Why Ryan Hunter-Reay deserves more years in IndyCar

Ryan Hunter-Reay’s time at Andretti Autosport could be drawing to a close, but with 18 wins – including an Indy 500 – and an IndyCar championship to his name, he still has plenty to offer any IndyCar team, argues David Malsher-Lopez.

Why Ryan Hunter-Reay deserves more years in IndyCar

“If I was a team owner, I’d have Hunter-Reay on my team,” said one of RHR’s principal rivals several years back. “He’s fast on all types of track, and races really hard. I mean, he might cost a bit in terms of front wings and other parts because he takes big chances! But those kinds of drivers are the ones that can win you a race when you don’t deserve to, just by putting it all on the line. The way Ryan won Indy is exactly what I expected from him! Big balls.”

I agreed then, and stand by that judgment now, despite Hunter-Reay’s last victory coming in the 2018 season finale. My faith wavered in 2019, because while teammate Alexander Rossi took the championship battle to the Penske drivers and Ganassi’s Scott Dixon for the second straight year, Ryan seemed to falter, his pace switching on and off in a very puzzling manner from race to race. This trait was highlighted by Rossi’s consistency, and by the arrival of zesty rookie Colton Herta in the satellite Harding Steinbrenner operation.

Yet last year, the old Hunter-Reay re-emerged. He was back to being a match for Rossi, a potential winner whenever Andretti Autosport hit on the right setups. Unfortunately, for the most part, that didn’t start happening until two-thirds of the strange, COVID-shaped season was over. By then the team had also squandered podiums and possibly wins with some woeful pitstops.

For RHR, the timing wasn’t great. DHL’s contract with Michael Andretti’s team was up at year’s end, and so too was his. Yet there was (eventually) a stay of execution, and each signed up for another year together. In the mean time, Arrow McLaren SP had been considering Hunter-Reay as potential partner for Patricio O’Ward, until it elected to go for a driver nearer the beginning of his career. Given Felix Rosenqvist’s struggles in 2021, maybe Hunter-Reay had a lucky escape…. or maybe not. Perhaps the quirky and unique car setup at AMSP would have suited the American more than the Swede and he’d be matching the highly-rated O’Ward, who is firmly in this year’s championship hunt…

 

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Instead, we’re left gazing in horror at a points table that shows Hunter-Reay’s tally places him 17th, even behind a driver who has missed three of the 10 rounds. The litany of misery that has afflicted the #28 DHL Honda is as follows:

Barber Motorsports Park – Engine issue in qualifying leaves Hunter-Reay near the back of the grid, so he gets wiped out in the melee caused by Josef Newgarden’s Lap 1 spin.
St. Petersburg – broken shock absorber leaves him 14th.
Texas double-header – Qualifying rainout means both grids are set by championship points of which Hunter-Reay has few. Salvages 16th and 10th.
GP of Indy – Misses graduating into Q2 by 0.07sec, but set for sixth place in the race when a strategy error dumps him in 12th.
Indy 500 – Running fourth, maybe a potential victory contender, when he suffers brake failure entering the pits at his final stop and misses the 60mph speed limit by about 60mph… Cue drive-through penalty.
Detroit double-header – In Race 1 he bends a toelink on a wall, necessitating lengthy repairs. A strategy miscue in Race 2 means he’s desperately stretching his fuel load in the final stint, and so trickles home 11th.
Road America – struggling on alternate compound tires in qualifying after being a pacesetter on primaries, he starts eighth but drops down the order on reds and worn primaries on raceday.
Mid-Ohio – Knocked off course and into a wall on Lap 1, necessitating a pitstop that leaves him two laps down.

There was a time eight or nine years ago when I bracketed Hunter-Reay with Will Power and Scott Dixon in terms of ace drivers who watch their ultimate potential stymied by regular misfires of misfortune. Then things started running cleaner for the other two, while Hunter-Reay has continued to pop, bang and sputter along, only occasionally achieving the results his talent deserves. Year after year, the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner approaches a season hoping – believing – that this will be the year he scores a second series title or second 500 win, only to find his river of dreams is contaminated once more. But 2021 is a whole different level.

Hunter-Reay is still a match for Rossi, even if both are pondering how to find those extra couple of tenths that young Herta seems to magic from nowhere on red tires in qualifying. But Andretti Autosport as a whole is not achieving the consistency of a Penske, Ganassi or even Arrow McLaren SP, and as anyone will tell you ad nauseam, you cannot afford to miss anywhere if you want to win in IndyCar right now.

The race engineer’s perspective

Ryan's fourth Indy car win came in only his fourth outing for Andretti Autosport, at Long Beach in 2010.

Ryan's fourth Indy car win came in only his fourth outing for Andretti Autosport, at Long Beach in 2010.

Photo by: Darren Pierson

Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport and those DHL colors have become synonymous over the last 10 years, but Ryan arrived at the team with three Indy car wins already in the bag. There was the lucky first triumph in Champ Car with American Spirit Team Johansson in Surfers Paradise 2003, a dominant win with Herdez/HVM at Milwaukee in 2004 and an opportunistic victory at Watkins Glen during his year-and-a-half with Rahal Letterman Racing.

He then interviewed for the one-off ride with Team Penske at St. Petersburg in 2009 that was clinched by Power and was parlayed into a part-time gig before going full-time in 2010. Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay spent the ’09 season trying to work miracles with first Vision Racing, then AJ Foyt Racing. A second place and a fourth place were the highlights, but Michael Andretti had seen enough to be convinced that RHR could be the next big thing for his team. At that point the squad was going through a lull, having recently lost tech-savvy Bryan Herta to retirement and Dario Franchitti to Chip Ganassi Racing. The combination of Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick was not getting it done.

Ray Gosselin, who had joined Andretti Autosport (née Andretti Green Racing) in 2003, has been race engineer for Hunter-Reay since he arrived at the team in 2010 and recalls: “Ryan came to the team when we were really down and really lifted the whole team up. I think that’s lost in the years that have gone by, but the people who were there at the time still remember it and still appreciate it. We were really struggling when he joined and his arrival was a huge boost.

“And then he turned down Penske to stay with us [following his 2012 championship]: I don’t think that should be overlooked, either. The people who have been here a long time appreciate what he’s done for us and what he’s meant to the team over the last decade.”

However, as Gosselin admits, “Nostalgia doesn’t have a place in decisions like who’s going to be driving your cars next year!” so the crucial questions are whether Hunter-Reay still has the motivation and if he can still deliver.

“Oh, for sure,” says Gosselin. “And now he has this great reservoir of knowledge we can tap into. Sometimes that can work against you. Remember that race at Iowa [2019] that went on past midnight because of rain delays? Well, we predicted the track was going to go a certain way as it cooled off, because we’d seen it go that way so many times in the past, and so we set up the car accordingly… and it didn’t do that at all! Our experience actually backfired.

“But generally our experience working together is a good thing. In terms of what he’s looking for, there’ll be points in any race weekend where Ryan will come in and say, ‘No, that’s not it, we need to do something else,’ and he’s decisive about it. That saves a lot of time, stops you lingering on something, trying to polish it rather than having a complete rethink. So from that perspective, I think it’s great to have that experience to draw on.

“The downside is that a lot of our knowledge together was acquired from cars with very different aero packages, different c.o.g., different weight distribution, and so on. People coming into IndyCar now who don’t have any preconceived notion of how an IndyCar should behave are in some ways at an advantage.

“But to your point, in terms of his passion, yes, Ryan’s not changed. The only thing he wants to do is win. If there’s a sim session, he’s there, he puts the time in. We still spend hours on the phone between race weekends, going through setup stuff about the next race. He does whatever’s required. Which of course is why it’s even more frustrating when we have a year like this. We’ve had the opportunity and pace and we’ve got nothing to show for it. But it’s not like we’re running at the back and not showing any speed. We’re up there.

Happy days – winning the title at Fontana in 2012.

Happy days – winning the title at Fontana in 2012.

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

“So we’ve just got to keep pushing, never give up, keep fighting. And that comes naturally to Ryan: that’s been his m.o. for his whole career.”

And the win rate has slowed because…?

“The caliber of driving throughout the field is so much stronger than when Ryan and I first got together in 2010.” replies Gosselin. “But it’s not just that. The caliber of the teams is so much stronger than it was then. Look at the difference between first and 12th in 2010 and it’s a lot different than first and 12th now. Regularly in qualifying now, you see drivers fail to advance out of their Q1 group by half a tenth. It’s not easy to get into the Fast Six. You see guys dominate one weekend and next weekend they’re struggling to get into Q2, the top 12.

“And already we’re used to that, right? You don’t hear someone say, ‘Hey, why’s that guy only 18th this week when he’s been in the Fast Six for the last two races?’ Everyone knows that it’s that hard. One tiny slip-up and it’s game over.

“Look at Will Power, clearly the fastest guy of our generation, 60-something poles. Well he hasn’t had a pole this year, because if the #12 guys miss on setup even a little bit, even Will can end up starting at the back, same as anyone else. Mess up one corner and that’s it. That’s what happened to us at Detroit. Ryan got one corner slightly wrong and so we didn’t get through to Q2 – by a few hundredths of a second!

“But honestly, our challenge isn’t speed: it’s showing that speed consistently – and that’s not a Ryan problem. As his race engineer, my job is to make the car easy enough for him to drive where he’s not making mistakes while trying to drive around a problem. I have to give him a car that he feels confident enough that he can get everything out of it.”

The pair of them also need to stop walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, or whatever the hell they’re doing to attract all this bad luck. Indy is a regular case in point. The 2014 winner might have won in ’16 [pitlane collision], ’17 [Honda blow-up], ’20 [bad pitstops], but in ’21 he finally looked destined to at least contend for a second victory in the final stint. Then came that fateful final pitstop.

“Yeah,” sighs Gosselin. “We’d had a very different type of May, but very efficient in terms of working through our test program and finding something that was quite different from what our teammates were running. We found a way that worked, we got into the Fast Nine and we were able to run in the lead group all day until that braking issue on the last stop. If that had happened on the first stop, then maybe we had a chance to make it up, but on the last stop, there’s no time to recover.

“But we were running fourth at the time and I think that’s the worst we would have finished. Could we have done better than that? Hard to say what we had in hand for Helio [Castroneves], [Alex] Palou and [Simon] Pagenaud. But even getting fourth place on a double-points day would have made a hell of a difference in the points standings.”

Celebrating the 2014 Indy 500 triumph with ever-faithful race engineer Ray Gosselin.

Celebrating the 2014 Indy 500 triumph with ever-faithful race engineer Ray Gosselin.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Almost from the moment he arrived in 2010 until mid-way through Rossi’s second year at the team, 2017, Hunter-Reay was the de facto team leader at Andretti Autosport. We’d look at Michael’s team and think, ‘Where would they be without RHR?’ in much the same way as we’d consider Penske without Power or Ganassi without Dixon in the post-Franchitti era. When Rossi became more au fait with IndyCar, ditched the F1 dream distraction, the pair were on par. Then Herta arrived and showed everyone a Third Way. Considering his status shifts within the team, it’s not unreasonable to ask Gosselin if Hunter-Reay has ever appeared threatened by the intra-team rivalry.

“Well, I don’t think of it as a negative,” he replies, “and it’s not something Ryan and I have ever talked about as if it’s troubled him. He’s as open with Colton as he is with Alex and James [Hinchcliffe], and I think everyone here regards it as one of the strengths of the team – the ease of being able to ask questions of each other.

“I think Ryan looks at what those guys are doing and if they’re faster in a session, he’ll say, ‘OK, I have to do that.’ So if Colton is setting the pace within our team, then the others will all look at what he’s doing setup-wise and driving-wise and try and incorporate it into their own program. Sometimes that’s easy to do because of similarities in driving style and approach, other times it’s harder if you’ve gone in a different setup direction. But that doesn’t happen too often: generally the four of them are pretty good at sticking with a certain ‘family’ of setups on any given weekend, with just one or two variations according to driving-style preferences.”

While Hunter-Reay’s championship position of 17th is woeful, it’s not as if his AA teammates are going to be winning the title this year. Even Herta, who dominated the second round, in St. Petersburg, is only seventh, while Rossi is 12th and Hinchcliffe 19th. Clearly Andretti Autosport has a lot of work to do. Gosselin is loyal, but puts it this way: “There are too many good drivers and teams out there to fill in the gaps if you leave even a couple of tenths on the table. As a team, if you struggle a little, it looks like you’re struggling a lot.”

And Hunter-Reay’s value?

“He still has a lot to offer to the team. He’s very valuable, as you put it, he’s still fast, and he can still win on merit – not just relying on others’ misfortunes. Put it this way: whenever we as a team have got it right, I know that Ryan can still be right up there.”

No self-doubt from Hunter-Reay

RHR managed to wring a couple of street course podiums out of his car in 2016, despite Andretti Autosport not even being among the teams that could make sense of the ugly Honda aerokit.

RHR managed to wring a couple of street course podiums out of his car in 2016, despite Andretti Autosport not even being among the teams that could make sense of the ugly Honda aerokit.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

One of the things I’ve always loved about watching Hunter-Reay is his sheer determination. If he’s close to the car in front, you know he’s going to go for a move. Even in his championship year, I don’t recall him ‘settling’ for guaranteed points. There’s almost a streak of Nigel Mansell in him, and that hasn’t changed

“In age, I’m older, but in terms of what I do at the racetrack, it’s still the same,” he agrees. “I still have that same hunger and drive. It’s absolutely burning me that we haven’t got it done for a long time.

“It seems to me like Indy is a microcosm of this season as a whole for the DHL team. We make the Fast Nine in qualifying, we’re doing the things we need to do, checking off the boxes to put ourselves in a competitive situation for the final stint – aggressive when I need to be, putting my car in the right position for the fight at the end – and then, boom, something comes out of nowhere and smacks us on the back of the head.

“It’s like we just can’t get out of that rut. The breaks have just not gone our way at all. I’m not looking for luck to swing our way; we don’t need luck. I just need a straightforward weekend! You know, we hit the ground running at Road America, fastest of the cars that took only one set of tires in practice. On new primaries, we were right up there. Even on our banker laps in qualifying using primaries we were up there, top three.

“But we put on alternates and I couldn’t get anything extra out of them. It was strange. You’d expect to be going half a second to three-quarters of a second faster on them, and I was going two-tenths of a second slower or, at best, just one-tenth of a second faster. We just weren’t getting the extra performance. We talked with Firestone afterward and they said there were two or three other cars that found the same. Very unusual.”

If you think of Hunter-Reay as thrashing, making excuses for a below-par performance, think again. He is a fighter and, from everything I’ve witnessed, as brave as ever.

“We fell back to 10th at the first corner, and then made three passes around the outside on that first lap to get back up to seventh, so I think there’s that grit, that determination that I still absolutely have.

“From there, on the primaries when they were older, or on the reds, I had no balance at all – horribly loose. So we struggled… but it wasn’t because I just gave up.”

I thought of his words last weekend as he continued two laps down at Mid-Ohio after being tapped into a spin by teammate Hinchcliffe on the opening lap. RHR was matching the laptimes of eventual winner Newgarden through the second and third stints, because although there was nothing to gain, Hunter-Reay gets a kick out of driving a fast car to its limit, whatever the circumstances. It was the same way in 2016 and ’17 when the Honda aerokit for road and street courses – and Andretti Autosport underdelivering – left him as a bit-part player. As he describes it, “we were in a black hole performance-wise on road and street courses. Might as well not have been there,” but he was still giving it his all.

That relentlessness paid off following the switch to the current universal aerokit for 2018, as Ryan produced more top-fives and top-10s than in his championship season and took fourth in the championship. And it’s not as if he’s forgotten to win since then, or has given up.

Hunter-Reay took pole and a dominant win at Sonoma in 2018, clinching fourth in the championship.

Hunter-Reay took pole and a dominant win at Sonoma in 2018, clinching fourth in the championship.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“When things don’t go right at the racetrack, believe me, I’m not OK with it,” he says. “My demeanor, my mood… it’s not good. If we’ve had a bad day at the track, I don’t leave feeling OK, just happy being an IndyCar driver. I’m here to win, so if we’ve had another disaster, I’m leaving the track trying to figure out what we need to do at the next race to make things better, be it in setup, execution or whatever. And I know you say we’re unlucky, but we can’t chalk it all up to bad luck. It lies on us as well. Even the brake problem at Indy is something we can go back and look at and say, ‘We should have done this differently or that differently’. Many details and circumstances go into where we are today.”

Hunter-Reay turned 40 in June, but denies he feels pressure from the sands of time.

“No, not at all, I have an immense amount of confidence in myself that given the right opportunity and right situation, the right car, I can still win,” he says. “I dig deep, I know the hunger that I still have, I know I still have what it takes to win. We’ve had this long sequence of races where not everything has come together at once – and that’s what you need to win in IndyCar. Everything has to go right on the day. But those days can still come for us.

“Every time I go to a racetrack I feel it’s a new opportunity to put everything together. And to be honest, I feel we as a team have that capability: this is not 2016 when we expected to struggle each time we went to a road or street course. So am I dwelling on what’s happened? Is it affecting me mentally week to week? No. I go forward looking to each race as a chance to get that next win. A clean sheet.

“I’d be lying if I said it’s not horribly frustrating that we can’t break through, but I don’t think of it in terms of my age and that I’ve only got a certain number of years left, or whatever. So, no, that doesn’t add to the frustration. The frustration is purely from not winning, and so it’s something that we’re all going through.

“One of the good things is that we’re not losing our perspective about it. I know some people would think that, given where we are in the points standings, we might start saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s take a huge gamble, take a massive flyer on setup or strategy or whatever’. But no, that’s not what we do because we’re not that off the pace. We’re close; we just need to get everything right on the same weekend – driving, setup, pitstops. So we’ll keep approaching it methodically, staying rational, and try to think our way out of this rut. That’s the only way.”

The future

Romain Grosjean leads Hunter-Reay at St. Petersburg. Could the pair be swapping places for 2022?

Romain Grosjean leads Hunter-Reay at St. Petersburg. Could the pair be swapping places for 2022?

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Michael Andretti was playing his cards very close to his chest a couple of weeks ago when I questioned him about Hunter-Reay and the future of the #28 car, leaving a trail of imponderables. Could DHL return? If Hinchcliffe continues to struggle for form, would Genesys – brought in by Hinch himself, remember – be interested in transferring to another driver, along with Capstone Turbine (the #29 car’s other primary sponsor)? Switching Gainbridge to Herta’s car kept that company enthused and on board as a full-time primary sponsor so pulling a similar maneuver this off-season may yield results. But for which driver?

Andretti shares many people’s view that his Indy Lights ace Kyle Kirkwood is very special, so regardless of whether he wins the Lights title and Road To Indy scholarship money this year, he’s likely to graduate within the AA group, which virtually guarantees that Herta and Rossi will find themselves with at least one new teammate next year.

“No decisions have been made yet,” said Andretti. “We will see. We need more time to figure it out. There are a lot of ways this can play out.”

Indeed. Maybe there’ll be two new Andretti drivers next year, because it’s understood that Michael is very interested in grabbing Romain Grosjean from Dale Coyne. And if a normally very reliable Motorsport.com source is to be believed, that could be a straight swap with Hunter-Reay. Coyne hasn’t returned my calls over the last couple of days, but it’s an interesting idea – a former champ getting a fresh start with a team of humble roots that has proven worthy of ace drivers.

“To be honest, I’m just focused on doing the best job I can here – fulfilling my potential, fulfilling Andretti Autosport’s potential,” says Hunter-Reay when I put my theory to him. “But as we’ve said, the caliber of teams in IndyCar is extremely high, just like the depth of driving talent, so it’s reassuring to know that I will be with a good team next year because there are no bad teams.

“But I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m thinking about the remaining races this year, and maximizing what we have.”

Another interesting prospect would be Ed Carpenter Racing, which Rinus VeeKay has proven knows how to build fast cars for all types of track. But it would surely have to be for a full-time entry, like VeeKay’s, rather than Conor Daly’s road/street-plus-Indy-500 deal for the #20 car which he shares with team owner/driver Ed Carpenter. Hunter-Reay believes he has another championship in him so would not willingly forego Texas and Gateway or any other oval races that may return. Employing a proven champ like RHR would make sense for Carpenter, too, in case Arrow McLaren SP or Team Penske makes a grab for VeeKay, who Chevrolet are very keen to retain. Yup, it’s going to be another very intriguing silly season – which hopefully won’t detract from the fascinating season on track.

Regarding Hunter-Reay’s prospects, his fans and supporters can take heart in the fact that he should have a good car under him in 2022. That is what he deserves.

Says Gosselin: “When Ryan and I have chatted about it in the past he’s always talked about going to sportscars once he’s done with IndyCar. He does enjoy sportscars and was genuinely disappointed he didn’t get anything going for Daytona and Sebring this year. But when he wants to make that switch fulltime to sportscars, I don’t know.

“What I will say is that if he wants another two or three years in IndyCar then I hope he gets that. I think Ryan’s earned the right to decide his own destiny and I believe he can still definitely get the job done in an IndyCar. And I hope we help him prove that over the next few races.”

Hunter-Reay's luck at Indy, aside from 2014, has been appalling.

Hunter-Reay's luck at Indy, aside from 2014, has been appalling.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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