At the end of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ 2012 season, Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay were similarly celebrating at Auto Club Speedway. Carpenter had won the race, Hunter-Reay the season championship.
“Great memories,” Hunter-Reay said this week. “Ed won the race, and he was out there doing (tire) donuts while I was being handed the championship trophy. Certainly, a pretty cool scenario.”
Today, the series veterans stand together in a different, arguably more challenging pursuit. Beginning with Sunday’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR, the team owner and the driver he secured for the No. 20 Bitnile.com Chevrolet will attempt to get the proud program back on track.
This has been a difficult period for Ed Carpenter Racing. Since the start of the 2020 season, there have been only three top-10 finishes for the No. 20 car, with Conor Daly delivering two of them in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (sixth in 2022, eighth last month). Carpenter felt the group needed a new direction, asking Hunter-Reay, whose 283 career starts ranks 10th in series history, to take the wheel from Daly.
Hunter-Reay insists there are no “silver bullets,” a reference to the unlikeliness of an abrupt turnaround. The sport, as competitive as it is, doesn’t work that way, although in 2007 he stepped in Rahal Letterman Racing’s No. 17 car midseason at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and finished seventh.
Hunter-Reay stressed patience in this endeavor, noting almost everything is unique, including Road America’s 14-turn, 4.014-mile circuit that was recently repaved for the first time since 1995. Lap times are expected to drop by four to five seconds this weekend, perhaps even to the point of challenging Dario Franchitti’s track record of 1 minute, 39.866 seconds set in 2000.
“Even the small things I knew about Road America since I was 17 years old in a 2-liter car, the little nuances are gone,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’ve got a new track surface, new team, new car, new group of people to work with. So, there’s just a lot going on.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, but I’m also a realist. I’m approaching this from a pretty disciplined standpoint in curbing expectations, just taking this … lap by lap, outing by outing, and at the moment we’re going day by day just trying to prepare for this thing.
“There’s a lot to digest and to consider.”
The first practice of the weekend is at 4 p.m. ET Friday (Peacock, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network). That session is 75 minutes in duration, with a second practice at 10:55 a.m. Saturday. In short, Hunter-Reay and ECR won’t have much time prior to NTT P1 Award qualifying to get in sync.
What Carpenter needs from Hunter-Reay is his experience, and the 42-year-old Floridian has loads of it. Beyond his series championship and 18 career race wins, including the 2014 Indianapolis 500, are stops with eight different INDYCAR SERIES teams in a career that dates to 2003, including 12 straight seasons with Andretti Autosport from 2010-21. Add to that numerous sports car rides, including one with Chip Ganassi Racing that also had him on standby to drive the No. 10 car in the second half of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season if Alex Palou wasn’t available due to a legal dispute with the team.
Hunter-Reay’s connection to Carpenter is another plus, and it’s more than sharing the spotlight at the last race of the 2012 season. Three years prior, Hunter-Reay started the season with Vision Racing, the team formed by Carpenter’s stepfather, Tony George, and the drivers were teammates for six races. Hunter-Reay also said he tested with what became ECR at the end of the 2013 and 2021 seasons.
Now fathers of three children each, Hunter-Reay and Carpenter have a friendship that runs deep, and they know how to communicate with each other, which will be a critical part of this pursuit. Both are known as level-headed, patient men who consume their racing information in concise fashion.
“Ed is a good friend of mine,” Hunter-Reay said. “He called me and said: ‘I need your help – would you be willing to do this? This is the situation that we’re in.’”
Hunter-Reay competed in his only series race of the season last month in the “500,” finishing 11th in Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet. Coincidentally, a situation involving the team’s other car is comparable to what Hunter-Reay will experience this weekend.
Graham Rahal was tabbed as the last-minute replacement for the injured Stefan Wilson, and Rahal had a single two-hour practice on Miller Lite Carb Day to familiarize himself with the DRR car. Hunter-Reay said it is a relearning process that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
“You would think it would just be as easy as dropping (a driver’s) seat in the car, (changing) helmets and a fire suit,” he said. “It’s a lot of different stuff. All the settings on the dash, on the wheel, the hand grips, where the knobs are. I’ve had muscle memory, and so does Graham, being with the same team for so long. You don’t even have to think about where this deal is or when you’re in the heat of the moment coming (to pit road) at 220 mph where the pit lane speed limit button is; all of these things that are crucial to having a successful race.”
Hunter-Reay said during the first practice at Indy he had to look down to find where to place his thumb to engage the team’s two-way radio.
“In the past, I wouldn’t have to look at any of it,” he said. “I knew where everything was.”
Hunter-Reay gains confidence having worked with engineer Peter Craik and chief mechanic Jeff Grahn years ago at Andretti Autosport. He is eager to work with Rinus VeeKay, whom he calls “a great talent,” and he hopes to have the same impact on the still-young driver that another former series champion, Jimmy Vasser, had on him as teammates during his rookie season on Stefan Johansson’s Champ Car team in ‘03.
Hunter-Reay said he and Carpenter agreed to take this new partnership race by race. They have much to draw on, but there are no guarantees and, as Hunter-Reay mentioned, no “silver bullets.”
“We’re just plugging away hour by hour, day by day, and looking forward to the weekend ahead,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes.”
The Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR is Sunday at 1 p.m. (USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network).