Ryan Hunter-Reay's charge to the 2012 IndyCar championship included three wins in a row -- Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto -- another win at Baltimore and a white-knucke finish at Fontana.
Read for RHR's comments on how he really started feeling the pressure after rival Will Power hit the wall in Fontana, life as a new father, his realtionship with the Indy 500, how the DW12 went from "not the prettiest girl at the dance" to a grade of "A" in 2012, the state of IndyCar and more.
Thanks large to fans who sent in questions for RHR, which are answered below. Thanks also to Andretti Autosport's Ryann Rigsby for rigging the interview.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Good question. Double headers, I think, more than anything, you know, the teams need to look at maximizing a race set up more than anything, but I really think it comes down to driver preparation, too. Because it’s something that, these drivers with cars that generate this much down force and G-forces that never really had to do double headers like this, so it’s really going to be physically demanding. At some of these tracks, like Toronto, it can be very demanding on the car, itself, and unreliability, so we’ll see. I don’t know. I have yet to see them. I am inexperienced on that layout, and really, as to what the whole weekend entails and how we go about it. I’ll be learning just like the fans, really.
pressdog: What about standing starts?
RHR: I’m really … I don’t know, I think that the current product that we have in Indy Car is actually really good. The races coming out of IndyCar are very good. The dual file restarts, everything about it is just really good. I don’t see that we constantly need to keep messing with it, switching with it, because it’s working right now, but with that said, if fans want to see standing starts, and see standing starts and it’s a unanimous decision, I’m 100 percent for standing starts. It’s really whatever the fans think that they’d like to see out of the series and out of the show, you know. When they’re paying the money to show up and see Indy cars race on a Sunday, I’m interested to see what they want, as well.
pressdog: Another question from a fan (Paul Kasper) that’s related. Do you think drivers will sandbag or go less than 100 percent on both of the races in a double header weekend, and then he asks, what is a driver’s strategy around those weekends?
RHR: I’m confused. Sandbag for what reason?
pressdog: Well, I think they mean, you know, take it easy on the first race in order to get to the second race, that kind of mentality, not want to tear it up in the first one …
RHR: I see what you mean. I guess if the finishing order of the first dictates the starting order of the second. You may get a little bit more of a conservative approach in maintaining your equipment for the first race, just in order to be there for the second one and not having to start from the rear of the field. But you get this group of Indy Car drivers together, and everybody’s going to be doing 110 percent the whole time, so it’s tough to say, really. I’d really have to look at the whole product and understand how the whole game is played and what the rules are, because at this point, we haven’t started looking over the strategy for this yet.
pressdog: Another fan (Marty J in Des Moines) wants to know, how does it feel to be sporting the number one this year?
RHR: Well, sporting number one, it’s an honor. It’s certainly a special thing for me that I grew up watching champions run the number one. It’s an Indy Car tradition. If you look back at the years that the number one was run by the previous years champion, it’s actually for most of the series history — other than there was a block there from like 2004 to 2010 that it didn’t happen, with a little bit sprinkled in here and there — but this is something, I think, it’s big picture. I mean, our sponsors and partners, DHL, Sun Drop, Circle K, they deserve it; you know, our partner, Chevrolet deserves the number one, and I think our team did, as well. More than anything, I think that every time we look at that thing, we’re going to realize we’ve got a lot to live up to, we’ve got to redouble our work efforts to defend that number one and try and get it on the car again next year. Because nobody wants to continue changing numbers all the time.
pressdog: And that brings me to one of my questions is, when do you or when did you hit the reset button and say, “Okay, I won the championship, great accomplishment, but now, everybody is back to zero, and I’ve got to get my mindset back to that?”
RHR: Well, shortly after Fontana, we were out testing the Indy car for 2013 season, and even then, I was like, yes, okay, we’re on the 13 now, we’re not testing for 12 anymore; we’re making our first steps into the 13 season. I think we had a few sponsor celebration parties and a few celebrations in South Florida for the Indy Car Championship, and I remember coming home from one them, like, okay, that was fun; I’m done with it. I’m ready to get onto 2013. There’s just so much that goes with it, and rightfully so. It takes so much to win a championship in this sport. And so many people’s hard work and effort has culminated in a championship, and it’s extremely special. We took it all in, and we’re ready to get out there and continue working, because a lot of the guys on the team are just like me, they can’t sit still. All they want to think about is getting out to the next race, turning that next lap, to really just improving the race car … improving our race car and beating our competition. That’s what we’re in this for is the competition side, so we want more competition. We want to keep going.
pressdog: Another fan question (from Brad): Tell us about your thought process after winning the championship, and then having to decide between Andretti Autosport or getting into a Penske car. How tough was it? What were the opinions of your friends, mentors, spouse, etc.?
RHR: Well, it wasn’t that straightforward. I had been negotiating with Andretti the entire season to continue with them, and Andretti certainly is where they gave me a huge opportunity in 2010, and DHL has been there, Sun Drop, Dr. Pepper/Snapple group has been there. Really, they’re a family to me. We had been 95 percent of the way down that road already. I never even really negotiated with Roger Penske. It never got to that point.
pressdog: You’ve probably answered this many times before, but during your run to the championship, were you like a pitcher on a no-hitter, and you didn’t want to talk to anybody or look at anybody, or was it, like, “I don’t know if this is happening” … were you tight, loose, during that big stretch that you had?
RHR: Well, at times you can’t help but get a little tight, and it comes natural and the nerves start going. But then, as long as you realize it, then you can just be like, hey man, relax, just relax. Everything’s good. Just do what you know how to do. Control the variables that you can control, and things will shake themselves out. I remember Beccy telling me, my wife, that before Baltimore, I was just … I was pretty grumpy before the race, and usually that means that I’m kind of hell bent on making something happen. I didn’t know that at the time, but she said, you were borderline on the rude side to some of the guests prior to the race at the he hospitality tent.
I didn’t really know that. I just had my blinders on. Race race day for me on Sunday, and it’s almost like when people are talking to me, lips are just moving, and I’m so focused on the job at hand. I don’t really remember the nerves getting the better of me. Even during that red flag (at Fontana). That was probably the biggest moment during the season when the nerves could have really taken a turn for the worse was when we had the championship on the line. We were in a position to win it, and we were at fifth place, I think, at the time, and that red flag came out with like four laps to go at Fontana. Our engine was on the verge of overheating. Initially, I got pretty amped about it for like 15 seconds. I was like, why is this happening? And then I was just like, wait, we still have more racing to go. So I learned a lot about myself in that, and hopefully, that’s something that I can apply in the future.
pressdog: So when Will Power went around in front of you in Fontana, you were … well, I don’t know if you could see it directly. I can’t remember exactly, but what were your thoughts when he went up into the wall? I mean, what was your initial reaction?
RHR: Yes, he lost it next to me, and out of my peripheral it looked like he was going to hit me. It was that close. But when that happened, we were in like 13th or something at the time, 12th or 13th, maybe even worse, maybe 14th, and then when he hit the wall, that’s when the pressure really came on, because I knew, okay, the guy that we’re racing for the championship is out of the race. Now, I have to finish 6th place. So the target was there. It was just up to us now. It wasn’t, you know, where Will finished or anything. There was no other variables. It was just, where are you going to take this car; what are you going to do with it? When the chips are down, what are you going to do? And everybody saw what the team did in the pits, and got it (Power’s car) back on the race track, and even after he eventually got the car back out, I mean, I have to finish 5th. We still finished 4th, so it was a white knuckle, you know, just puckered it up all the way through the whole race. I was driving with my teeth clenched, just hanging the thing out. I was doing everything. There was not going to be anything left of it when the race was over.
pressdog: So you’re a new father. Congratulations. I am a father as well. What about fatherhood has been the biggest surprise for you, so far?
RHR: It’s still early days, two weeks in. It’s really just the beginning, you know? The first time I ever held him, there is nothing that can prepare you. There’s no book. There’s no speech from anybody that can prepare you for that moment when you see your child for the first time, so I’ll never forget that. And every time I look at him and look in his eyes, it’s a new feeling every day, and you constantly see the lights going on in his head. Things are changing every day, and there’s no better way to put it then it’s a miracle, so just, it’s great to be a part of that.
pressdog: Are you one of these guys who is racing all the time and thinking about racing and looking at racing and reading about racing or do you turn it on and off? Off the track, you do different things or what’s your approach in your free time, as far as racing goes?
RHR: I’m always thinking about racing, and certainly, with the fact, that you know, I did the 12 hours of Sebring and Daytona 24 and Indy Car. I race as much as I can. I am constantly thinking about opportunities and how to make myself a better racing driver, but there’s times at home when I can shut it off. I’m sure that being in South Florida and having a boat in the backyard helps.
pressdog: Another fan question is (from Jon Diggs), what’s the biggest misconception, non-IndyCar motorsports fans have about Indy Car?
RHR: What’s the biggest misconception? That’s a tough question. I think the biggest misconception is that these cars are just overgripped, you know, stuck to the floor, turning in and put the foot on the floor type of racing. There’s a certain misconception there about that. I think that the real fans, the real IndyCar fans understand how the formula is, and what really takes place over a race distance in an Indy Car. You’re constantly over that level of grip and over the limit of adhesion, dancing with that edge, and we’re just doing it at a faster speed than some other types of cars. But there’s that misconception that, oh, they’re the cars have big wings, they’re really light, and they’re stuck to the ground. They have all the grip in the world to work with.
pressdog: Tell me about your relationship with the Indy 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I know it’s the biggest race in the world and everyone, obviously, wants to win it, but do you love the place, is there dread, foreboding, does it make you nervous? What’s your relationship with Indy?
RHR: I mean, I love the place. The first year I was there, I had a great time, Rookie of the Year. I had a great race, you know, rose through the field and was even knocking on top three, but you know, I never had an opportunity to continue in the same car. Then I went back in ’09 with a different car. It was just tough. And then in ’10, I had a pretty good race going when the race ended how it was with some weird fuel mileage situations going on and cars doing 180 miles an hour. And I ran out of fuel, and Mike (Conway) had that horrible crash, so that wasn’t very good. I’m just glad he came through that.
And then ’11 was definitely the bottom of the barrel, with the qualifying situation for Andretti Autosport. But that really gave the team a kick in their rear end, and we came back last year, qualified on the front row, which was just an amazing experience, and we were running in the top three when we had a mechanical. I can’t say it’s been extremely generous to me, but Indianapolis doesn’t owe me anything. I need to get there and earn every bit of it, every lap. I look forward to the challenge. It’s what Indy Car racing is about. There’s a lot that goes into Indy, not just, you know, when you talk mechanical grip or aero. There’s a lot that goes in mentally, the preparation, really, the team atmosphere. There’s just a lot that goes into it, and I have a massive amount of respect for it.
pressdog: Give me your grade on the DW-12 car for the season, after racing it for a year. You obviously won a championship with it. What kind of grade do you give it? What’s good about it? What needs to improve?
RHR: Well, if you take into account that it’s the first year racing that it showed, compared to the past ten years that we’ve had or 15 years that we’ve had, I give it an A. When you go race a race, and then you go home and watch the race on a video or a recording, and it’s exciting when you watch it, that means that it’s a good show. I think that the fans, the critics, the columnists, the journalists, everybody was a big fan of the product that we put on track, the product that that DW-12 put on track, and that the engine manufacturers are a part of that product, as well as Firestone. All these things go into making that. But for a first year car in what started out, thinking, oh, boy, we don’t know where this is going to head, because when we first started testing it, it was under paced. It wasn’t the cutest girl at the dance.
And then it ended up really just performing, you know, came up aces. I mean, it was just awesome. And those oval races, I mean Texas was a burner; Iowa was awesome; Milwaukee was great; Fontana was unreal. I mean, even big old Fontana was, cars sliding around and bottom lane to the painting the wall at the top, I mean, you couldn’t ask for more.
pressdog: And my last question is, the state of Indy Car now and the coming season, what are your thoughts on how the league is right now, and what’s coming up?
RHR: Well, as an IndyCar driver, you know, especially on a team like Andretti Autosport, we’re pretty insulated in that we do our sponsor appearances; we deal with the greatest fans in the world, the Indy Car fans. We have the greatest job, driving the Indy Cars. So things are good, but our on track product is awesome. Indy Car racing, itself, has huge potential to take advantage of right now in that the racing product can really relate … that the fans can relate to it. It’s exciting.
What needs to happen is that I think, the powers that be in Indy Car, the folks at the top, need to make the right decisions and need to inject some much needed positive energy into the situation, into the series, as it deserves. The hardest thing to achieve is to have the racing, to have the competition be so tight and the product be so exciting that the show be so good. Well, they have that. They just need to get the other side of it together, which is promoting it and really just continuing to head steadily in the right direction.
We don’t need to create any miracles. There’s nothing like that. It’s just, let’s just all head steadily in the right direction. Instead of talking about politics and whatever, you know, this race director or that executive officer or operating officer, you know, it’s about the cars. It’s about the engine manufacturers. It’s about the drivers. It’s about the fans. And it’s ultimately about the show that we put on track. It’s got a lot of those variables. It’s just … let’s just, you know, let’s just poke it in the end zone.
pressdog: Excellent. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your time. Good luck with next year, and enjoy that new baby of yours.
RHR: All right. I appreciate that. Any time, man.