Hunter McElrea

It took longer than expected, but Hunter McElrea was finally part of the podium celebrations after the sixth round of the 2023 season last Sunday in INDY NXT by Firestone at Road America.

After a roller coaster of a campaign to this point, the result at the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course happened after McElrea started a lowly 13th. While qualifying might have been a problem, race pace was not. His No. 27 Smart Motors entry for Andretti Autosport charged to eighth by the end of Lap 1 of 20, and then climbed into the top five by the fourth lap.

From there, McElrea, 23, drove a clean race and managed any tire degradation that saw rivals fall down the order, helping him progress to third by the time the checkered flag waved.

“Yeah, it's been crazy,” McElrea said. “This weekend is an accurate description of my year so far, which is just like yo-yo madness.”

The outing marked the best finish of the year for McElrea, which also provided a sense of relief as he climbed to third in the championship standings, 56 points behind leader Nolan Siegel with eight races remaining.

This finish was more in line with expectations as McElrea came into this year with title aspirations after a strong 2022 when he claimed two wins, seven podium finishes and three poles en route to top rookie honors and fourth in the overall standings.

In what he dubbed “not a bad Sunday,” McElrea believes the performance at “America’s National Park of Speed” could help provide a jolt for the rest of the season after a slow start.

“The year hasn't really gotten started yet, I don't feel like, but we're lingering there,” McElrea said. “I think it's coming, but to be honest, mate, if you told me, you would podium starting 13th, I think anyone in their right mind will take that.”

Going into Road America, McElrea built a solid but unsatisfactory run of results, including three top-fives and only one finish outside the top 10. All the more reason he recognized it was now or never to get on the podium and start building momentum for the rest of the season.

“I kind of touched it before, but the year has just been so weird,” McElrea said. “So, the fact that I'm kind of in the hunt ... for sure, this was needed. But is it a win? No. It's obviously kind of as the second half of the year goes on, you kind of see the guys who are racing the championship, probably us three (Jacob Abel, Nolan Siegel and McElrea), Christian (Rasmussen) right now, and Louis (Foster), but you can't count anyone out, either.

“So, yeah, long story short, I'm really happy to be on the podium. I didn't think my first podium year was going to come from 13th, but here we are.”