Ryan Hunter-Reay has nearly done it all when it comes to the Indianapolis 500.
Rookie of the Year, in the all-time top 40 of laps led during the race (currently at No. 36 with 163), front-row starter — and of course, Indianapolis 500 champion, after Hunter-Reay made a dramatic pass on Helio Castroneves with four laps to go and held off the Brazilian’s furious challenge to win the 2014 race in the second-closest finish in 500 history at 0.06 seconds.
Yes, he’s pretty much done it all except win the comeback of the year award. Well, there’s no such award, but if there was, Hunter-Reay, 42, would be one of the field’s top candidates.
The tall native of Florida is back at the Brickyard to take place in the 107th edition of the race after a year’s sabbatical from behind the wheel.
Hunter-Reay was at the race last year, but in a consultant role for Juncos Hollinger Racing.
“That was a different position for me, but a healthy one,” Hunter-Reay said. “(The Indianapolis 500) means the world to me and it was good to be here, putting my knowledge to work, helping another team. Seeing it all from 30,000 feet was nice and gave me a new perspective, focus and a greater respect for the 500.
“There’s nothing like this race.”
When Hunter-Reay starts the race on Sunday, it will be his first IndyCar race since he placed 23rd at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26, 2021 — not a normal finishing position for an 18-time IndyCar race winner and 2012 series champion.
Although he was out of the series for a year, Hunter-Reay’s not been idle, keeping his skills sharp by driving a Cadillac for Chip Ganassi in the IMSA Series and in the Superstar Racing Experience — also known as the SRX series.
“I was racing with the NASCAR Cup guys six times on Saturday nights,” Hunter-Reay said. “Also, some endurance racing and testing. It definitely kept me busy.”
It also kept Hunter-Reay’s name fresh in the minds of Indy Car owners — including Johnson County businessman Dennis Reinbold, owner of the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team. Reinbold tabbed Hunter-Reay and teammate Stefan Wilson as the drivers for this year’s effort. (Wilson will miss the race due to injuries suffered during practice on Monday; Graham Rahal was named as a replacement on Tuesday.)
“I am thrilled to have Ryan Hunter-Reay join our lineup for the 2023 Indianapolis 500,” Reinbold said. “Ryan is a proven winner at the Speedway and is a tremendously talented driver who is a great addition to our team for this year’s 500.”
Hunter-Reay, driving the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Chevrolet, made three attempts to qualify.
Not happy with his first run of 231.613 mph, Hunter-Reay improved to a 232.133 mph lap on his second run to qualify 18th (outside of Row 6). He attempted to improve his time a third time but was a tick short and remained 18th.
Nevertheless, that afternoon run left Hunter-Reay a bit more satisfied than the morning run, where he drew the first chance to qualify.
“The first run was harder than I thought it would be,” Hunter-Reay said. “We kind of lost the consistency of the run. The last two laps really took a step down and it really hurt our average.
“But we found out what works and what doesn’t and were able to improve.”
As a former winner, Hunter-Reay has high expectations, but he also realizes it’s going to be a tough race as he’s going to be battling several other former winners and many who want to add a Borg-Warner Trophy to their collection.
And Hunter-Reay has admitted the race has cost him a few hours of sleep.
“It’s more than racing to me,” Hunter-Reay said. “And it’s what makes (Reinbold’s) clock tick. We’re prepared, but every day is different and that’s what’s beautiful. You can be on it one day, and think you’ve got it all figured out and then (the track) will kick you in the butt the next day.
“It’s a beautiful process.”
IF YOU GO
When: Sunday, 12:45 p.m. (gates open 6 a.m.)
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Tickets: $45 general admission; reserved seats $65 and up
TV: NBC (blacked out locally)