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How IndyCar opportunity knocked again for Hunter-Reay

While mid-season driver changes aren’t anything new, few would’ve predicted Ryan Hunter-Reay’s return at Conor Daly’s expense down at Ed Carpenter Racing. Here’s how it came about and what targets the 2012 IndyCar champion is already targeting

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, pit stop competition

Photo by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images

Ryan Hunter-Reay “was not pursuing” an IndyCar Series return until Ed Carpenter called him last week, but the man they call ‘Captain America’ is ready to grasp this fresh opportunity. It’s the latest twist of a rollercoaster career that’s seen Hunter-Reay reach the peaks of a championship title in 2012 and win the Indianapolis 500 in 2014.

His career in Indy cars began in the Champ Car days of 2003, driving for Stefan Johansson, and the Texan made an almost immediate impact by winning a wild race at Surfers Paradise in Australia. Between then and now there’s been the dips, including losing his Rocketsports drive towards the end of the 2005 season, before a Lazarus-style IndyCar Series debut with Bobby Rahal’s squad in 2007.

His career threatened to drift again after losing his Vision Racing ride in 2009, although AJ Foyt Racing picked him up for the rest of the season. But it was a supposed part-time schedule with Andretti Autosport in 2010 that produced a win at Long Beach which changed everything after a near-miss in the Sao Paulo season opener. That led to an association with Andretti – primarily with sponsor DHL – that would stretch through to 2021.

“I had agreed to the end of my term at Andretti at the end of 2020, so 2021 was our last season,” he recalls. “I wanted to take a step back, try some new things.

“I wanted to go do the SRXs [Tony Stewart’s mid-week stock car series] of the world. I wanted to have the opportunity to drive for a team like Chip Ganassi Racing in IMSA. I really enjoyed taking a step back and kind of getting a renewed sense of kind of where I wanted to be.

“I've been non-stop since '03, and with the same organisation for 12 years, so it was a good time to just take a step back for a moment. I got to do a lot of things I wouldn't have [done otherwise].

“I got to coach my kids' teams. That means a lot. They're at an age where they're so impressionable, it's really nice for dad to be home for a change and not always be at an airport and sleeping at a hotel. That was something that was very enjoyable, and at the same time, it allowed me to come back very refreshed and focused, and here we are.”

At the end of 2021, Hunter-Reay looked set to bid a permanent farewell to IndyCar

At the end of 2021, Hunter-Reay looked set to bid a permanent farewell to IndyCar

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Where we are today is Hunter-Reay being parachuted into an underperforming Ed Carpenter Racing team that believes it can do better. In Rinus VeeKay it has a potential IndyCar superstar of the future, who is perhaps in some need of direction. With fan favourite Conor Daly, however, Carpenter felt he’d reached the end of the line. And with a series champ sitting on the sidelines, it seems an obvious switch.

“I was not pursuing anything full-time in IndyCar, that was not my objective just a week ago,” says Hunter-Reay, who claims it was a “surprise” when his pal Carpenter called. “Obviously, apart from the very unique scenarios that may come along, this one I didn't foresee.

“I've got a great relationship with Ed, but I also have had working relationships and really strong relationships currently with the team manager at Ed Carpenter, Matt Barnes, and my engineer, Pete Craig – I’ve worked with them all before.

"This weekend is almost a test session for us. It's a getting-to-know-you session for us. As long as I go about it that way, and the team does, as well, I think that we'll put our best foot forward for Mid-Ohio" Ryan Hunter-Reay

“My current crew chief on the #20 was my crew chief on the #28 at Andretti Autosport, so I just know a lot of the people there. They were in the position where this was something that needed to happen for the team.”

Hunter-Reay has also enjoyed a lengthy career as a sportscar endurance racing ‘extra’, which became his focus last year alongside the boldly-named Superstar Racing Experience – a six-round, all-oval stock car series that pits drivers against each other from across America’s racing disciplines.

But another prospect on his radar was taking over the prized #10 CGR IndyCar ride, should Alex Palou’s gnarly contractual situation at Ganassi last year have escalated to the point of a split.

“Last year I was on call for the #10 car,” he reveals. “That was quite the rollercoaster because I never knew where that was going to go, but I kept myself ready. I kept myself mentally dialled in ready to jump in the car at any given point. So, I think that primed me not only for the 500 this year but where we are right now.”

The 2014 Indy 500 winner and 2012 IndyCar champion was on call during the Palou-Chip Ganassi contract spat last year

The 2014 Indy 500 winner and 2012 IndyCar champion was on call during the Palou-Chip Ganassi contract spat last year

Photo by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images

Hunter-Reay’s one-off Indy 500 run with Dreyer and Reinbold went somewhat under the radar, as attention focused across the garage with Stefan Wilson’s injury and Graham Rahal’s substitute role. But a strong run to 11th place with one of the event’s minnow teams shows his fire still burns, and that his experience can be invaluable in lifting a team’s fortunes.

“One thing on my side, I have a lot of experience with some really great race teams,” he says. “My career has been a journey. I've driven for the greats, I've driven for Rahal, Foyt. I've driven for Andretti. I've driven for Ganassi. I have a lot of experience and a lot of different race teams and how they go about their business.”

And now for Ed Carpenter, so what does he expect he can bring?

“Each situation is so unique,” he says. “I can't say what I can bring into a situation… It depends on how they go about it on race weekend. How the team goes about what their test plan is, what the menu is for each different change, and what that data analysis looks like between sessions and kind of how we approach a qualifying session and all this.

“Even though I know a lot of people there, it's a new grouping. It's a new situation. I also have to blend into that. I have to gel with that. Then from there, I'll find my place and what I can bring to the table or what I think may be a potential improvement that we can try and work on. A lot of TBDs right now, just a whole lot of them.

“We're looking to take away a good understanding of what the team wants and needs and what I want and need out of this partnership, and kind of trying to get a better understanding of some of the nuances and how I operate, how they operate. Then it’s how we can go and talk about it during the break between Road America and Mid-Ohio and implement potential changes moving forward that I may need.

“This weekend is almost a test session for us. It's a getting-to-know-you session for us. As long as I go about it that way, and the team does, as well, I think that we'll put our best foot forward for Mid-Ohio.”

After an impressive but low-key showing at this year's Indy 500, Hunter-Reay wants to use the Road America weekend as an extended test

After an impressive but low-key showing at this year's Indy 500, Hunter-Reay wants to use the Road America weekend as an extended test

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Hunter-Reay’s veteran status means he’s no stranger to the challenge of Road America, finishing runner-up to Josef Newgarden there five years ago, but he admits this weekend will be a huge challenge – complicated by the resurfacing of the iconic Wisconsin road course, and the fact other teams tested there just last week.

“Jumping in at the middle of the season in IndyCar, which is arguably the most competitive series in the world, with no testing – I haven't been in [one] for a year and a half almost,” he explains. “Getting up to 98% is not going to be an issue for me. It's getting that last two percent out of it where I have to be comfortable enough to operate on the absolute edge like you have to in qualifying, getting those extra three-, four-tenths of a second out of it at Road America, that's where the real challenge is.

“Right now, we're not talking about results. This is not a silver bullet. This is not a situation where they have brought me in to put another driver in the car and, the new driver, you go out and go faster than the old driver. That's not what's happening here. This is a scenario where we are going to approach this from a technically-disciplined approach, and it's going to be methodical, it's going to be a process. It's not going to be short. We're going to have to work through it every day.

"Getting up to 98% is not going to be an issue for me. It's getting that last two percent out of it where I have to be comfortable enough to operate on the absolute edge" Ryan Hunter-Reay

“It's not, hey, get in there, go get the result now, go do better than last weekend. That is the one, I think, misconception that people have. That's not what's going on here. This is something that is a much bigger picture approach. That's where we're at.”

And the hard work starts in Friday practice. So, what does he think Carpenter wants from him from here?

“Ed is a racer. He wants it blunt. He wants to understand what I think every day, at the end of every day, at the end of every session, he wants to understand what my feelings are,” he says. “I'm eager to see how the team goes through a race weekend. There's certainly plenty of very, very accomplished people there. All the talent and all the capability is there.”

How it plays out from here will be fascinating to watch. But you can say that about much of Hunter-Reay’s career.

What can Hunter-Reay produce now he is back in a full-time IndyCar spot?

What can Hunter-Reay produce now he is back in a full-time IndyCar spot?

Photo by: Chris duMond / Motorsport Images

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