Ryan Hunter-Reay has tasted the two biggest triumphs the NTT IndyCar Series has to offer. A winner of the overall championship in 2012, and the victor at the Indianapolis 500 in 2014, the Andretti Autosport driver could retire with the knowledge he’s achieved something most IndyCar drivers have never known.
And yet, just as you’d expect from a champion and Indy winner, Hunter-Reay is deeply dissatisfied. Newly 40 and on the cusp of his 17th year of combined Champ Car and IndyCar competition, the Andretti veteran has multiple points to prove this season. The first is to correct a slide, of sorts, as his most recent championship runs proved to be less than fulfilling. Placing fourth in 2018 powered by two wins and six podiums, Hunter-Reay has three combined podiums across 2019 and 2020, with bad luck a frequent and unwelcome guest.
The second point to prove is tied to the first. With an armada of fast and hungry young drivers working their way to the top in IndyCar, Hunter-Reay has a vested interest to keep them at bay and extend his career for a few more years in the No. 28 DHL Honda. And in however much time he has left in the series, the 18-time race winner wants to leave with one more major victory in hand. Whether it’s a second championship or a second bottle of milk at the Speedway, Hunter-Reay is chasing big results once the new season begins.
“It’s certainly a different view for me now because of the fact that I’ve been going about this my whole life like I’ve got all the time in the world,” he told RACER. “And one day, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, hey. You can’t do this forever,’ even though I still feel like I’m 25. Every year I go out hungry, and I know that ever since the first time I sat in a car at Indy, ever since my first test in Champ Car, I knew that this could be a very limited opportunity. You may only have so many shots with a good car at a certain track, such as Indy, to be successful.
“My second year at Indy, I had to bump my way in coming off my rookie of the year. So I thought, ‘Wow. There was a high, and there’s an extreme low within 365 days.’ Every time I go out, I know that, ‘Hey, when you have a good car, you may not get that opportunity again.’ And that’s how it is for everything with me. You can’t let up on the throttle at all. You got to approach every opportunity like it’s one of very few. I know I’ve got a great team, that we can compete for race wins, and certainly that’s the goal to win another Indy 500 and to complete for race wins on a regular basis. With that comes competing for a championship.”
Hunter-Reay wants to open the 2021 season with a complete absence of drama which, after a bizarre start to the last two campaigns, would be a nice change of pace.
“We’ve just stumbled right out of the gates for situations that were down to us, and sometimes circumstances that were not,” he said. “Last year at Texas, the car wouldn’t fire on the grid, then we got a drive-through penalty for receiving help to start the car, and we were instantly down two laps. We seemed to get our momentum going too late in the season, but we did get it going. All we want is to get some momentum going early and continue building on it.”
Changes to the Andretti team during the offseason could also play a role in how the season unfolds. Downsizing from five full-time cars to four should help the organization to refocus its effort on producing competitive entries across the board. The return of James Hinchcliffe alone, who will partner with Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta, and Alexander Rossi should elevate the Honda-powered squad in ways that have been missing for a few years.
“It’s a stout lineup at Andretti Autosport with Alex, to start,” he said. “Colton obviously has a bright future ahead of him. He’s already had quite a few accomplishments. Obviously, immense speed. And James coming back is like coming back home. So it’s a great group and we all get along really well. We’re all really good friends. Obviously, we’ll miss Marco [Andretti] being full-time, but we’ve got a good chemistry there. Good group of guys that work well together. So that’s important to kind of chip in and head in the right direction together. That’s the thing that was reinforced last year.”
Hunter-Reay’s championship and Indy 500 aspirations are tempered by one of IndyCar’s greatest attributes: The ferocious competition waiting to spoil his plans.
“When you look at the depth of the field now, just my teammates start off, it’s become ridiculous,” he said. “But then you have four Penske cars. I don’t think anybody’s thrilled that they added a car there. And then you have Arrow McLaren SP. They’ve upped their game, big-time. And the driver lineup’s stout, obviously. They’re going to be a contender every weekend. And Ganassi. It’s just so, so deep. Qualifying is key. For sure, it isn’t getting any easier. And with the condensed weekends, it’s tough.
“If you don’t roll off that trailer with the car in the ballpark that it needs to be and make a few swift changes that put you right at the top, you’re going to be struggling to get in the top 10. It all happens very quickly, especially on these two-day road course weekends. It’s practice, practice, qualify, and the next day you’re racing. And sometimes you might fall right into that gap where the car is good right out of the box and your weekend kind of goes smooth. And other times it may be a bit of a struggle to find that sweet spot. IndyCar is brutal right now.”