The sense of urgency felt by Ryan Hunter-Reay during his one-year IndyCar deal for the 2021 season is simply business as usual.
When the announcement was made that Hunter-Reay would return to Andretti Autosport, its brevity might have been a cause for concern. Hunter-Reay is coming off two winless seasons, and 2021 could be pivotal. But the 2012 series champion feels the team is heading in the right direction and knows where the work needs to be directed.
Hunter-Reay views that mindset as something that has been happening his entire life.
“My whole career has been that way,” Hunter-Reay said in a preseason Zoom news conference last week. “It’s been, ‘Hey, here is your opportunity. Get in the car, we’ll let you know if you’re going to be in the car the next race.’ That’s how it always has been for me.
“That’s why I’ve always had that grab-it-by-the-neck mentality. Even when I had a three-year deal, if I had a bad weekend, it was the end of the year. I have to make sure I’m performing next weekend, otherwise somebody with a big smile is getting ready to jump into my seat. It’s just part of my mentality, part of my makeup.”
In auto racing, circumstances change quickly. Hunter-Reay earned his 18th career IndyCar/CART victory at Sonoma Raceway in the 2018 season finale. That was one of six podiums for the year, matching a career best that he recorded three times previously.
The 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner has not won since and in the last 31 races, he has only three more podiums.
“(At Texas we) finally had a good, fast superspeedway car, which is a big change for us coming off of 2019,” Hunter-Reay said. “We were looking for that fast superspeedway car. We found it. We were leading the race, had a great thing going, and yeah, we were a pit stop shy on it, a pit stop long on it I should say.
“Yeah, it’s unfortunate. We had some strong results here and there, like Mid-Ohio finished third and fourth whatever, third and fifth. You look at that weekend, and that was just another string of errors that should have been a much better weekend. So we know those issues. Hopefully we can nail them down.”
Pit stops became the team’s Achilles’ heel. Knowing where they need to work is half the problem.
“I think the guys have been working really hard on that,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s the thing; we practice really well. They’ve been putting a lot of work into it, working out, things like that. That stuff ebbs and flows. You just have to have that chemistry with the group you’re with. Everybody has to kind of just, boom, boom, boom. They get it done, the confidence rolls, and everything starts streaming.
“It’s just like racing on track. Yeah, it’s hit and miss here and there, and it’s not anybody’s fault. We’re a big team. I don’t do things right 110% of the time. When I get home, I make sure I don’t do that again, whatever it is. We’re working on that. It’s a group effort.”
After finishing eighth at Texas, Hunter-Reay came close to standing on the podium just once in the next eight races. He finished fourth in the first of two races at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, but failed to lead a lap.
Things finally began to gel at Mid-Ohio. Hunter-Reay sat on the outside pole for the first race and finished fifth. The next day he finished third and scored his only podium of 2020. As with Road America, he failed to lead a lap in either race; in fact, during the entire 2020 season he paced the field for just four circuits on the Iowa Speedway oval.
He crashed while leading on Lap 178.
“We just need to be more consistent as a team,” Hunter-Reay said. “We look at, like I was saying, Mid-Ohio should have been two podiums, and one should have been contending for a race win. We can all talk about the things that we missed. The 2016 Indy 500 says ‘the one I should have won’ next to it, things like that.
“You know what it takes to win. I do. We do. We know what we need to do to execute. Those parameters are there. We need to operate within that. Very simple.”