, definitely busy with the racing side.”
Hines said, “Gaige is a skilled welder/fabricator, engine builder, wiring guy, and mechanic. With those attributes we gained a crewman also. He is able to do just about anything we ask on the bike between rounds or in a thrash to change engines.”
I saw, from the start, confidence in what he is about to do and natural racing ability. The demeanor he carries from staging lanes to the starting line is relaxed, a nothing-matters kind of approach. He is good and will be better. - Andrew Hines
Moreover, Herrera has decent experience on four wheels, as well, and he said, “I think that helps me out a lot. I drove a Datsun in Super Gas. I did that for about a year. And then I did Super Comp and mainly bracket stuff and the dragster. I did the Spring Fling, then points races at Fontana and Bakersfield and Vegas. I still actually still do drive every once in a while. I drive my grandfather’s [Phil Herrera’s] ‘68 blown small-block Camaro. So I drive that every once in a while.
“My family started in cars, so my grandpa’s heart still is in cars, but he supports the whole bike stuff, too. My dad’s the one that branched off and started the whole bike deal. I’m a fourth generation,” Herrera said. “It all started with my great-grandfather [John Herrera]. As far as I know, he wanted to keep his sons off the street. That was when NHRA was just starting. So they had a couple of Anglias and Austins, and he did all that. He actually worked really close with Brad Anderson and those guys back in the Irwindale days.”
Nevertheless, he said, “I definitely feel like I got to prove myself now. Go out there and dominate the first race. Now if I don’t win another race after that the whole season, I’ll definitely feel like, you know, the fluke type of thing.”
According to Krawiec and Hines, Herrera’s early success is just a peek at what’s to come.
“I knew after seeing him his first weekend that he was going to be good,” Krawiec said. “He has confidence when he rides, and it shows. I believe it’s very rare to see. It’s kind of hard to explain, but he just knows he can do it. And confidence is one of the key things.”
Hines noticed that, too: “I saw, from the start, confidence in what he is about to do and natural racing ability. The demeanor he carries from staging lanes to the starting line is relaxed, a nothing-matters kind of approach. He is good and will be better. Gaige guides the motorcycle without thinking. He refined those skills by riding and driving as many different vehicles that he has throughout his life. These motorcycles may not always need a big correction to get them straight down the track. I have seen him make little moves late in the run to larger moves early in the run, and they have all been ‘subconscious decisions.’”
He said, “Gaige is quiet, like me. So the more he has been around the team and has shared his history, we learned that he has even driven Super Gas and Super Comp on the West Coast and competed in the Million Dollar race in Las Vegas. Bracket racing obviously can be really taxing on skill. You need to be a light switch on the tree, maybe not fast, but a consistent switch that then can be tuned to the vehicle. We have done that with him so far. Once we got enough runs through testing, I was able to dial the bike around on reaction time. In Gainesville, I kept him safe on Sunday in the .040 range, because we weren’t sure of his ‘Sunday Jitters,’ as we call it. Once we get down the road a bit, we will dial him up for better lights.
“The way he has adapted to riding through first gear has shown there is room for improvement. Ed and I throughout our V-Twin careers always had bikes that were ‘lay-down’ bikes, which molded the way we had to ride off of the starting line. Gaige has shown that there is a benefit to lunging forward, with some serious effort and timing, and that opens the ‘window’ for the clutch. If that rhythm is not timed correctly, it could cause a negative effect. It’s something that Ed will need to adapt to. It will come in time.”