After a successful Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship season, Hunter McElrea carried the momentum right into the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, putting down the quickest Indy Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires lap of the weekend.
McElrea recently spoke with POPULAR OPEN WHEEL about his USF2000 season, the Indy Pro 2000 test, and more.
POPULAR OPEN WHEEL: What are your thoughts on the test at Indianapolis?
HUNTER MCELREA: I couldn’t have asked for much more than what happened. Obviously it was my first weekend in the car, so obviously I wanted to be competitive, but my main idea was to see where I was going to stack up and where I was sitting going into the offseason and what I need to work on. Obviously to leave the test P1 overall was a pretty awesome start to my Indy Pro career.
Obviously the hard work is finding the budget that I need to find to be in the car next season to be back in the car and with Pabst. We had a successful USF2000 season, even with losing out on the title in the last race. But it was still a good experience to see we were competitive already and now it’s just about finding that money that we’re missing without the scholarship, really.
POW: What was the big difference that you felt between the Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 car?
HUNTER: To be honest, it’s kind of not just one thing in particular; everything exponentially goes up. So it’s the same chassis, same steering wheel and same seat as I had in my USF2000 car, so in that aspect, it feels very comfortable to drive. It makes that learning process and transition process a lot easier. But it’s so much more power, so much more mechanical and aerodynamic grip, so you feel it in your body a lot as it’s a lot more physical inside the car. You can attack the brakes a lot harder, bigger tires – so the mid-corner speed is higher.
It just takes a little bit to get used to everything happening a little quicker and trust the extra grip that you have even going faster. But honestly, great job to everybody involved because they’ve made that perfect stepping stone to adjust to more power, more grip, and everything. It’s a big step, but it’s not too big; it’s the perfect amount towards IndyCar. I really enjoyed driving the car and can’t wait to do more laps.
POW: What are your thoughts on the 2019 USF2000 season?
HUNTER: I think overall it was a very successful year in terms of results – most pole positions, most laps led. Obviously the second half of the year in particular as we dominated it with four poles in a row and I finished no lower than second till the last race of the year, obviously where I had the issue in qualifying and had to start last. The lowest I finished was second and I won all the other races. That propelled me obviously into the championship lead, and from Mid-Ohio onwards, we just really dominant. It was awesome to have that experience in my first year racing in America, to come on the scene and prove myself in that aspect and fight for the championship.
Obviously not winning it was extremely disappointing. I had the lead going into Laguna for the championship and had an electrical part fail on my car on my outlap in qualifying two, so I didn’t get to set a single lap and had to start dead last. I ended up losing the championship lead and the championship in the last race because of having to come through the field. That was super tough, but overall, I’m proud of my performance obviously.
I learned so much in my first year racing in America and my first year on the Road to Indy, and just a matter of thanks to Augie for letting me part of his team and giving me such a good car, and everybody at Pabst Racing – but also Mazda Motorsports for giving me this incredible scholarship I was able to use this year. So probably the biggest disappointing part of not winning the championship is not getting the scholarship again, which puts me in a lot tougher position heading into next year. But I will keep working hard and see what I can do to hopefully be back on the Road to Indy in a Indy Pro 2000 car.
POW: What was your favorite moment from the year?
HUNTER: There were a lot of really good moments. Obviously the biggest relief moment for me was when I got my first win. I had a couple good podiums to star the season, had a tough oval race where I crashed and had to start last. So passing through the field at Lucas Oil Raceway is always difficult, so that was a little disappointing. But the next race, I did what I needed and won at Road America, which has been like a home event for me. So I had so many other teams, friends, family, and other support just at that race. So that was definitely a cool moment for me to get that win and reward the team for their belief in me.
I obviously have to say Portland was an amazing weekend. Through practice, qualifying and both races – I was fast, won both poles, and won both events. In a level of racing like the Road to Indy to have a weekend like that, it never happens. To have such a dominant weekend like that is definitely a highlight, I’d say.
POW: If you were able to continue your way up the Road to Indy ladder and reach the IndyCar series one day, what would that mean to you?
HUNTER: Everything. My whole life is dedicated to that. I’m trying to find the words chasing my dream, and that’s the exact dream that I am chasing. To be in IndyCar, there are so many people like me who have the same dream. But to have gotten to where I have right now, purely just from winning myself to this position with my supporters on my back, there’s no where else in the world that you can do that. In Europe, if you win a championship, you don’t get any reward. Nowhere really has this amazing ladder like America does, which kind of gives that real clear path to the top step. Oliver Askew is a perfect example of that; he’s literally won his way to an IndyCar seat. So for me, that’s exactly my plan.
Obviously I had a setback not winning the USF2000 Championship which is tough, but it’s not always a straight line. I’m sure there’s many many highs and there will be some more lows in the future, but the highs outweigh the lows and my goal is to continue the Road to Indy and hopefully one day be like Oliver. It’s possible if you’re good enough. We’ll see what the next few years have in store. I’m definitely going to be putting everything that I have and can into it, so we’ll see what happens. But that’s everything that I’m working for.
POW: How did you get started in racing?
HUNTER: So my grandpa and father raced in New Zealand. My granddad won a championship in New Zealand, and my dad won a Formula 4 Championship, and a TransAm Championship. I kind of have always just loved it from when I was born really, and I can’t think of a moment where I didn’t want to race cars. All I can remember is being in love in racing. It’s not one of those things where I had a certain day that I decided I was going to do it, it was just that I was going to do it.
So I dabbled in go-karts a little bit; never really did anything crazy in go-karts, but started off in Formula Ford and properly racing and getting some good results. From there, I won the championship which gave me the shootout ticket and then obviously winning the shootout propelled me into racing in USF.
POW: Who would you consider your racing hero?
HUNTER: Definitely Scott Dixon. In 2008, I watched him win the Indianapolis 500 which was a really cool thing obviously being a New Zealand driver, and always being my hero. I obviously want to follow in his footsteps, and I had the opportunity to speak with him and we just talked for about an hour. It was really cool to not just meet him, but have someone like that in my corner to give me some advice and lean on a little. He’s been really awesome in helping me out and offering me some advice here and there. To have my original hero that inspired me to take this pathway to IndyCar, talking every now and then, is pretty awesome.
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