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After a fun family detour, Ryan Hunter-Reay gets back on the road to the Indy 500

Watch the best moments from Day 1 of practice for the 2023 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which saw Takuma Sato record the fastest lap speed on the day.

INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Hunter-Reay had plenty of time to think about the next stage of his Indy career last summer when he was driving the entire family, including a puppy, in his motorhome through the Midwest.

The 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 NTT IndyCar Series champion was competing in the six-race Superstar Racing Experiences (SRX) Series, after stepping away from the NTT IndyCar Series to rejuvenate and reflect on what he wanted to do next.

Hunter-Reay, 42, wanted to return to the cockpit of an Indy car and compete in the Indy 500, but it had to be the right opportunity.

Meantime, Hunter-Reay had a chance to be “Dad” to his sons Ryden, Rocsen and Rhodes and spend more time with his wife, Beccy.

“It was priceless, honestly,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports Wednesday morning in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “They are at that age where they are so impressionable. Having Dad around to be a presence more often, coaching their sports teams, being with them, working on their homework with them, sharing opportunities with them.

“We drove around the Midwest in the motorhome with a puppy going to all the SRX races. That is something that I will never be able to do again. Not because I don’t want to do it, but it was crazy spending that much time in the motorhome with the full family.

“It was really, really valuable experience.”

Hunter-Reay was a consultant with Juncos-Hollinger Racing at last year’s Indianapolis 500 and had been approached by several teams to see if he were interested in making a run at Indy in 2022, but the timing wasn’t right. He also was on standby for Chip Ganassi Racing during the team’s contract dispute with Alex Palou.

“It was actually nice to gain some perspective on the whole thing and be removed,” he said. “I had been with the same team for 12 years. Coming back here in a consultant role with Juncos-Hollinger last year for this race, I knew I wanted to come back. It feels like it has been a long time, but it was worth the wait.”

The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native had a chance to see the Indianapolis 500 through a clear lens, rather than in the high-pressure world from the cockpit of a race car speeding down the front straight at 245 miles per hour entering Turn 1.

“The most striking thing from the outside looking in through the week of practice and qualifying is how stressful it is to everybody involved,” Hunter-Reay said. “I didn’t feel that stress because I didn’t directly have skin in the game. I was working with the team, but it didn’t make my heart rate go extremely up or down in either direction. And on race day, to see the energy. When you are in race mode and you are focused, you block a lot of stuff out. Until you get in the race car and put the visor down, it’s a lot of white noise.

“It was cool to see just how big of an impact this place has.”

He also admitted that race drivers don’t make very good spectators, especially at the Indianapolis 500.

“I make a pretty bad spectator at anything,” Hunter-Reay said. “I just don’t have the patience for it. To be at the Indy 500 on race day was awkward, it was weird. Not having a car to sit in on the grid was definitely odd.

“The good thing is I focused my energy on working with Juncos-Hollinger Racing. I had something to do, and I actually contributed to the effort. That was enjoyable.

“I was definitely not ready to be on the outside looking in.”

When Hunter-Reay stepped away from the NTT IndyCar Series after a very successful career in 2021, he needed to recharge and rejuvenate.

His final seasons with Andretti Autosport were a disappointment and after 12 seasons with the team owned by former racing great Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay wanted to turn to turn the page in his career.

He is ready to write the next chapter this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 107th Indy 500 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

He is in the No. 23 Dallara-Chevrolet and was impressive in Wednesday’s opening day of practice for the biggest race of the year.

“Indy is it for me,” Hunter-Reay said. “Being here with Dreyer & Reinbold and this team and the atmosphere here is something I am really enjoying.”

“Being here with Dreyer & Reinbold and this team and the atmosphere here is something I am really enjoying.

“I have real high expectations. It’s about the people for me. That was a big part of my decision-making process coming there. I’ve been talking to Dennis Reinbold for a long time during the offseason. I wanted to understand who was here and what went into it.”

Hunter-Reay talked to Reinbold and was very interested in pursuing the opportunity. Reinbold reached out early, and the two kept up the dialogue.

Hunter-Reay was talking to several different teams about a return to the Indy 500, but Reinbold has a great reputation in the paddock.

Once a full-time team in the IndyCar, Reinbold’s racing operation is full time in Nitro Rallycross and an Indy 500-only effort in IndyCar.

“It’s about people,” Hunter-Reay said. “I had a really good feeling about him. I knew him casually through years in the past in IndyCar.

“The more I got to know him, the more I got to know about the people on the team involved, it became a very clear decision.”

When he arrived at the team’s shop and saw the quality of the personnel and the race cars, he was sold.

“It starts with Dennis,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is what matters most to him. This is what makes him tick – the Indianapolis 500 and the history that he has here. You can tell how much it means to him by the people he has here, the preparation and the attention to detail that goes into this effort.

“I’m working with a bunch of guys that I’ve worked with here and there in the past with a lot of different teams. It’s a bunch of talented individuals.”

Hunter-Reay, winner of 16 IndyCar Series races throughout his career, left Andretti at the end of the 2021 season.

With the exception of testing for Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber Motorsports Park in October 2021, he had not been in an Indy car on the race track until the Indy 500 Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 20.

“These aren’t the type of cars that you want to spend much time out of,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was really cool to get back in it. It felt fun. I was enjoying myself.

“We are checking those boxes off the list.”

Hunter-Reay’s Midwest road trip mirrored the barnstorming schedule of six consecutive weeks of racing for the SRX, a series formed and co-owned by Tony Stewart).

It’s a six-race summer series that features big-name former and current drivers from various racing series competing on iconic short tracks throughout the United States.

“It was like nothing I had ever done,” Hunter-Reay said. “Those cars are big, heavy, wide cars with a lot of horsepower and are underpowered. I was going up against the best in the business. These are guys that grew up racing short tracks and stock cars. It was really cool to learn, albeit drinking from a firehose.

“Every track had its own unique characteristics. I did dirt for the first time. I really enjoyed it. It was a unique opportunity and I look forward to doing it again with even more Cup champions coming in this year.

“It’s tough. For open wheel cars, we’re used to driving the car hard. You go faster, but in those cars, if you drive the car hard, you are going to go slower.

“It was tough to rewire my brain in that aspect.”

It also gave him a chance to compete against some of his heroes -- drivers that he grew up watching on television that he finally got a chance to know personally.

NASCAR’s Bill Elliott is one of Hunter-Reay’s stock car heroes.

The drivers in SRX share little motorhomes as changing areas during events and places to relax and get out of the heat before the event starts.

“Bill Elliott was in the motorhome with me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was really cool to talk to him for a while, having watched him when I was so much younger and the impact he had on the sport.

“Even like guys like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle, it was cool to share experiences with them and talk about life as it is today. It was definitely enjoyable.

“Tony Stewart is a definite throwback, and I have so much respect for Tony. He races as hard as anyone. He will be fair with you as long as there is some give and take at times. I was trying to pull any information I could from him.

“He is one of the owners of the series and has to be fair to everyone, but I really appreciate his time and his advice through the journey.”

Drivers such as Elliott and Stewart may have gained hero status as NASCAR drivers, but a strong case can be made that Hunter-Reay was an IndyCar hero when he spent 12 years in the No. 28 DHL car for Andretti Autosport.

He earned the nickname “Captain America” and would drape himself in the American flag in victory lane when he won races in IndyCar.

“I was there 12 years, and it was one of the longest-tenured sponsorships,” Hunter-Reay recalled proudly. “The years we spent together, it’s the only championship outside of Penske and Ganassi that has happened in a long time. Winning the Indianapolis 500 together. We had a lot of other close calls to win this race as well.

“It was a great time there, absolutely. I really appreciate the people I worked with there and had a great time there.

“Like any book, it’s time to turn the page and go to the next chapter.”

Two of the greatest chapters in Hunter-Reay’s story as a racing driver include his dramatic 2014 Indianapolis 500 victory over Helio Castroneves.

It was one of the most thrilling finishes in Indy 500 history as he battled Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves over the closing seven laps featuring some of the riskiest late race moves in recent memory.

“It doesn’t get old because it was so intense coming off a red flag like that,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was an intense battle. It was one of the best finishes in Indy 500 history and I’m honored to be a part of it that way. It felt that much better winning it that way. It didn’t finish under yellow.

“Nobody knew coming out of Turn 4 who was going to win the thing. You can’t ask for anything better than that.

“It will be in the record books for a long time. The competition is so tough now, I expect close finishes here. I expect it to come down to the wire like that.

“That one was a unique battle. That was one that will stand up.”

Most importantly, he defeated Castroneves, who at that time was attempting to become the fourth four-time winner of the Indy 500.

Hunter-Reay defeated Castroneves by 0.0600-of-a-second, the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history.

“Helio is one of the greats and one of the greats here at Indy,” Hunter-Reay said. “We were taking some seriously aggressive lines and maneuvers on each other, but the whole time it was really fair. There was anything really dirty between us.

“I have a lot of respect for him and how those last seven laps of that race were raced.

“I want that race to be remembered for what it was and one of the best finishes in Indianapolis 500 history.”

The other iconic moment of Hunter-Reay’s career came when he won the 2012 IndyCar Series championship, just two years after he nearly didn’t make the starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500.

It came down to a last-race battle involving Team Penske’s Will Power, who was in control of the championship until he hit the wall in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Power’s Chevrolet was damaged, but Team Penske repaired Power’s car and sent him back on track in a 500-mile race with plenty of attrition.

That attrition helped Power climb back into contention, and Hunter-Reay had to make sure he finished in the top five to win the championship.

He finished fourth in a race won by Ed Carpenter, and that was enough give the Andretti Autosport driver the championship.

He was the first U.S. driver to win an IndyCar title since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

“That was a summary of my career,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’ve had to work and fight everything out to the bitter end. In a lot of ways, that 2012 championship and how it ended is a lot like how the 2014 Indianapolis 500 ended.

“It wasn’t until the last lap of the entire championship we knew we were going to pull it out. I still believed going into that race we had a chance, and we were massive underdogs.

“I can’t remember how many points down we were. It was something like 19 and nobody believed we had a chance at it. But over 500 miles, anything is possible.

“It was one of those storybook endings.”

With a championship in 2012 and an Indy 500 win in 2014, Hunter-Reay was one of the big names in IndyCar in the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

That day, Hunter-Reay may have had the best car he ever had at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hunter-Reay led 52 laps in the Indy 500 that day and was in contention for the victory before colliding in the pit lane with Andretti Autosport teammate Townsend Bell during a yellow flag on Lap 114.

They pitted during the caution, and Bell left his pit area after being told to go and ran into Hunter-Reay’s Honda.

Both cars would finish the race two laps down despite both having cars that could have contended for the victory.

“That one hurts a lot,” Hunter-Reay said. “Just like in 2014, I knew halfway through the race I had the car to win this thing and I just need to make sure I’m there to fight for it at the end.

“To get caught up in something silly on pit lane is such a shame. It is one that I’ve lost a lot of sleep over.

“It’s really not Townsend’s fault. When the crew tells you, ‘Go, go, go, go’ out of the pit box and they tell you which lane to go into, you go.

“The rest is history.”

Hunter-Reay also had a potential winner at Indy in 2017, leading 28 laps. He was in the lead when the engine blew up on Lap 136.

He came close to being a multiple-time Indianapolis 500 winner, but at least Hunter-Reay at least won it once.

His face is etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy, along with all of the other great winners of one of the most famous sporting events on Earth.

“Right after we won it, I said I will forever take my kids here and be able to see that face on there,” Hunter-Reay said. “I want to have a few more faces on there. It’s such a special part of this event that the winner’s face goes on this eternal remembrance of the event and each one tells a different story. I always go back and look at that face.

“It’s not just an event; it’s something people live their whole lives pursuing. It’s something I’ll cherish forever.”

Hunter-Reay is back again and off to a fast start. He was eighth fastest in Wednesday’s opening round of practice for the 107th Indianapolis 500 on a perfect, sun-splashed day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hunter-Reay completed 81 laps with a fast speed of 227.619 miles per hour in the No. 23 Chevrolet.

He should certainly be on the radar of drivers who have a chance to at least be very competitive in the race, should he continue that impressive start for the rest of the month.

Hunter-Reay likes his chances.

“I always said I wouldn’t come back to this race unless I had a shot to win it, being at the front, competing for the win,” Hunter-Reay said. “I believe this program gives me that opportunity and these folks here are a big part of that.

“It’s just the beginning. We’re starting this process for the 2023 Indy 500. I can see everybody here is super hungry for it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500