Maybe Ryan Hunter-Reay should be called “Mr. Prove It” of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, as it’s an unofficial title he has worn well as a series champion (2012) and Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner (2014).
“My whole career has been that way,” said Hunter-Reay, who signed a new contract for 2021 with Andretti Autosport. “It’s always been, ‘Hey, here is your opportunity -- get in the car (and) we’ll let you know if you’re going to be in the car for the next race.’”
Of course, that description speaks more to the early part of Hunter-Reay’s INDYCAR career as he drove for three teams in three Champ Car seasons before moving to the INDYCAR SERIES to drive for three more teams in as many years. It wasn’t until 2010 when Michael Andretti signed him, and even then a full-time job wasn’t attained until Hunter-Reay won at Long Beach in his fourth start.
Since then, Hunter-Reay has been a staple at Andretti Autosport, and he enters 2021 as the team’s most experienced full-time driver. Still, the veteran again at the wheel of the No. 28 DHL Honda knows nothing in this sport is guaranteed, even to the champions of the past.
“That’s why I’ve always had that ‘grab-it-by-the-neck’ mentality,” he said. “Even when I had a three-year deal, if I had a bad weekend (I felt) like it was the end of the year.
“I always have to make sure that I’m performing, otherwise somebody with a big smile is getting ready to jump into the seat. It’s part of my mentality, part of my makeup. That’s how I’ve been operating for 20 years, man.”
That internal motivation has served Hunter-Reay well. He has won races in 10 of his 17 seasons, including a career-high four in his championship-winning 2012. He is fourth among current full-time INDYCAR drivers with 18 race wins.
Hunter-Reay draws much of his confidence for the upcoming season from the way Andretti Autosport finished last season. After struggling early in the pandemic-impacted year, the team approached its historical form by taking seven of a possible 15 podium finishes in the final five races, including a 1-2-3 finish in the Sept. 13 race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Hunter-Reay posted three top-five finishes in those five races, including a season-high third in that Mid-Ohio race. He thought it could have been an even stronger conclusion had a few breaks gone his way.
“Mid-Ohio should have been two podium (finishes),” he said of the doubleheader. “One should have been (with me) contending for a race win.
“We can all talk about things that we missed. The 2016 Indy 500 says ‘the one I should have won’ next to it, things like that.”
Hunter-Reay will again drive alongside Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and James Hinchcliffe – race winners all -- when the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season begins April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park. Seventeen races are planned for the season, featuring the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 30. Marco Andretti will rejoin the team for the “500,” and the team might add another driver for the season’s biggest race.
“You know what it takes to win – I do, we do,” Hunter-Reay said. “We know what we need to do to execute. Those parameters are there. We need to operate within that. Very simple.”