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Veteran Hunter-Reay Remains Energetic, Hungry for Success in 2019 Season

It’s hard to think of Ryan Hunter-Reay as a graybeard.

Hunter-Reay turned 38 in December, but he remains as fit, sun-splashed and youthful as ever. But the record book doesn’t lie, and RHR is entering his 16th season of major North American open-wheel racing and his eighth consecutive year with Andretti Autosport in the NTT IndyCar Series.

He understands that experience brings wisdom and a sense of serenity about potential roadblocks ahead. The development of that mental flexibility also was accelerated when he didn’t have a ride in 2006 and was out of a seat for most of 2007 until team owner Bobby Rahal hired him to drive for his team in the six races of the NTT IndyCar Series season.

So even though the grains of sand in his career hourglass are growing fewer, Hunter-Reay remains one an elite championship contender in the series. And he’s just as motivated as the guy who earned his first major open-wheel victory in October 2003 in a Champ Car race at Surfers Paradise, at age 22.

“It feels like such a long time ago,” Hunter-Reay said of the first of his 18 career victories, at Surfers Paradise. “It’s been a great run. I did have some big valleys in there. I didn’t race at all in ‘06. I didn’t race for most of ‘07 until Bobby threw out the life jacket and basically saved me from drowning. It’s been an awesome run.

“Still a lot of work to do. I feel better than ever.”

That’s bad news for Hunter-Reay’s rivals, both within the four-car Andretti Autosport stable and at other NTT IndyCar Series teams.

Hunter-Reay, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, produced a fine, bounce-back season in 2018. He was a title contender for most of the year in the No. 28 DHL Honda, ending up fourth in the standings, with victories at Detroit and Sonoma. It was his highest spot in the standings since winning the series championship in 2012.

He also finished fifth in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, his best result in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since winning in 2014.

“I think we had a really strong year last year,” Hunter-Reay said. “Just had a bit too many lows and DNF’s here and there. We need to lop off those lows, and we’ll no doubt be there at the end fighting for the championship if that’s the case. We know what we need to do better.

“If you continually keep knocking on the door, you’re going to break through. We need to clean up some things on street circuits, and hopefully this year we can get another Indy 500 win. But I think as a whole, Andretti Autosport has a very even program. We’re all strong. We’re all working together well. The teammates, we’re pushing each other. That’s what you want from a four-car team.”

The team will grow to five cars for the Indianapolis 500 with the addition of veteran Conor Daly. Andretti Autosport is one of the series’ most established, powerful teams, so Hunter-Reay has no doubt the team can accommodate Daly’s program without any dents for its four full-time drivers, Hunter-Reay, 2016 “500” winner Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach.

“I’ve been with Andretti Autosport for quite a long time now, so I’m used to running a lot of cars at Indy and working with new teammates,” Hunter-Reay said. “Conor will be a seamless transition into this team. I’m good friends with him already, and he’s friends with the other guys, as well. It will be fun.”

While RHR thinks Daly’s addition to the team will be wrinkle-free, he admits every driver will need to adjust to changes to the car this year on the 2.5-mile oval at IMS as they prepare for Race Day, Sunday, May 26.

Firestone has tested new tire compounds, and INDYCAR will make new aerodynamic parts available to teams to create more front grip and aid overtaking this year during the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“It was more of a balance issue for us,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s not like the car was overall light. It was just trying to get the front to work at the right time. Firestone has done some good work there, and we’re putting some new bits and pieces on the car. Hopefully we have better balance this year, and that will make the show even better.”

As a series veteran, Hunter-Reay has seen the evolution of North American open-wheel racing over the last 15 years. He has competed in Champ Car and the NTT IndyCar Series. He had a front-row seat to the unification of the two series in 2008, ending 12 years of division and rancor in the sport.

Much like his driving career, that experience breeds wisdom that makes Hunter-Reay one of the more eloquent, heeded voices in the paddock about the state of the sport. And Hunter-Reay thinks the NTT IndyCar Series is in better shape than ever entering the 2019 season, which starts this weekend with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, his home state race.

“It’s come a long way,” Hunter-Reay said. “Finally now it’s great to see the momentum. There’s so much momentum in this sport. The class of the drivers, the competition, the caliber of the teams, the media exposure, the support of the sponsors. It’s awesome to see the sport where it should be.”

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