Hunter McElrea has made the jump to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires for the 2022 season, but in some ways his recent move to Indianapolis has been more dramatic.
New Zealand national McElrea spent the past three years driving for Pabst Racing’s Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 team, which is located in the lake country Wisconsin community of Oconomowoc (west of Milwaukee, population of about 17,000). Now he drives for Andretti Autosport, which in addition to being based in Indiana’s capital city is only a short drive from the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In addition to Andretti Autosport’s many platforms of motorsports endeavors, McElrea said the presence of so many race car drivers living in the community has been a definite change for him.
“I’m really enjoying this new life,” he said, smiling big during Monday’s Indy Lights Content Day at INDYCAR’s headquarters. “It’s a new, kind of a fresh challenge. New team, new city, new people around me. It’s all new and exciting, and I’m having a good time with it.”
And then there’s Michael Andretti’s race shop, which features five miniature Borg-Warner Trophies for winning the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and a wall full of banners celebrating the team’s success in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES over the years. The team has won 68 series races and four season championships, plus the five “500” wins.
“The first time I went there I was like a kid in a candy shop,” said McElrea, who was born in Los Angeles but calls Australia’s Gold Coast home. “It was like, wow, looking at all of the people, all of the resources, all of the rooms. It’s just so crazy.
“It’s definitely the coolest shop I’ve seen in person.”
New teammate Christian Rasmussen, who joined Andretti Autosport after four years at Jay Howard Driver Development, said Andretti’s setup is like “a racing corporation.”
McElrea has obviously noticed all the Indy Lights talent the team is fielding this season. Rasmussen has won consecutive season championships in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000, Sting Ray Robb won the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 title and Matthew Brabham, a “500” starter in 2016, captured the past three Stadium Super Truck championships and won USF2000 in 2013 and Pro Mazda (the predecessor to Indy Pro 2000) in 2014. McElrea finished third in Indy Pro 2000 last year.
Linus Lundqvist, whose 2022 team has not yet been confirmed, is Indy Lights’ highest-returning performer from a year ago, a three-time race winner who finished third in the standings behind current INDYCAR SERIES rookies Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas. Benjamin Pedersen of Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports is another expected championship contender after finishing one position behind Lundqvist in Indy Lights last season.
“The competition in Indy Lights this year is so high that it’s not one guy (you’re watching),” McElrea said. “I’ve topped some tests, (Rasmussen) has topped some tests, Sting Ray has topped some tests – and that’s just on this team.
“There’s probably eight guys (in the series) who you could make a good argument for in winning the championship.”
Said Robb: “Each one of our drivers has been on top at least one of the test days so far. So, that gives you an example of what the season is going to look like.”
A Racing Neighborhood
When McElrea speaks of so many Indy Lights drivers living in proximity to one another in Central Indiana, he literally means it.
At least four drivers in this year’s Indy Lights field live in the same apartment complex, with two more living about a block away. And with the former are at least a half-dozen INDYCAR SERIES drivers.
Lundqvist said he was recruited to the complex by James Roe, who will drive in this Indy Lights season with TJ Speed Motorsports making its debut in the series. The team also will field a car for Kyffin Simpson, who won last year’s Formula Regional Americas Championship for the team. New Indy Lights driver Ernie Francis Jr. (Force Indy) finished third in the standings.
“What’s fun about it,” Lundqvist said of living close, “is everyone is in the same boat, having moved here either from across the country or from another country, back where our families are.
“We’re all chasing our dreams. Obviously, you need to have social connections outside of the racing, and it makes sense for us to hang out, train together or go to (breakfast) together. It’s good, for sure.”
A Good (Truck) Jumper, Too
Brabham has been the recent king of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck Series, but another Indy Lights driver fared well in 2021 in limited action.
Jacob Abel of Abel Motorsports, an Indy Lights rookie after three years in Indy Pro 2000, finished second in one of the Nashville street races. He was one position ahead of Brabham, who praised his quick learning.
“He did a good job,” Brabham said.
“I loved them,” Abel said. “I did Nashville and Long Beach, although I was sick in Long Beach and didn’t get to race in the second race. Both were tracks I had never been to before.”
Abel got the invitation to compete from one of his sponsors who also sponsors one of the trucks. The intended driver had bailed out, and Abel, with no relevant experience, was offered the seat. They “tested” in a parking lot for about 30 minutes and headed to Nashville.
“I grew up riding dirt bikes and I’m a little bit of a thrill seeker and an adrenaline junkie, but it’s nuts,” Abel said. “I knew I couldn’t psyche myself out for it, so I was in the (truck) for 15 seconds and went over the jump. That was it, done.
“Once you get over the jumping it’s just another race car you’re trying to get to go fast. But you’re on three wheels for a lot of corners, which is different.”
- Indy Lights certainly has a tall list of drivers. Christian Bogle, Hunter McElrea and Sting Ray Robb are each well over 6-foot-2. Bogle seems to be the tallest at 6-4, although any one of the three could claim vertical superiority. “A basketball team,” McElrea said. Brabham said his driver’s license puts him at 6-foot, but he confirmed he is more likely 5-11. Still, that’s taller than most race car drivers.
- Bogle’s off-track ride is worth noting. It’s a charcoal pearl metallic 1992 Nissan Skyline R-32 with 43,000 miles, which he has big plans for. The biggest: A full engine rebuild, which he plans to do himself. He calls it his “project car,” but he has high hopes for it. “It’s a bit of a sleeper,” he said.
- Francis appreciates so many Indy Lights drivers living near each other in Indianapolis, but on a cold winter day in Indianapolis, he said he’d do fine by continuing to be based in South Florida. “I could see maybe coming up here during the season, when it’s summer,” he said, laughing.
The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season begins with the first race Feb. 27 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Catch all the action on Peacock, NBC Sports’ live streaming service.