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.