To say Ryan Hunter-Reay has fallen in love with oval racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series would be an understatement.
Of the Andretti Autosport driver’s 16 career wins, nine have come on the circular tracks – including his last four victories. Short ovals have become a specialty for the 2012 series champion, with three wins at Iowa Speedway and two at The Milwaukee Mile (including the 2004 Champ Car race when he led all 250 laps).
Of course, Hunter-Reay’s crowning achievement was winning “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500 in 2014. He’s become an annual threat to win Indy, leading a combined 80 laps in the past two 500s until a pit lane collision and an engine failure took him out of the picture.
Racing on ovals is a science all its own, Hunter-Reay says. And it’s quite an adjustment for those who lack previous experience.
“The car setup is generally asymmetrical. You’re going left all the time so the cambers are set up like this,” Hunter-Reay explains, using his hands to show the direction of the front tires tilted left. “You can actually see the tires sitting like this when you’re sitting in the car. It’s very awkward at first when you’re not used to it, trust me. And the steering weight is very heavy to the left and very light to the right. It’s a very strange feeling.”
That’s only the beginning, continues Hunter-Reay. Once on track, the driving sensation is different to anything felt on a road or street circuit. The aforementioned camber, combined with tire stagger in Firestone’s rear tires for ovals – where the circumference of the left-rear tire is slightly smaller than that of the right rear – makes the Indy car naturally want to turn left.
“As you go into the corner, the steering becomes lighter to the left and, (when) you come out of the corner, it becomes heavier to the right,” says the 36-year-old who’s been driving Indy cars since 2003. “That’s the asymmetry that I’m talking about. It’s not like a usual road-course car. Even when you leave the pit box, it’s very hard to (make the car) go right out into pit lane because you’re turning the car in a way it doesn’t want to go. It takes some getting used to.”
Getting the most out of a car on an oval, Hunter-Reay adds, is not about mashing the accelerator as far as it will go. In his words, it takes a “certain finesse” to succeed.
“As for racing on ovals, it takes a certain rhythm that I really can’t describe. It’s something where you have to work into it.
“It’s not something where you’re going to get the last two or three tenths out of it by driving it harder like you would on a road course. It’s something where you have to think big picture, the whole track. You can’t just think, ‘I’m going to get in here real hot, get into the corner early with a lot of speed.’ That’s going to affect your exit and that’s going to affect your entry into the next corner.
“It’s always big-picture thinking, you’re thinking two laps ahead. When you’re coming up on a pass, you could be setting that guy up for 20 laps and could be making the pass over three laps. You may see me go by him on a certain lap, but that pass has been in the making for three or four laps.”
One thing Hunter-Reay admits he thinks about daily is the Indianapolis 500. Tasting the traditional milk in victory lane is every driver’s dream and a memory he recalls fondly from 2014. Having cars in recent years strong enough to win again – but falling short – has left the Floridian thirsting for the chance to gulp it again.
“The Indy 500 is just about everything to me,” Hunter-Reay says. “It’s everything I think about – I eat, sleep, breathe it. I think about it in the middle of the offseason.
“And when you’re there, it consumes you entirely. When you’re at the racetrack testing for two, three weeks at a time leading up to the event, the nerves – you can feel everybody’s on edge. You have to do your best to keep all of that in check, otherwise it can get the best of you. Experience goes a long way with that, I think.
“And the more you’re there, the more you love it. Every year I go back, I fall in love with it even more than I did the year before because you realize you’re a part of something so incredibly special. Only a certain amount of people have ever had the opportunity to race in that great American tradition and it’s the biggest single-day sporting event in the world, so you have to hold on to every moment you are there.”
Tickets for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, set for May 27, 2018, are available now at IMS.com. The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11. For the complete 2018 schedule, click here.