INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Hunter-Reay returned to an IndyCar cockpit in Thursday’s Indy 500 Open Test for the first time since the 2021 season finale.
He revealed to NBC Sports in an exclusive interview that he nearly returned to action midway through last season for Chip Ganassi Racing during its contract dispute with Alex Palou.
“It was every week that I could be called into action,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports after the Thursday session ended at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Friday’s session was canceled for rain). “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had no idea how the dynamic would be with Chip Ganassi, with Alex Palou, with (McLaren Racing CEO) Zak Brown. What breaches were done there, we didn’t know. It was a day-to-day, touch-and-go thing for a bit.
“How close did it come? I’m not sure, but at one point, I got on the phone with the PR folks at CGR to start preparing for how I would field the messages. That’s how close it got.”
Hunter-Reay, who won a thrilling 98th Indianapolis 500 in 2014 in a mano-a-mano duel with Brazil’s Helio Castroneves in what remains the second-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history, was a reserve driver for CGR last season.
Last July, Palou, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series champion, announced he had signed a contract to join McLaren Racing in 2023, just hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced it was picking up the option year on his contract in IndyCar.
Team owner Chip Ganassi was adamant that Palou legally was bound to the team and enforced the contract through litigation.
Palou returned to the team for the Honda Indy Toronto on July 17, 2022, and despite the controversy, finished sixth in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda. Teammate Scott Dixon was the race winner, tying Mario Andretti for second on the all-time IndyCar wins list with 52 career victories.
Ganassi was furious with Palou. The driver was adamant that he was free to leave the team.
The controversy continued to brew over the remainder of the season, and the team owner took Palou to court with proceedings scheduled to begin in October.
Hunter-Reay was told by the team to stand by because at any given moment, he could be called into action to take over for Palou if the relationship between the driver and team deteriorated.
The issue was resolved by an arbitrator just a few days after the 2022 season concluded. Palou would remain with Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team in 2023 and would be allowed to serve as a McLaren Formula One test driver.
“Alex was in a good spot where he was dealing with two powerhouse teams,” Hunter-Reay said. “His home is in Europe, and his goal has always been Formula One, so if he gets a sniff at it, I could definitely see his interest.
“The 10 car, it’s one of the best teams in IndyCar and has a shot at winning the championship. That probably isn’t the thing I would do, but I can’t judge his actions and decision-making process.
“Everybody has a different point of view.”
Ganassi was adamant that he was going to invoke the option clause on the talented and likable driver from Spain, and that McLaren could not lure him to leave the team before the end of the 2023 season.
“It was very interesting,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports. “There were a lot of different meetings that went on with that. A lot of different angles.
“Trust me, a lot of emotion there that was checked at the door. It was very interesting how it was all dealt with. But it was a soap opera for a bit there, no doubt about it.”
Under no circumstances did Hunter-Reay want to see Palou removed from the No. 10 ride just so he could return to IndyCar.
But if called to duty, he was prepared to serve his team’s honor.
“I wouldn’t hope somebody gets vacated, and then I have to get called in,” Hunter-Reay said. “Would I be there for it? Absolutely. Would I put my best effort in? Sure.
“At one point, I just wanted to know which way it was going to go. It was week, to week, to week, ‘Get ready! Get ready! Get ready! We don’t know what is happening.’ ”
This year, Hunter-Reay has traded in being on the fringe of a soap opera-type saga for an Indy 500 ride with team owner Dennis Reinbold at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
The roots of this team date all the way to Pop Dreyer, who was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1898 and was one of the great motorcycle racers from the 1910s to the 1920s.
Pop Dreyer moved with his wife and three children to Indianapolis and was a welder at the Duesenberg Automobile company. He is credited with developing magnesium wheels to reduce weight on race cars and also was a mechanic for the Duesenberg team in the 1927 Indy 500. He later he moved over to Stutz, where he helped develop Frank Lockhart’s Blackhawk Land Speed machine that achieved world records in Daytona Beach, Florida.
He worked for Indian Motorcycles before moving into Midget Racing and eventually the Indianapolis 500.
He opened a motorcycle dealership in Indianapolis and began selling BMWs in 1953. That dealership is now owned by Dreyer & Reinbold, Indiana’s largest Infiniti dealer run by Pop’s 62-year-old grandson, Dennis Reinbold.
Pop Dreyer is a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, the National Midget Hall of Fame, the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
At one time, Dreyer & Reinbold was a full-time team in the NTT IndyCar Series, but since 2014, it has been an Indy 500-only team that also competes in the Global RallyCross Championship.
This year, Dreyer & Reinbold will prepare two cars for the 107th Indy 500 with Hunter-Reay in the No. 23 Chevrolet and Stefan Wilson in the No. 24 Cusick Motorsports/Dreyer & Reinbold Chevrolet.
“It’s nice to be with a small team that is focused on the 500,” Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay won 18 races in his IndyCar career, including two victories in the Champ Car Series. He won the 2012 IndyCar championship and the 2014 Indy 500 in a very successful career with Andretti Autosport.
His most recent IndyCar Series race was the 2021 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (where he was enshrined on the Walk of Fame last week). He was replaced in the No. 28 Dallara-Honda by Romain Grosjean and spent last year as a reserve driver for Chip Ganassi Racing (making IMSA starts as a third Cadillac driver at Sebring and Road Atlanta). He also played “racing father” to his three sons in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Little late, but we made it. Thank you @GPLongBeach – honored to be on the walk of fame for this legendary event. pic.twitter.com/jfLvTwlfHo
— Ryan Hunter-Reay (@RyanHunterReay) April 16, 2023
He attended last year’s 106th Indianapolis 500 and was actually on the racetrack, but it was the ceremonial parade of former Indy 500 winner’s that is part of the annual prerace ceremonies.
Riding around with his family in the back seat of the Chevrolet convertible waving to the near-capacity crowd approaching 300,000 fans was a bittersweet moment for Hunter-Reay.
“It was very weird doing the prerace ceremony where I jumped in the back of one of those cars for the parade where you wave at everybody,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “No, no, no. That really wasn’t for me.
“It’s tough to watch the Indianapolis 500 when you are a driver and not in the race. This is the one that kept me up at night. Being here is where I wanted to be. It’s what I thought about all year. I couldn’t wait to get back into it.
“Last year was nice being on the outside looking in, and take a step back for a year off, but I had full intentions of being back where I am now.
“I knew I would be back one day.”
That day came Thursday when the former Indy 500 winner took part in the Indy 500 Open test with a very impressive performance.
He was in the top five in the final 30 minutes of Thursday’s session before some teams trimmed out and turned hot laps at the end of the day.
After the session, Hunter-Reay was 14th with a fast lap of 224.963 mph around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. He ran 126 laps.
“I enjoy this place a lot,” Hunter-Reay said. “Every year I come back, I enjoy it more and more. I had a blast out there Thursday, even though it was super-sketchy conditions.”
Back at @IMS! For the open test we’ll be running in all-black for a number of reasons. 500 livery reveal coming soon.. pic.twitter.com/CTKHis0MBv
— Ryan Hunter-Reay (@RyanHunterReay) April 20, 2023
It was 86 degrees and very windy, but there were no on-track incidents in the first day of testing that was extended because of a cold and rainy forecast Friday.
Hunter-Reay is confident that he can be a contender in the 107th Indy 500 with D&R. In 14 Indy 500 starts, he has two podiums, six top 10s and an average finish of 15.8.
“It’s one step at a time,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was really about the people for me. I knew a lot of people here, Dennis included. He has a lot of good people, talented people.
“I have been here many times with powerhouse teams like Andretti Autosport, and we have been on both sides of it. There were times when the car was horrendous, and we’ve been slow, and times when I believed I had the best car out there and could beat anybody.
“It’s Indy. You have to put your best foot forward. There were a lot of details that go into this, and they have done a very good job preparing for this race.”
A true racer such as Hunter-Reay is getting a chance to race for a team owner that is a throwback, the last of the Indy 500 entries that brings a tremendous effort to the biggest race in the world.
“With the one-off deal, he’s like the team down the street that prepares the car all year for the Indy 500 and the whole calendar year revolves around that,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s what I love about his approach. He has an extreme passion for it.
“I went to his shop and it’s like a mock-up of the Gasoline Alley garages. It’s awesome. I felt I was at the Speedway, just being at the race shop.
“That was a good intro.”
Hunter-Reay is hoping to introduce the Dreyer & Reinbold team to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28.