An Interview with Ryan Hunter-Reay
MODERATOR: Good morning. We’ll start our Day After the Indianapolis 500 Press Conference with 2014 Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ryan, you’ve had a night to sleep on it. I know yesterday was a little overwhelming. Any new thoughts on being an Indianapolis 500 champion?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It’s great to be here talking to all of you. Obviously, it’s a dream come true. Didn’t get much sleep last night. Not a whole lot. Not enough anyway. It’s a great feeling to be sitting out there with that car and with the Borg-Warner Trophy. With all the friends, family, team – Andretti Autosport is a big family. To be out there taking pictures with everybody. The experience just keeps sinking in and it’s coming closer to reality now. Like I said yesterday, I don’t think the whole magnitude of the whole thing has sunken in yet.
MODERATOR: Speaking of the race yesterday, I know in the press conference yesterday, Michael was mentioning things that were going on in the race that he didn’t specifically mention to you over the radio. Did you see anything differently in the race now that you’ve had a chance to look back at it?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I was looking back and how I think experience really helped me let the race come to me. We made the right changes on the pit lane at the right time. I was just thinking about how strong our car was. Usually when somebody got around us, we’d get right back around them. It would usually take them two laps to get back by us. I certainly think we had the best car out there and we put it all together. Just an amazing job by a great team.
Still a little hazy right now because of not enough sleep. And I’m wearing the same suit I drove 500 miles in yesterday. It smells like milk and sweat, which is an awesome combination if you’ve ever tested that out.
MEDIA: Like your son.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Yeah. Exactly.
Q. Ryan, yesterday in the press conference you said you had a strong car all month long. But nevertheless when I spoke to you on Thursday you said, you change a lot of things concerning your poor qualifying for the race. Did you have any idea what the problem was for qualifying? Can you give specific details?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: We have some suspects that we’re thinking might have caused it. Every time the car was going back on track in qualifying, it was getting slower and slower. Something in the rotating mass of the car is causing some friction there. Something. I don’t know if its uprights, gearbox, halfshafts. The list goes on and on. The bearings could be bad. We just swapped everything out. We’re not really sure. We didn’t have time to isolate it and find it, being the week before the 500. We just changed everything, except for the engine and got on with it and the car was great.
Q. You were not nervous after qualifying?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I was, for sure. I didn’t know what to expect. When you drive for a great team like Andretti Autosport, you know they’re giving you 110 percent to make sure you have the weapon to go out there go to the fight on Race Day. We definitely had it.
Q. I got a call from a guy after Long Beach who was a little pissed off. One of the items you raised was not giving you enough credit for being a guy who takes big chances and taking that gunfighter approach. Tell me about those last few laps, where you certainly exposed that side of your personality.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: What happened in Turn 3 there going for the win was the same, to me it was the same thing as Long Beach. People can put it in different categories but it’s the same thing. I went in there and surprised Helio (Castroneves), put it in there almost in the grass on the white line and he did a great job because we were racing hard and clean and got through there. Amazing how that works out. Really, it was good, hard racing. I knew Helio was the toughest guy out there because his car was quick. I took me a little bit longer to set up a pass on him. That was some of the most intense racing I’ve ever been a part of. We were inches apart for laps on end with the biggest race in the world on the line. It was great going toe-to-toe with him. I’ve been saying it, but hats off to him for running such a clean race. And yeah, Marshall, thanks for pointing that out. I am aggressive and will always go for it. When I grew up, I watched drivers and I really loved the drivers that were like that. I’m married to Beccy, but I was a big fan of Robby (Gordon), too. He was always the guy that you wanted to watch. He was coming through, one way or the other. He might not finish, but he’s coming through. We’ve got a championship to go win this year, for sure. I’ll probably still go 110 percent and be aggressive and I’m not going to let up in any way because when you start changing your driving style, that’s when things start to happen the wrong way.
Q. Out there at the photo session, did you feel upstaged at all by a little version of you running around and getting a little bit of attention?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: That’s so cool to see that. I can’t even tell you. I was nervous about being a dad. I didn’t know what to expect. I felt like I was still a kid myself. To see him out running around in the same suit and he’s just loving it. He wakes up every morning and he says, ‘Vroom, Vroom, Vroom.’ It’s going to be a hand full to dealing with him. He’s so much fun. Every time I come back to the motorhome after practice, I get a big Dada. It brightens up your day, no matter how it goes. Very proud to have him here and to share this moment with him. He probably won’t remember it, which is the biggest bummer of the whole thing.
Q. Ryan, you were Rookie of the Year here in ’08 your first time, but you’ve had tough years the three or four after. Do you feel this place has changed you? Or have you changed this morning as a winner?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: This place has been the extreme of emotions for me. The lowest of lows and highest of highs, really. From bottom to the top. It kind of really wraps it all up in one summary. This is the Indy 500. It can be evil and it can be so rewarding. It’s on that pedestal. It’s the biggest race in the world. When you come here, it’s not just the fact you get wrapped up in how fast you are or what your practice time are or the pressure involved with being quick all month. It really comes down to your whole season. Sponsors are behind you and this is the race everyone wants to win. This is the race that the crew wants to win. This is the race your partners – DHL, United Fiber & Data, Honda, AutoNation – they want to win. There’s a lot of pressure on it. There’s no way around it. As the driver, you definitely take a lot of it on your shoulders and I definitely felt it yesterday. That’s for sure.
Q. Some drivers will win the championship and not the Indy 500. Other drivers will win the Indy 500 and not the championship. Only the elite are able to do both, and now you’ve done that. How much do you believe that elevates your career?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: That’s a big deal to me personally. That’s probably the biggest point to me. I mentioned it yesterday in the press conference. From a driver’s perspective, the championship is massively rewarding. It’s not just one race. It’s an entire season of racing on every different discipline of track. From a driver’s perspective, the championship is immensely rewarding. This race is the history of our sport. It’s our biggest. Even to compare it to the Super Bowl is not right, because this is bigger than the Super Bowl. It’s stands on its own. To have the two of them, like you said, it’s huge. I feel privileged to be in this spot.
Q. A few years ago, when you failed to make the field. Had you not gotten in the Foyt car, I know it could have been the end of the DHL sponsorship. Talk about how when you look back at that, how important that decision was.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I had electric shock therapy after that whole deal. Honestly, it’s gone. It’s out of my brain. I don’t remember it. (Laughter)
Q. Is this a big reward?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I don’t remember it. (Laughter). No it is (rewarding). What a tough time. And just the turnaround the team did. After we came here, that was the kick in the pants that we needed. Because we came out of 2011 and had the season started after the Indy 500 and gone to the end, we would have won the championship in ‘11. Just was that strong at the end and in ’12 we won the championship. Sometimes you need a real kick in the rear end and that definitely jumpstarted our time. So, some things happen for a reason, I guess.
Q. Ryan, last year, it was a pretty emotional moment for you to win in Milwaukee. It was the first win for you after the birth of your son. How does this win and that one compare in terms of family importance and sharing these moments with your son. And a quick follow up after that. Have you watched the replay of the move to pass Helio and what was your thought after taking so much flack in Long Beach?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I think that having Ryden there for first Father’s Day in Victory Lane. I remember thinking as that race was closing down, ‘Come on. You’ve got to do this for him. You got to do it for him.’ It was just really a cool moment to share. Something that’s already on the wall in our house and it will be there forever. That’s for sure. This is extra special. This is something else. The Indy 500 is bigger than motorsports. We definitely felt that down there yesterday when we were drinking the milk and enjoying everything that comes with it, just genuinely taking it all in.
As for the move, I saw the replay. It was very close, for sure. I thought there was no other way around Helio. Certainly, you’re not going to go around the outside into Turn 3. I was surprised I was able to pull it off on the outside of Turn 1 to win the race. I thought that was the move to win the race. I thought that was going to be it, for sure. It surprised him. It threw him off his rhythm a little bit. And that’s what I was trying to do. I looked right and went left and there wasn’t a whole lot of room and made it stick. But you also need to be racing a great driver on the other side to be able to do something like that.
Q. Ryan, when you won the championship, because of all the drama and politics going on with the series, you were overlooked a little bit and maybe got lost in that. Do you think this win will do what it should have done then and you can become the face of the series and the American driver that you want to become?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I’m real. I’m genuine. I’m a genuine person. There’s not a whole lot theatrics about me. I’m not going to put on a whole big show and jump through hoops if people want me to do a certain thing or be a certain way. I’m going to be me, and I am thrilled to be here. I’m a hard-charging American and I’ve had to fight every step of my career for this ride. I’m proud to be here. Yeah, I was overlooked in 2012. The series wanted an American champion and we had one. For whatever reason, things didn’t go the way they did. Randy moving out and the search for a new CEO was on. I don’t really think that’s big news or anything, but it definitely took precedence. This one, I hope it does. I’ll be a great and honest champion. I’ll fly the flag for our sport and you’re always get the real deal with me. I’m definitely not going to fake anything. Hey, maybe it will let me come out a little more and show even more of me.
Q. Unrelated, I know the winner gets a pace car, or a replica pace car.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I hope it’s the pace car.
Q. I understand that has a special sentimental thing for you because your first car was a Camaro?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Yeah, that’s amazing. Ironic really. My first car was a black Z28. And here we are and we have a black Z28. When was the last time they built a Z28 before the new Camaro came out? It was like ’06 maybe?. ’05? It’s been a while. A Z28 hasn’t been out since this year. This the first year they came out with it. I’m really looking forward to getting that back home. It’s a car that I’ll definitely use.
I hope that it’s the actual pace car. That thing sounded mean. I spent a lot of time behind the pace car under caution and Dario was driving it, right. He’d step on it and you could hear it from the car. I was pretty impressed. I definitely want that one. I hope it’s not a replica version. That was pretty cool to think that…
That’s the great thing about this race. You win the race and you’ve won the race. And then you start thinking about all the things that comes with it. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get my face on the trophy. And the pace car, and the check that comes with it.’ Just out here, I was presented with an Indianapolis 500 1911 pistol. How cool is that? How American is that. You’re not going to win a gun anywhere else in the world. And I got a huge belt buckle, so I need a holster with my belt buckle and I’ll be strutting around the garages with that.
MEDIA: Is it a real gun?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It’s a real gun. It’s killer for sure. It’s awesome.
Q. Dario was 34 when he won the 500 for the first time and the championship for the first time. You’re got them both under your belt at 33. Are you hoping to maybe racking up the same kind of statistics that he did?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I don’t know. I appreciate it, David, but it’s one foot in front of the other right now. The championship came up and before we knew it, we were in a fight for my first IndyCar Series championship. You have deal with those emotions as they come and deal with the nerves and containing it all. And here we are the last two seasons able to really challenge for an Indy 500 victory and you’re in the race and it’s all coming together and you’ve never really been there before and you just kind of roll with it. And that’s what I plan to do from here on out. Even when we won the championship, there wasn’t a sense of, ‘Oh, we’ve done that we can cruise or anything.’ I still feel like whatever the reason, because my whole career has been the way it has, I still feel like my job is on the line. And I still feel like I have to go out every weekend and prove, because that’s the way it’s always been.
Q. So now you’ve done the two biggest things. It’s not like everything else is a bonus.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: No, we have to go out and get more. When you’re in a program that has an operating environment like we have at Andretti, especially in the 28 team that’s that good. You always feel like every time you’re in the car, you should be quickest. Every time you’re in a race, you should be finishing on the podium. You’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity. I’ve been around so many times where it just didn’t click. With this team, it’s just all together and I’ve been saying it for years. It’s awesome to run with them. But I feel that pressure when I’m in the car because I’ve got to hold up my side of it as well.
Q. Helio mentioned after the race that your Honda was particularly strong on restarts and from a setup standpoint it look like he was a little bit more low downforce and was quicker in the straights and you were able to catch him in the corners.
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Good point. I think he was a little less downforce. I’m not totally sure, but he started a lot lighter than us. A lot lighter than us. He was tough to close in on the straights. He was probably the toughest car out there. Even when I got a good run off the corner, it wasn’t just drafting up to him and popping right out. It was a late move every time. That’s why you saw what you saw down in Turn 3. He was definitely the strongest car and he had a great balance, too. I came across a lot of cars that had just that little bit of weakness and you could kind of expose and set them up, and Helio didn’t have that. He was tough to get by and I think with the trim and the Chevy power was how it’s always been. It was strong. It was tough to get by.
Honda has just done a remarkable job. Road course, street circuit, oval, you name it. They’ve come out swinging. They’re serious. They are ready for it. It’s great to be back with them again. There’s a lot of support there. They’re really behind our effort. Hopefully we can continue on with this form in the championship. We were thinking that with the road/street circuits, that would be our strong suit. Maybe on the ovals, the tip would go to Chevy, but not the case. Really impressed me for the whole race, really, because you don’t know what you have until the race itself. Very good job to Honda. Congratulations to them.
Q. On the cool down lap and the lap in the Pace Car. What thoughts were going through your mind?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Well first, I couldn’t believe how many people were still here. That’s the biggest thing. You have true fans when they stick around after the event and try not to rush off to the parking lot. They stuck around to greet the winner of the 500 and that just happened to be me. It was fantastic because they were a lot of people here. To hear the USA chants on Memorial Day weekend, just sent chills down my back. It really did. It was so cool to be part of. Hopefully, we have it all on video. We’ll watch that one plenty of times. It was amazing and surreal to be in that position, and to look up at all these fans. This place is so big. You realize how big it is when you do that victory lap. It is enormous. It felt like 35 packed basketball stadiums. It was crazy. The noise was epic. It was really cool.
Q. Can you talk about Kurt Busch’s effort. Great run here yesterday and if not for an engine failure, who knows where he finishes in the Coke 600. How impressed were you by Kurt’s attempt at “The Double?"
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I’ve been impressed by Kurt since Day 1. He came in with the right attitude, the right outlook on this whole thing. He approached it from a rookie perspective and really worked with his teammates. That’s the great thing about jumping in at Andretti, you have four other guys, four other drivers with strong cars that you can lean on. And he used that, for sure. And he contributed to the effort all month. He found some setup stuff and his engineer Craig Hampson, he’s won a lot of championships, that engineer, Craig. They did a great job all month. He made one little mistake in practice and it caught him out. It’s easy to happen around here. It happens to anybody. In the race, kind of settle it and fell back a little bit and the team gave him great pit stops and he started making the car more comfortable. He finished sixth. In his first Indy 500? Atta boy.
I was thinking about this after the race. It was not easy out there yesterday. It was hot, so the car was moving around more than it did the entire month. It was not easy and he did a great job. His first time in an open-wheel car.
Certain things about the car surprised him and other things, he’s a racer. It’s got four wheels on it. Get in it and go out there and drive it. Now we’ve got to talk him into doing the Streets of Toronto or something and see how it goes.
Q. You’ve moved from Chevy to Honda. Are the driving characteristics different from one engine to another?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: They are quite a bit different. Mainly on the street circuits and road courses and not so much on the oval. On the oval it’s the same thing. My whole right leg and my rear end is cramped up today from pushing the throttle pedal too hard yesterday. I think I was bending it, I was pushing it so hard. It’s a bit different on the road and street circuits but not massively. It’s not like you have to change your driving style, completely.
Q. When you had sit there under red flag conditions and had to start up again. How did you control the thermal problems that you have with a hot car and engine?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: There you go. Another area where you have to give a tip of the hat to Honda. I was worried about it. Any time an engine runs almost 500 miles and you shut it off and have to start it again, you have heat soak that occurs that can be detrimental to everything involved. It started right back up and had full power if not more power than we had at any other time during the race. They did great job with it. It was nerve wracking. I remember in the championship race back in 2012, we had a red flag. I was accustomed to keeping my nerves in check and keeping my focus, but it’s always a wildcard if that engine will restart. It started right up.
Q. The IndyCar season finishes early. Andretti Autosport has other cars racing in other series. Will we see you in other cars later this year?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I think there’s a very high possibility of that happening. We’ll have to see how everything goes. A lot is in the works at Andretti. As you know they have a lot of irons in the fire. There is Global Rallycross, Formula E, Verizon IndyCar Series, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda. There’s a lot going on with the team. Yeah, there’s a possibility of maybe doing a few extra races at the end of the season, but I don’t know yet. I can’t comment on it for sure.
I would love a shot at doing the RallyCross. But I’m not sure that’s an option.
Q. Can you talk about the defensive driving and how the style was different compared to other Indy 500s?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: This style of racing with this car is completely different from what you’d watch five, six years ago. It’s a completely different style of racing. The hole in the air that’s punched by this car. The draft is so big. You can’t break it. I had almost a four second lead after some pit stops and lap traffic. I worked so hard to get through the lap traffic and had a big lead. I couldn’t even see him in the mirror and here he comes. He marches right up in the draft. Those last few laps were totally new to all the drivers. Helio and I set the path because they are going to follow our draft, but the lines we took at the end was something we never practiced, something we never did, and we really had to put the car on the line to pinch it off the corner that tight at the exit to keep it low. I was the first one to do it. This year, in the drivers’ meeting, they said you do not have to leave a space on the bottom. In years past, we had to leave a car width on the bottom. I personally like the car width rule because I don’t like the idea of closing the door on ovals completely. It’s the same for everybody and we played by the rules. We knew Helio was going to get that massive draft that you get in the DW-12 and I had to make it hard to go around. Here we are going around the front straight and I’m on what I thought was the bottom and I look in the mirror. I look in the right mirror and I might have drifted over just a little bit and he plugged it right in there. I thought if I just made the mistake that costs me the race, it’s totally my fault. I thought that was it when he got inside of me. And then I did the next move to the inside of him in (Turn) 3 and went around the outside of him in (Turn) 1. I didn’t think an outside pass would be possible with how trimmed he was, but we were coming off the corner so low to, one, kill the draft as you were exiting the corner to make it harder for the guy to go around you. So there was a couple things happening there.
Q. You had a big block on Marco that wasn’t talked about
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It wasn’t a block at all. He didn’t have the position. His front wing got to my left rear. If he wanted the position, he needed to be higher up there. We always talk about going for the win at the end of the race. It’s the Indy 500. It’s all go. There’s no manners at that point. We had great, clean racing at the end.
Q. Have you talked?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: No.
Q. As a driver who says you’ll always go for it. What did you think of the crash between Hinchcliffe and Carpenter
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I talked to Hinch this morning and I probably would have gone for the same move as Hinch. Ed closed up on Townsend and Hinch closed up on Ed. If you’re the guy on the inside, you’re thinking, ‘OK, Ed’s passing Townsend. He’s certainly not going to hang out in the grey. So it’s just me and Ed going for the corner. There was a lot of daylight there.
I took a stab at him last night in the press conference, just joking around. Michael was talking about the move and I said, ‘Hey, he should use more patience, shouldn’t he. It was a rookie move.’ But it’s the Indy 500. It’s the end of the race and there’s a big bunch of daylight sitting there at the bottom. You got to go for it.