So, how does it feel to be the champ?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: This is unbelievable. I can't put it into words the feeling. How hard I had to fight. How we had to fight at Baltimore. Just this whole thing has not set in yet. I'm still in almost fight mode. We just came back. We really earned this one.
For all the bad luck we had this year, to get it, it feels so good. It feels like we really earned this. We really worked for it. To get it done for Andretti Autosport, DHL, Sun Drop, Circle K, these folks have been behind me. This is a dream come true. This is what I've wanted since I was 6 years old. So it hasn't all set in yet, but, my gosh…amazing.
Why can't you make things easy on yourself? Why does everything have to be drama?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: I don't know! I heard Will [Power] was close to hitting me, too. Really close, huh? Yeah. Unbelievable.
What a race though. I don't know how it seemed to you guys, but, geez, I was on the edge the entire time just trying to hold on to the car. You're right – nothing can be easy. It was stressful down to the last bit. Then the red flag comes out and I have to sit there and think about it some more while we had a good rhythm going. It was just…man. I'm still just taking it all in.
This is just amazing, you know. This is what racing is about, what sports are about. I'm going to let this one sit in for a second and really enjoy it.
I know that you were quick to wrap the American flag around you. You're the first driver from the United States to win an IndyCar Series title since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. How important is that for the series?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: It's important. It's important to me. I'm very proud of my country. I always have been. I've always looked up to the American drivers when I first started this whole deal as a fan of the IndyCar Series, a genuine fan before I raced go‑karts I followed the American greats. That really appealed to me.
Now here I am on the other side, and I see these kids that are looking up to us drivers. Man, it's so cool being on the other side of it all. I mean, to do this against the Ganassis, and the Penskes, and the talent in the series as even Dario [Franchitti] and Will and all these guys have said. I feel like I'm up against the best in the world. It's just amazing to get it done. I'm running out of words to describe it.
Do you have any words for Will Power as a fellow competitor and the fact that he crashed out?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: I think Will's one of the great talents there has been in IndyCar in a very long time. He's one of the best. His talent level, what he does on the track, especially some of these road courses and street circuits some of us haven't seen at all. He certainly would be a deserving champion if he won it.
But we had a breakout year. We really did. We fought for this thing. I certainly feel bad for Will ending up in the wall like that. They got him out there. And trust me, I was not happy when I heard we had to finish one more position up because they got him back out. That was a curve ball I wasn't expecting.
But Will coming in runner‑up quite a few seasons in a row, it's just a matter of time before he wins it with the talent that he has. He's certainly great for IndyCar in many ways.
It seemed like the decision at Baltimore to stay on the dry tires was just the crack in the door that you needed to get back into the championship race. How important and how significant was that decision when you look at it and the impact you had on the championship?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: That was massive, for sure. It's things like that where you can come back. Decisions like that that you have to make the right ones. We made the right one. At a time there, we were buried in the field. We had to come through that field, back through it again and get through some pretty fast racecars up front. [Simon] Pagenaud and [Ryan] Briscoe to win that race, to get it done in the pits, me being overly aggressive and the right strategy call. We did that last weekend, riding that wave of momentum where we can get it done where we least expected and we were struggling this whole week.
I didn't say it much to the media because I didn't want anybody to know how bad we were struggling, but it was bad. Tonight we put it together, and it was amazing. The past week has been one of the most craziest weeks in my life.
Michael Andretti mentioned that this year the team was stronger, you, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti. You guys are such good friends. I know I've talked to some of your teammates, and this year was different for you guys. Talk about your relationship.
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: We have a great relationship and we really use each other's setups a lot.
They're interchangeable, especially on the ovals. We test a lot. We throw a lot of things at the cars to find answers. James found something, I found something, and that's what we did tonight when it mattered most. We put together the best bits that everybody had, and poof, that was the first time I had driven that car and trust me, it's different. It was different from what I had the rest of the weekend.
So I really got into a rhythm with it as the race went on. I learned a lot about what I had and made the most of it, guys did a great job in the pits, and came home champions, it's amazing.
On those last restarts they're telling you you've got to hold your position. We don't know if Tony Kanaan's going to help you. You've got to stay focused. What's that like for you in the car? On that one restart, I think you got two positions there, and that was the one they were really seeming to be building you up and talking you up. Did you just go for it? If you could, talk us through that.
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Yeah, the later stage of the race we were adding front wing. That was our goal tonight. Make sure we have a car where we can add front wing the whole night. If that happens, we were going to be competitive. That's what we were doing the whole night.
It started to get loose those last couple restarts, but once we started to get in that range where the championship's on the line, the nerves in the car you have to talk yourself down all the time. You have to focus on hitting your marks and every lap we're doing 210, 220 miles an hour out there. It happens fast. If you have a lapse of judgment even by a little bit, you could end up in the wall.
That was the most pressure I've ever had in my life the past 20 laps of that race. Then the red happened and we had to sit there and think about it. I went into those restarts going for broke like we did at Baltimore. We have to be able to finish in the top four or five was my thought. I knew I had to make up the spots early because we were not that great in the long run. But I had to get those guys behind me and hold them up.
In the closing laps you kind of had a needless battle going on there with Sato. Was it that you couldn't let yourself let up?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Well, the thing I thought about that was, “Hey, if we have two cars side by side, the car behind is not going to be able to follow that close because you're taking up two lanes.” So, yeah, it wasn't the most comfortable thing to do. Sato was racing tough there.
I was comfortable on the high line, so I sat up there on the high line. He was down. I was just praying, please, please, you know, let's have some lane integrity here and get through this thing.
It was a lot of fun all night long. Lot of nerves this whole week, the championship on the line. You try to stay cool, put on your game face. But underneath it all it's the biggest opportunity of your life. It's what you've been working on for, you know, 20 years to be at this point, and it all comes down to a weekend.
I'm just so glad that we're past it now and sitting here talking about it.
Five years ago you have to admit your career wasn't doing very well. In retrospect, is this hard to imagine?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Yes and no. I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position, or I could be in the position to win races. But then you go from winning races to competing for a championship, and that comes with another level of consistency.
And I've been saying it – that comes from the continuity and a team that believes in you, and a group like we have in the 28 car where things are working. And you build on that year after year. That's why we're in this position now. So just never give up. That's how it's always been for me on and off the track. It's really nice to have this now to make that all come to fruition.
Going back in your early career, you were driving what was considered a “show car.” How did you psych yourself up to keep going, keep going, and get to this point?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Well, in '06 and most of '07, I didn't have anything. I didn't have any ride. I kept at it. Made sure I was at the racetrack. Putting a good face on. Telling everybody that would listen that I'm ready to go if you want to drop me in the seat.
I talked to Bobby Rahal early in '06 and early in '07, and told him, “If you ever need somebody last minute to jump in and go, go, go, I'm there for you, man.” And I got the call middle of the way through the '07 season (ABOVE), and I really credit Bobby for that. I do. He brought me back into IndyCar racing.
Can you talk about being the first Chevy driver to win the championship since 2002?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Wow. That's true. Chevy has been awesome the whole year from start to finish. They've given us the power to win this championship and tonight the engine was so hot. The temperatures were hot. Everybody was having overheating problems. We came in and we stopped in the pit lane and the temperatures were through the roof. I mean, way over operating range, and still had all the power we needed to go win it in the reliability. So Chevy has done a magnificent job, and I couldn't be happier to win for an American brand.
Kind of a follow‑up on an earlier question: After the Rahal situation, then in '09, you don't have a ride. Tony George comes through and gets you a ride at Vision Racing. Halfway through the year you end up with A.J. Foyt. So there were some struggles there during that period of time. Also last year at Indy when you didn't make the race, you know, the tough decision was made to go over to Foyt with DHL and partner with them and take over Bruno Junqueira's ride. I remember at the time you were saying this is a decision about keeping the doors open in the future. How key and crucial was that to get you to where you're at today?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Like I said, this team has been behind me and the sponsors as well. You see the same sponsors on the car now. Through success comes support, and that's important. You have to be winning races, I think. You have to be showing promise and winning races to keep the support and to keep your job, really. But you're right. In ‘09, that was for sure rough. I found myself just trying as hard as possible to punch above my weight, and I got a few looks from Michael.
I certainly enjoyed that year, though, driving for Tony. I learned a lot from A.J. He's a great individual. I can't say enough about him. I feel honored and lucky to have driven for him.
Because of that support, the decision to return with Michael when there were guys out there like Roger Penske who were interested in hiring you?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Yeah, the situation really comes down to team. It comes down to the people around you. It's a people's sport. You know, the drivers are out there with the helmet on, their names on the side of the car, but it is a group effort.
Certainly, I was really flattered with the interest that came from the wins and everything else. But I'm definitely happy where I am. Happy to be a champion and looking forward to what lies ahead.
Concerning that, in mid‑November for the first time in many years we have a U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Is this maybe something you're interested in? Are you going yourself to have a look if there is a possibility in the long -or short‑term future to switch over to Formula 1?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: Well, I'm not sure if I'm going to the race, but DHL I think has a suite there, so I may go by. I'd love to go by and look at it. But I'm happy right here in IndyCar. This is home, and this is what I've always wanted to do.
You know you've actually picked up two trophies tonight. What do you think about getting the A.J. Foyt Trophy for oval racing?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: It means a lot to have a trophy with A.J.'s name on it. The oval side of it is a big part of IndyCar Racing. It certainly means a lot to me to be the oval champion. We worked hard this year. We won half the oval races – well, except for tonight. We definitely had a great year. It's always been important to me to really sharpen up my oval game, even though I had won early in my career at ovals, at an oval at Milwaukee, particularly.
But really, sometimes I was known as the road course guy. You know, you bounce back and forth on what you get labeled on. But it's tough to succeed at ovals. They really are. I have a lot of respect for them. Now I've definitely got my sights set on Indy.
You seemed really loose during the post-qualifying press conference. What effect did having reached an agreement with Michael before today's race have on your performance?
RYAN HUNTER‑REAY: It really didn't. I was just very focused on this race. I've just been ready to go. I knew it was down to us. We were in the position – there was more pressure on Will, absolutely. We were in the position to hunt for this championship and to get it and to grab it. We knew what we had to do. We had to go run up front. We did at the right time. So that's why I was loose.
We were second. We were the car chasing the lead car. It's a more comfortable position to be in.