As the Olympics soon wrap up over in Japan, the NTT IndyCar Series season will then resume this weekend on the streets of Nashville. With that said, a big topic of conversation surrounding this year’s Olympic Games has been mental health and the affects around it. For one INDYCAR driver, he says that there’s been times that he too battles the mental games as well.
This is something that we can’t take lightly. It’s real. In order to compete at the highest of levels in your respective sport, you have to be 100% invested. When you’re not, your performance can slip and in some sports, well it could be fatal.
Take racing as an example. A slight mistake could result in a tragic accident which in turn could result in a serious injury. You’re so on edge inside of these race cars that there’s no time for a mental lapse.
See, this sport isn’t just physical, it’s mental too. The concentration levels in racing is extreme, especially this weekend on the streets of Nashville when the speeds will be near 200 mph in some areas and battling 26 other cars with concrete walls just inches away.
Plus, the series now is as tight as its ever been. The climb to the top is as hard to get to as ever before but the fall to the bottom is as rapid as any other time. With 27 drivers competing in Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network), there’s realistically a chance that at least 20 of them could have a shot at victory in the inaugural event. Focusing elsewhere can be the difference in first or last to be honest.
I mean we’ve had 10 races run this season with eight different winners. This is a first time race without any past notes to compare off of. It’s truly a blank slate.
“Yeah, absolutely, it is. It’s a clean sheet of paper, and you might say, that we all get to get out there and get after it for the first time,” Ryan Hunter-Reay said.
“Really what you’re doing is you’re working on your car trying to maximize the tires’ contact patch, staying on the ground as often as possible, generating as much grip as possible, so the team and driver combo that does that the best and most efficiently is going to have the pace.
“We’ll all be working in a hurry. We’ve got a 75-minute session to begin with, which is good. It gives us a little bit of extra time to wrap our heads around the situation. We get to sleep on it and come back and practice, but yeah, it does present an opportunity where everybody is kind of looking at it in a fresh situation, fresh approach. It’s definitely a welcome challenge coming up.”
Then there’s the aspect that not many other street races translate over to this weekend. With such long straights and not too many slow corners here, drivers say you could actually trim your cars out more in Nashville than any other street circuit.
“It could be,” Ryan Hunter-Reay told me on Wednesday regarding Nashville racing more like a speedway race in downforce levels than a true street race. “We’ve had those racetracks in the past, like Saõ Paulo, where, yeah, you needed all the downforce you could get in the corners. But you have to get down those straights fast if you want to be able to pass or keep cars behind you. It could definitely go that way.
“We’re looking at first- and second-gear corners on the other side of the track connected by long straights, so when you consider that, we’re not going through any really high-speed corners where you where need downforce, so it definitely could go that way.”
For Hunter-Reay, he’s got all of this on his mind as well as his future in the sport too. He’s a free agent at seasons end and by all accounts, this will be his 12th and final year with Andretti Autosport. The team has basically said that it’s time for a reset and while he’d be open to coming back, Hunter-Reay admits that it quite possibly be best too.
“I’ve got some options that I’m working on,” Hunter-Reay said on his options next year. “We’ll see. We’re kind of taking it day by day here to see where things kind of shake out.
“Obviously I’ve had a tremendous time at Andretti Autosport. I’ve been there, what, 12 years, I think; have been with DHL for 11. Won a lot of races together, championship, Indy 500 and things like that.
“And sometimes you need to shake it up. Sometimes there needs to be change, and I agree with that. Michael said that, as well. The team has to find a stride, and we’ll see what that entails.
“I’ve had a great time there with them, and we’ll see. Maybe it continues, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s not something that — I put the most pressure on myself, and within our 28 team we are there to win races, and when we’re not getting that done, we know we’re not getting the job done and we’ve got to work harder and we’ve got to find why and when and where. We need to be to make it happen.
While it’s frustrating in a sense that Hunter-Reay has been tied to DHL and Andretti for the last decade to go along with winning the 2012 series championship as well as the 2014 Indy 500, he’s at a fork in the road. Where does he go?
For someone with his credentials, almost every door should be opened. It’s not every day that a series champion, let alone an Indy 500 champion, hit the open market. But, for a sport that’s generally getting younger and younger, where does a 40 year old land?
He says he has a couple of options for next year but to what extent he doesn’t know yet.
“I think that I’ll be in an INDYCAR for sure at some point,” he continued. “Again, I don’t know to what extent that is or what options there are. We’re working on those right now. They’re in discussions. They’re constantly moving. Things are moving and shaking, and, yeah, we’ll see.
“Depends on how enticing and attractive one versus the other may be. Yeah, I’ve got to make some decisions on that side and also have to continue the communication on all fronts.
“Got some different scenarios and different options for next year, but nothing to really talk about yet that’s definitive.”
The other factor is Hunter-Reay has seen his stats drop off too. His last win came in the 2018 season finale. That was 41 races ago. He’s only had two wins since the 2016 season and one podium in his last 28 starts including just three during this 40 race winless drought.
Is it him or is it the car/team? Which is it? That’s a battle that could mentally take you down the wrong path. I mean its not like Hunter-Reay has forgotten how to drive an Indy Car. A champion is a champion. He’s been to the top of this sport and has reached victory lane 18 times in it. You don’t fluke into any of that.
They just have to figure out how to get back on pace but unfortunately, it may be too little too late for his career path with this team.
“I think as a whole obviously the team, we need to find our stride again, Andretti Autosport,” he said. “Colton has done a great job with that win at the beginning of the season. But, yeah, I think Alex is obviously one of the top INDYCAR drivers, as well, and he hasn’t won in 30 races and I haven’t won in 40. We’ll see. We’re working on it, trust me.
“All of rest of it kind of shakes out in the wash, I think.
“The only reason we’re in this is to win.”
He’s as talented as they come. He’s a driven and determined as they come too. So, with the last three seasons now being as frustrating as he’s had in this sport, how do you battle the game between your ears and figure out a way to get back to the top when the team around you is generally struggling too?
“It’s tough, absolutely,” he told me on the mental aspect of all of this. “You’ve got a lot of pressure on your shoulders with expectations from sponsors, from partners, from manufacturers, from the team itself. There’s a massive amount of pressure. It’s always been that way.”
Hunter-Reay said though that the silver lining to keep him at bay in this is just seeing that race car sitting there with his name on it.
“I the luckiest guy in the world or what? Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it, but I’m doing what I love for a living,” he continued. “I mean, that is something that very few can say that they do, and I’m so extremely thankful for that opportunity and that I’ve been able to do that for so many years.
“So any time that I feel that crunch and that void and that weight kind of setting like, oh, man, this is just so tough and things like that. Well, no. You’ve won a lot of races. You’ve won the championship, Indy 500, and you’re doing what you absolutely love to do for a living. When you do that, like they say, you never have to work a day in your life.
“Yeah, there is a lot of pressure, but then you think about it relative to other people and going through difficult times and what they actually have to go through, things come into perspective pretty quickly.”
This weekend is a great chance for him to get the pace back. It is a clean slate as he said but Hunter-Reay has had great success in early years of new tracks. He won the second year in Baltimore. He got a podium in the last inaugural race in COTA.
Take Belle Isle out this year and you see Hunter-Reay was fifth in St. Pete last year as the lone street course on the schedule. He was second, first, fifth and fourth respectively between 2018 and 2019 in Detroit. He has the capability to get back going again as he ended 2020 with three top five finishes in the final five races. He had three top 10’s in his final five starts of 2019 and a runner-up followed by a win in the final races of 2018.
He’s a closer and not ready to close the book on his INDYCAR career just yet. He has some fight left in him and I think he not only turns things around this year, but he finds a new ride next year that he’ll be just as successful in.