The championship mettle of Hunter McElrea and Andretti Autosport was already tested in the opening weekend of the 2023 season at the INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
McElrea, 23, came away with a respectable fifth-place finish after starting 12th on March 5, but it was astounding he was able to race after enduring a heavy crash in the first practice just two days prior. He was rolling the No. 27 Smart Motors car around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit and just getting settled in when he got out of shape through Turn 3 and pounded the outside wall.
The damage was severe and pushed crew members from each of the four teams at Andretti Autosport to handle repairs for over six hours, finishing around 9:30 p.m. ET. Don Lambert, team manager of Andretti Autosport’s INDY NXT operation, shared the extent of the repairs.
“The complete front wing, complete left front suspension from the tub out,” Lambert said. “From what we call the front of the sidepod is the beak, that whole piece and all the sidepod, the radiator inlet, inter cooler and oil cooler, left rear side suspension, rear wing, underwing, wheels, uprights, driveshaft, bell housing. The engine is the only thing we didn't have to take out (Friday) night.”
The race for 2022 series Rookie of the Year McElrea was a bout of survival as starting mid-pack put him right amid trouble. Originally a 45-lap contest, the race was relegated to a timed event after five cautions forced the retirement of five of the 19 competitors and left 11 finishing on the lead lap.
While a championship can’t be won in the first race of the season, it can certainly be lost. The rebound from an awful start of the weekend to a top five could prove pivotal at season’s end for McElrea.
“Everyone was, first race of the year, probably a bit too excited in some areas, and it was good for me, just had to keep my nose clean,” McElrea said. “It was a very up-and-down race, but managed to drive to a top five, which honestly, I'll take. This weekend was a big struggle from practice one, and the team did an amazing job from getting me back on track. When you have a crash like that, you're always going to be on the back foot.
“I have to say a huge thank you to the team for working so hard to get me back on track. We were the fastest car pretty much most of the race. And truthfully, I was conserving push-to-pass and tires the whole time. It was definitely a slug fest. I feel like this weekend was one of those days where you win the championships on these kinds of days and so not so much the days where you're the dominant car.”
In the end, the effort put forth by Andretti Autosport helped to motivate the New Zealander.
“Andretti is by far the best team on pit lane, no doubt,” said McElrea, who earned two wins, seven podiums and three poles en route to fourth in the championship standings last year. “The pedigree speaks for itself. So, it's a huge honor to drive for this team. That's just one of the many reasons why they're good; they get me back on track, and I owe this one to them.
“It wasn't a win, right? It's not like I'm super, super happy or anything, but I'm definitely not disappointed. I'm 100 percent satisfied with this result, considering everything and that really is owed to the team.”