‘There is no silver bullet’: Hunter-Reay buckles up for his rebuilding mission at ECR

'There is no silver bullet': Hunter-Reay buckles up for his rebuilding mission at ECR
'There is no silver bullet': Hunter-Reay buckles up for his rebuilding mission at ECR

Ryan Hunter-Reay heads into an adventure this weekend that’s new, old, and awkward as the replacement for Conor Daly.

The IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner also happens to be perfectly suited for the task at hand as he shoulders the responsibility of starting Ed Carpenter Racing’s rebuilding process from the cockpit of the No. 20 Chevy.

The job isn’t solely his to accomplish, but he has been brought in for one reason, and one reason alone, and that’s to help his old friend Ed Carpenter to dig the team out of competitive irrelevance and find a way forward where new teammate Rinus VeeKay and whomever drives the No. 20 entry in the years ahead can give frontrunners like Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing fits at every race on the calendar.

But it won’t be happening in a few days at Road America, or the next round at Mid-Ohio, or in a short time period whatsoever. Mid-season rebuilds are never about today; Road America is simply the start of helping ECR to find its way out of the darkness.

“It is a tough situation,” Hunter-Reay told RACER. “I’ve been on both ends of this. I’ve been on the side where I’ve been replaced, and I’ve been the one coming in doing the replacing, once at Rocketsports on the first side, and then second, at Rahal coming in midseason at Mid-Ohio, replacing Jeff Simmons. I think what a lot of people don’t understand is these scenarios are multifaceted.

“This one came about very fast, and it was one that I was not pursuing. That was not my objective at all. Ed called me about wanting help to take the team forward. This is a scenario where you have a lot of people working within a racing organization, and there can be a number of reasons why the competitive side is not firing on all cylinders. I’ve seen it many times and been a part of it when things aren’t working. And it is a complex situation. It is not straightforward. There is no silver bullet that will fix things. It’s an arduous process to go through.

Having Hunter-Reay take over the No.20 is the first step in what the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner warns will be a very long process to steady the ship at Ed Carpenter Racing. Motorsport Images

“And it’s a tough situation for Conor. Conor is my friend. I have a lot of respect for him, and in no way does that have anything to do with where we are today. It’s just the intricacies of this sport that we love. It’s also cruel sport. And here we are today. It is a massive undertaking.”

Hunter-Reay enters into the rebuilding process with a big mountain to climb. In a perfect world, Friday morning’s opening practice session wouldn’t be he first time participating in an IndyCar road race, with a new team, in 18 months, but there were no other options available to expedite the process.

“I’m jumping into the most competitive racing series in the world, and I’m jumping in with no testing with a program that is new to me, a team I have never gone racing with,” he said. “The one thing that’s made it more straightforward is I know a lot of people there. I’m friends with them, obviously starting with Ed [Carpenter], [general manager] Tim Broyles, [engineering director] Matt Barnes, Peter Craik, my engineer. Jeff Grahn, my crew chief. A lot of these folks I knew and worked with at Andretti Autosport.

“I’ve got a huge undertaking here in getting up to speed. Obviously, I knew the nuances of Road America since I’ve driven a Skip Barber car, but they are no longer because it’s a new surface, so we have that thrown in the mix as well. We didn’t have the luxury of testing a Road America, which would have been nice, so we’ll start from scratch and go from there.”

If there’s one underreported aspect of Hunter-Reay’s recruitment by ECR, it’s in what he can offer outside of the car. From an operational standpoint, his 12 years as a leader within the Andretti organization will be a huge benefit to ECR as its needs go well beyond the Xs and Os of how to tune an IndyCar. It’s in the processes, approaches, and mindsets of how ECR administers its race weekends — and how it breaks down the event that just happened and game plans for the next — where the 42-year-old veteran can shape the program in significant ways.

“I’ve been spending endless hours going through their approach, how they approach a weekend, and how I have been accustomed to approaching a weekend, what I might need or may not need and the race car that they are currently that they are currently deploying on a race weekend,” he said.

“Rinus VeeKay and Conor Daly are really great racing drivers. This isn’t about, ‘Hey, go out there and get those 0.4s out of it that we need right now.’ It’s about opening up some new vantage points of potential. I’m not saying what I do is correct and what they’re doing is incorrect. It’s more that this is a new partnership, a new way of potentially going about things and hopefully, some of those conversations and some of the ways that we might tweak our approach may open up some room for progress.

As well as trying to get ECR back up to speed, Hunter-Reay will have some cobwebs of his own to clear out at Road America this weekend: it will be his first IndyCar road course race since Laguna Seca in 2021 (above). Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

“How do we go about our qualifying sessions? What is our approach on pre-empting the track and its progression; how quickly it progresses? In IndyCar, you cannot react all the time. You can’t just react and say, ‘Okay, let’s go out there and see what the track has, see how it likes the primary ties and then adjust for alternates.’ No, you have got to preempt that change, know what to expect as the track inevitably grips up or loses grip, and you have to be two steps ahead of it so that you’re within that operating window you want to be in the session and not always reacting to it and being a step or two behind.

“These things are all scenarios that we have to be cognizant of. And there’s a million things going through my head every day, waking up in the middle of the night jotting down notes, but [also] of things that I think worked when I was at the same program for 12 years. I’m trying to do my best to also be an advocate for this team, because they have great people, and to be someone that can just bring in a fresh perspective. This isn’t, ‘Hey, Conor is out Ryan’s in, and Ryan, you fix it, go faster.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a very, very complex situation that will take time, and it’s one I take very seriously.”

As much as he doesn’t want it to be the case, Hunter-Reay knows that by coming in cold to Road America, there’s a very real chance he could end Friday at the bottom of the speed chart. For the proud winner of 18 IndyCar races, it’s a chance he’s willing to take while starting ECR’s much-needed overhaul.

“I’ve always looked at things from a realistic standpoint, and I am optimistic as I can possibly be about anything in racing, but I understand that when you look at the depth of the field, and see really top notch championship-winning and Indy 500-winning drivers down in the 20s – guys who have won numerous races down in the 20s – it could be where I start things off,” he said.

“I have prepared myself mentally for that, and that would not make me happy, but I also have to understand and I have to respect the fact that I’m jumping in after not being in the car for a year and a half while they are in the middle of the season and everybody’s in their groove, so to speak, when I’m trying to find my footing. And I have to have respect for the fact that this is a period of transition, it’s not a session of transition. So I have respect for that situation, but I have to be fair to myself as well in curbing my expectations.

“I’ve been accustomed to seeing my name up there on the happy part of the timesheets, so I have to be fair also to myself in that I’m the one that’s going to be tasked with adapting the most of anyone else out there. Everything will be new for me, but if I just keep my blinders on, and I’m sure some people will have opinions about me being there, but I’m there to work with the team and I’m there to be the best that I can for them. And that process is one step at a time. I won’t even say one session at a time. It’s one outing at a time, one lap at a time. We’ve got a whole lot to catch up on and adapt to, and it starts now.”

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