What do you want to be when you grow up? Ask that question to most young go kart track racers and you will likely hear the obvious answer, a racecar drive.
In the mid 1990s, among all those kids at the go kart track who wanted to be a racecar driver was a young man working hard to get the most out of himself and his go kart, Ryan Hunter-Reay. In 2000 Ryan entered the Barber Dodge Pro Series and started his climb up the open wheel latter. While he now has experience in a variety of open wheel racecars one thing has remained from his go kart days, the desire to get the most out of himself and his racecar.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with one of America’s finest road racers and discuss the life of Ryan.
Mecca of Speed: You have had the opportunity to drive a couple of two seat open wheel racecars in the last year. How would you describe their driving characteristics compared to a single seat open wheel racecar?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Yes, I really enjoy driving both the Champ Car and Formula 1 two-seaters because it gives me the opportunity to share with others that unbelievable exclusive world that only open wheel drivers at the top levels normally get to enjoy. Ninety-nine percent of the time we’re out there enjoying the most exhilarating feeling on earth by ourselves and the only exception is when you drive one of these special cars.
I’m so glad Champ Car has one and more importantly uses it very effectively. The faces on the folks that get out of it, I really can’t describe. As for the driving characteristics, obviously it is de-tuned a touch, Cosworth turns down the boost a bit to extend the time between re-builds, but it isn’t much. They have a longer wheel base and much higher center of gravity compared to the cars that are raced on Sunday. The braking ability is probably the biggest surprise to the passengers. More than once I have felt the thud behind my helmet of the passenger’s helmet impacting the brace post they hold onto. Many passengers have told me they were amazed by the braking ability of the cars and that they were convinced lap after lap we had completely missed the braking point. Mid-corner the car can’t carry nearly as much maximum speed due to the higher center of gravity as well as the smaller wings used as compared to the Lola racecar.
The first time I drove the Champ Car two-seater I thought the higher center of gravity, longer wheelbase and the weight of a passenger it would result in a terribly handling car. To my surprise it handles quite nicely. With just a bit of understeer dialed in for safety, you can have tons of fun with it. Champ Car has done such a great job with their car. Anyone, who is lucky enough to get a ride, find their opinion of Champ Car racing, no matter what it was, is changed forever. Most of them say what they experienced is 100% different from what they thought the sensations were going to be in a Champ Car. In my opinion there is no better tool to get people on board the Champ Car bandwagon. The more journalists, mayors, sponsors, etc. we get in the car, the more positive press it will generate. I wish I could pick some fans out of an autograph line at random during each event and give some of those regular fans that have been so loyal to our series a ride they would remember for the rest of their lives.
Mecca of Speed: What aspect of racing brings you the most satisfaction?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Without a doubt driving an 800 Horsepower open wheel thoroughbred with no driver aids on some of the best circuits in the world. Knowing I have gotten absolutely everything out of the car is the most satisfying. Driving the car well, and using the skills I have learned over 13 years in competition to move up through the field is very satisfying. Getting everything out of a car and putting down a lap as close to perfect as possible doesn’t get any better for me. That said, getting everything out of the car on a particular day doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll be at the front of the grid. It’s an endless process of searching for those precious fractions of a second.
Mecca of Speed: Can you give us an example of a qualifying lap at one of your favorite tracks?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Sure, Road America is definitely one of my favorite tracks so I will use my last visit to that track.
You’ve worked with your engineers, mine was Will Phillips at that time and the Team’s Technical Director was Tom Brown. We had been tweaking our set-up all weekend to my preferences of very little understeer and where the rear of the car just steps out a bit mid-corner. It’s the first qualifying for the provisional pole. This is very important because if you’re fastest in this qualifying your guaranteed a front row starting position. We are pushing harder than we have pushed all weekend.
On new tires I’m breaking deeper, carrying more speed mid-corner speed and getting back to power sooner than ever before. On my final lap the team comes on the radio and says we are 8/10ths off pole. The first half a lap goes perfectly and because Road America is so long it feels as though I should be near the end of the lap, but the toughest and longest bit is still to come. As you approach “Hurry Downs” which leads onto the “Carousel” and then the back straight you brake later than you think possible. Just as you think you might have blown the turn in point the car hooks up and you’re back to power. It’s a feeling of chaos and you know in the back of your mind that the other drivers are on that same screamer lap as well. You have to dig deep and step it up to an even higher level. You see negative splits on the dash through every section and you know you’re into a great lap. That in itself bumps your hear rate up another 10-15bpm. You hold your breath through the corners in order to give your lap absolutely everything you have. The car’s rear end is dancing around at 140 mph through the steady state cornering of the “Carousel” as you dial in countersteer so fast you can hardly see your hands moving and then down the back straight up to 180+mph.
Coming down to “Canada corner” you brake so late and deep, pressing the pedal so hard, it feels as if you’re left foot will poke through the tub. As you fly under the “Billy Mitchell Bridge” you see negative segment times again. You know that you only have two corners to go. Just as the track drops away you get a big moment as the rear steps out and for the last corner coming onto the front straight. You apex over the curb so aggressively to maintain a higher minimum speed your vision goes blurry, as you cross the line. Checking your dash for a time, -1.23 comes up and Vince Kramer, Team Manager, is on the phone confirming P1 and that we have secured the provisional pole. That’s one aspect for me. It’s unreal to say the least, especially at Road America.
Mecca of Speed: What direction or goals do you have set for your self for the 2006 season?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: To secure a seat with a competitive effort and get back to the sharp end of the grid. The top step of the podium as I was in 2003 and 2004.
Mecca of Speed: Outside of motorsports, what is one thing you would like to improve on in 2006?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Stretching more on a regular basis, improve my surfing, snowboarding, and Scuba diving skills.
Mecca of Speed: What was the first car you owned?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: A triple black 96’ Z28 with a few tuner mods.
Mecca of Speed: Drivers are often viewed as either being strong technically or strong on instinct and natural talent. Would you say your driving is more one way or the other?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: I have had the privilege of working with some of the best engineers in the world. David Brown, Graham Taylor, and Kyle Brannan. They have all been very complimentary about my ability to provide precise technical feedback and I really enjoy that aspect of working with an engineer. The driver engineer relationship is after, all the most important component of a teams ability to produce results, and find an optimum set-up for any given weekend or track. When it comes down to it, I think my natural instincts have allowed me to get everything out of a car even when we can’t achive the balance we need.
Mecca of Speed: Two thirds of the earth is water, what aspects of scuba diving bring you the most satisfaction.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: The greatest aspect of scuba diving is the fact that you’re not in your natural environment. You cannot survive there without the equipment strapped to your back. The next closest thing is Space. I remember my first time scuba diving and after about 20 minutes being on the bottom I had this strange feeling. I realized I’m sitting down on the bottom of the ocean for close to a half hour. I haven’t gone up for a breath of air! You’re breathing from a bottle of air on the bottom of the ocean. This is the coolest thing! Once you dive on living coral reefs and huge wrecks, you’re hooked, case closed.
Mecca of Speed: A Mako is fast, a Tiger is aggressive, and a Great White is strong. If you had to pick one of the following as your equivalent in a racecar, which one would you choose and why?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Controlled aggression is the right combination, so a mixture of all would be the best in varying circumstances. I’d say a Tiger because it’s fast, strong, and everyone takes a tiger seriously. A Great White actually closes its eyes when it attacks and I wouldn’t be interested in doing that in my profession.
Mecca of Speed: Name three racecars either current or vintage that you would like to have for a day each at a private track.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Schumacher’s 2003 Ferrari F1 car, 1980 era 1000+HP Williams F1 car, Audi R8.
Mecca of Speed: Long time Champ Car fans remember watching this kid dominate in Indy Lights and then make the transition to Champ Car. What aspects of Greg Moore do you find of the greatest value, not only as a racing driver, but also as a person?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Although Greg was competing far before my time I can comment on his personality. I had just started racing karts and went the Cleveland GP in 1994. Greg was the only driver who took the time to speak with me about karting. He gave me tips and really went that extra distance to listen to me. That experience alone changed me in the long run. The white ring around my helmet with the lightning bolt in the middle initially came from Greg’s design. When I was in Skip Barber I had the full on Greg Moore lightning bolt on the top. As I grew older I personalized it a bit with an effort to make room for sponsor branding on my helmet (white ring), but I kept the lighting bolt (2003 at ASTJ), which is now in the form of a slanted “H”. I then had the tremendous honor of winning the “Greg Moore Legacy Award” in 2004. I can’t begin to describe to you how much that meant to me.
Mecca of Speed: If you could invite five people to dinner, either alive or dead who would they be?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: JFK, Greg Moore, Lance Armstrong, Ayrton Senna and Sir Frank Williams.
Mecca of Speed: A day in the life of a racing driver has to be hectic. If a fan wanted to get a drivers autograph, or say hello and wish them good luck, what is the best time to catch a driver outside of a formal autograph session.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: The great thing about Champ Car is that most of the driver’s are very fan friendly and accessible. I’ve been to some NASCAR races and the drivers definitely blow off fans on a regular basis. You won’t see that in Champ Car. Just before and after a session are probably the worst times to get a driver because our minds are on the job at hand. Between sessions at the transporters is probably the best place, plus that’s when a fan would have the most time to actually talk to a driver rather than just get something signed and walk away. After a session we debrief with our team and engineer for 30 minutes to an hour. After that we’re usually out under the tent talking with the guys working on the car, etc.
Mecca of Speed: Transversely, what times would you consider the worst to try and talk with a driver?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Immediately before, or after a session. Other than that I’m open any time.
Mecca of Speed: What is the most entertaining thing you have seen during a race weekend?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: Surfer’s Paradise. Every year the previous year’s winner has the chance to fly with the Roulette’s as they do an acrobatic air show over the track on Saturday. They prep you like a fighter pilot with the whole works, helmet with oxygen mask, g-suit, etc. The ride is unreal. Just look at my face! (see photograph above)
Mecca of Speed: Ryan, I consider you a very approachable driver and person. For a new fan that may be nervous introducing themselves to you and ask for an autograph or wish you luck, what would you recommend do or remember?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: When we say its all about the fans, it really is all about the fans. The driver’s have so much time for the people that make these awesome events possible. I remember when I was 11 years old I brought a helmet to the track to get signed by all the drivers. The first day I was to shy to even ask for an autograph, but after a few I realized these guys were cool. They were all for it. From there on I didn’t hesitate at all. At a glance the suit with all the logos and everything can be intimidating, but when it comes down to it we have two arms and two legs just like anybody else.
Mecca of Speed: If someone found your iPod and looked under Ryan’s Top Ten play list, what songs would they find?
Ryan Hunter-Reay: I Love Classic Rock. I can’t really narrow it down. But here’s a shot.
Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing
Bob Marley: Sun Is Shining
Boston: More Than a Feeling
Tom Petty: Free Fallin’
Aerosmith: Sweet Emotion
Tom Petty: Runnin’ Down a Dream
Dire Straits: MTV
Eagles: Hotel California the whole album
Fleetwood Mac: All of their albums and everything by Stevie Nicks
Content credit Ryan Hunder-Reay and John Vatne. Photo credit Ryan Hunter-Reay.