Ryan Hunter-Reay enters this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as one of the favorites, having won at the track in 2010 and on track to repeat last year before a late-race mechanical failure. Having finished third in the 2012 season opener at St. Petersburg, “RHR” is so far the only driver outside the Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing stables to score a podium finish. The Andretti Autosport driver discussed his prospects on Long Beach going into the weekend.
Q. You had that third-place finish at St. Petersburg, kind of a disappointing weekend at Barber. Has the season been what you expected with the new package, new cars and engines?
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I didn't really know what to expect coming in. I don't think anybody did really going into St. Pete. We've been really surprised with the quality of the racing; it's been excellent, both at St. Pete I think and at Barber.
Like you said, we had a little bit of an issue with the last stint at Barber going from eighth or ninth, wherever we were, back to 12th.
But, no, it's been a good start to the season for us. Last year at this time we were 26th, 24th in points, and now here we are at sixth in points, only a few points out of third, and going into my favorite road race of the year, road street course race of the year, which is Long Beach.
Q. You mentioned this weekend's race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The place has been special to you both professionally and personally. I think if not for a little late-race issue last year, you could be shooting for three wins in a row. What do you do coming into Long Beach to recapture the magic you had in 2010?
RHR: Really we have to keep our eye on the ball with the setup on the car. We can only do what we can do. We have to make sure every session we go out, every lap we turn is better than the previous and constantly develop the car.
Even if we find ourselves in a position starting fifth, we're obviously gunning for the pole, but really need to keep our eye on goal, and that's to win the race. That happens on Sunday and Sunday only.
Every session will be going out trying to make the car better. It's still such a learning process with this car. Every street circuit we go to, every road course we go to needs different settings from the car. That's what we'll be concentrating on. With the weather we may have this weekend, it's going to make it that much more difficult because the track is going to be constantly changing.
Yeah, we'll see what we have and take it as it comes. But I'm really, really enthused to be back at Long Beach.
Q. You were a past winner back at Long Beach. What is it about Long Beach that is a special place for you?
RHR: Well, off the track it's special for many reasons. It's where I had my first big start in racing in the Atlantic Series. It's where I met my wife (Beccy), where we got engaged. It was my mom's favorite race of the year, was for sure Long Beach, and in 2010 winning it.
Other than that, I absolute love it. The track is awesome. From a driver perspective it couldn't get much better. The fan attendance and atmosphere at the race is second to none.
Q. You finished seventh in series points the last two years, if I'm not mistaken. How important is it to you in your heart of hearts that one of these seasons here you're at the end, in the last race or two, competing for the series championship? Do you think that's a strong possibility here in the near future?
RHR: I absolutely do. It's number one on my list. That's what has to happen. That's why we're here. That's why we're doing what we're doing. That's why we're racing IndyCars. That's why I'm here.
But this is my third year with the team. It's time to make that step. The first year, in 2010, we started out with a partial schedule, not knowing race to race, a lot of uncertainty. As you said, we went out and won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach that year, which was a real shot in the arm for the team and our effort.
2011 was another great season, but we just had some issues, whether it was me being overaggressive on the track, a mechanical failure at Long Beach which kept us from a win. Things just weren't clicking.
We're going to try our best to make it all work this year. We all know we can do it. I feel absolute confidence within myself I can get it done. We just need to be consistent.
Q. A quick question about your teammate, Marco Andretti. As his teammate, do you see that he's under more pressure than maybe the typical driver would be simply because of his name, who his father and grandfather are?
RHR: Absolutely. He does an amazing job dealing with the pressure. I couldn't imagine racing with the last name ‘Andretti.' It's a lot to ask of him. He went basically straight from Formula Mazda cars, two races in Indy Lights, into IndyCars, thrust into the spotlight and asked a lot of him. He's done a great job with it. I really have a lot of respect for him on that side of it. He's really handled himself for that.
The kid is young. I think he just turned 24, 25. I mean, he's still so young. But he's got loads of talent and he's certainly got that Andretti fire in him. I feel like it's only a matter of time.
Q. For testing, I know you were up at Sonoma last Monday, but weren't able to get much running in, and Hinch has the 10-spot grid penalty this weekend. Going forward, how can you balance pushing and testing knowing there's the risk of possibly blowing engines? What do you think can be done to allow engine development without you being penalized?
RHR: To tell you the truth, I hadn't even thought of it prior to the last couple days because it hasn't been an issue, right? It's just not right there sitting in your face and now it is.
It's tough. I mean, the series is at a place where it has to put some type of restriction on the manufacturers from just going out and running through miles, testing. It has to somehow police the manufacturers from pushing the engines harder than the next and just creating a spending race.
But the downside to it is you're penalizing a driver. The series is so tight, it's so competitive, that a 10-spot grid penalty on a street track like Long Beach, that's a pretty hefty penalty, especially since we're in our first round of engines.
These engine manufacturers have done an amazing job in such a short amount of time to not only put the performance on track that they have but the reliability, as well. These things are just bound to happen. You're bound to have an issue with an engine here and there, especially with a new product.
I don't know. I understand IndyCar's side of it, and I have some sympathy for James and Simon from St. Pete. I mean, it's tough, it really is. I hope they'll come up with a fair solution to it.
Q. Ryan, would you remind us all how you operate when it rains. In other words, you run in the rain, but basically only in a light rain. If visibility or whatnot gets too severe, the race officials can stop everything. If it's like a light rain which we may have, at least for practice, do you switch to rain tires and go as far as you can?
RHR: In practice, yeah. I mean, we basically look at the weather forecast for the weekend and we determine the sessions that really matter such as qualifying and the race, are they going to be in the wet? Saturday's qualifying could potentially be in the wet. We'll probably run on Friday to practice for a potential wet qualifying.
Like you said, it comes down to standing water. It's really not how heavy it's raining, it's just the quality of the drainage. If there's major standing puddles, these Firestone rain tires do an amazing job at displacing water, but if there's deep puddles, you can only do so much at 200 miles an hour.
We'll look at the safety of it. I can assure you that with the California-type rain, which is that consistent light rain, we'll be running on Friday, so no problems there. We ran at Barber in a pretty heavy rain because that track really drains well. The limiting factor is standing water.
Q. Ryan, Andretti Autosport seems to be stronger than they have been for a while. What do you attribute that to?
RHR: Well, as a team, it's been working very hard on this new car, making the most of it while it's still new. That's really where you feel like you can strike while the iron's hot. It's important to take advantage of the development phase of the car. It depends on who gets it right.
At times we've gotten it right. So hopefully it continues in that direction. Still a lot of racing to go, a lot of different tracks coming at us. We have a lot of curve balls in our future.
Yeah, so far it's pretty promising for Andretti Autosport.
Q. You've been racing street, road races. When it comes to Indianapolis, how do you think your cars are going to be?
RHR: I haven't driven on an oval in this car yet other than a few demo laps in Las Vegas last year. From what I hear, we're really going to have to work on the cars to get the speed out of them while keeping a balance in the car, keeping handling balance in the car.
I also hear there's a potential chance that these cars can be more affected by the draft, which can create some better racing scenarios.
It would probably be better to ask some of the guys that were in the car at the Indy test, I wasn't one of them, but I'm sure looking forward to it.
Q. Ryan, you mentioned that the competition this year is just so tight. How do you feel it compares to last year's level of competition?
RHR: I feel it's very similar to last year's level of competition. We're all blown away by how tight the lap times have been at the road courses, how tough qualifying had been. We thought there would be a bigger discrepancy between teams and drivers just trying to figure out the new car. It's been massively competitive, very, very, very small margins to get it all right.
You know, you can ask these guys like Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, who have been in it since CART and IndyCar since its heyday. They would say it's as tough as it's ever been, if not more.
Got to get it all right in order to have success, that's for sure.
Q. Your team owner has had a lot of success as a driver in Long Beach. Do you think that success has kind of rubbed off on the team or what does he do to help you since you guys won the last two races out there?
RHR: Michael, what does he have, four or five wins?
Q. I think four.
RHR: I absolutely think that winning presence has pushed our team. It's certainly pushed me. Michael is there for the drivers anytime you have a question for him. He's not going to shove any advice in your face necessarily, but if you want to go ask him how he's done it, he'll tell you, he'll be happy to help out. That's great to have an owner that has not only won from inside the car but outside as well. Certainly gives a great perspective.
He knows what he wants out of the team and he pushes his drivers and his engineers to get it from the car.
Q. What would it be like for you to win this weekend? Obviously you have a passion out there in Long Beach. Getting your first win in the No. 28, how great would that be for you and your family?
RHR: Yeah, the win in 2010 was so special for so many reasons, and with my mom recently passing away, it was a massive win. But to win here again, this race is so special to me, I feel like I really have something at this track. I enjoy it. I have gone well here. I feel like I can reach that extra couple percent to pull it out. This really is a home race for me.
But, yeah, I really want to get a win for DHL and SunDrop, and with 28 on the car, representing 28 million people worldwide fighting cancer, it would be a huge moment in my career. We'll definitely be putting in 110% to make it happen.
Q. Obviously this is a very special track for you because of the personal connections and your race win. The phrase that I'm hearing from a lot of the drivers is it's ‘the Indy 500 of street races'. Do you feel that's an accurate description of the atmosphere?
RHR: Absolutely. The energy about the Long Beach Grand Prix is like no other. It really is. You can feel it on Friday. You can feel it on Thursday even, setup day. This is the road street course event of the season. It has the most history. When you look at the winner's list, which I'm honored to be on, if you look at the winner's list over the years, it's the best names in open-wheel racing, the top names in IndyCar.
This is a big one. This is the one if you're turning right you want to win.