As this year’s Indy Pro 2000 season gets underway in St Petersburg this weekend, Hunter McElrea is one of the leading candidates to succeed Kyle Kirkwood as champion. Our editor-at-large Jeroen Demmendaal spoke with the young New Zealander in an F1 Feeder Series exclusive.
Five points. That is all that was missing last September in Laguna Seca for Hunter McElrea. Ahead of the last race, the 20-year old New Zealander was still on top of the championship, but an unusual seventh place finish in that final race meant he had to leave the title to fierce rival and fellow rookie Braden Eves. It also meant he lost out on the USD 305,000 scholarship that comes with a USF2000 championship.
“I basically was looking very comfortable, leading the championship until the last race of the year,” he says, looking back at that fateful final round in California. “Before that weekend I had three wins and four poles in a row, so that 300k was looking like a real possibility and would have made things move a lot quicker. It makes it so much easier to get the remaining funding when you have that chunk of money secured already.”
Finishing second in USF2000 changed the course of this past winter for McElrea. Instead of basking in the comfort of a scholarship and calmly preparing for the new season, he was forced to chase funding in order to secure the budget needed for that coveted Indy Pro 2000 seat. As a result, Pabst Racing could only last week formally announce him as one of their drivers for 2020.
“Yeah, it has been a very busy off-season for me and the team to find the sponsorship needed,” he says. “But luckily I have an amazing group of sponsors who got me here.” While he confirms that his seat is secure for a full-year campaign, McElrea remains very much open to additional backers. “I am confirmed for the full season, but I am still looking for more support!”
What the experience has given him is a continued appreciation for the beauty of his chosen career. “Just being here and driving the car is so awesome,” he tells me by phone from Florida. “I think some drivers don’t really understand how much of a blessing it is to be here and drive race cars for a living.”
All or nothing
It also explains why he is in such a hurry. Hanging around for another season in USF2000 would have been a waste of time and funds, he says. “My goal for this year is 100 per cent to win the championship. I already had that mindset last year: I need to win and constantly progress to get to IndyCar,” McElrea says. “I simply do not have the resources to continue longer.”
For inspiration he looks at drivers like Oliver Askew, Rinus VeeKay and (soon) Kyle Kirkwood. “They do one year each, win the championship, bang-bang-bang and are now in IndyCar,” he notes, sounding appreciative of that approach. “So basically, it’s all or nothing. No, I don’t really feel any extra pressure, it has been like this my whole career anyway.”
That career started four years ago in Australia, where he started out in local Formula Ford races. Once again, his limited financial options informed his approach. His aim was to come to America and compete on the Road to Indy, but not until he felt completely ready to fight for wins.
“I knew that I only had one shot at coming here and making an impact, and I think I did that last year!” says McElrea. “I was already thinking about USF for 2018 and did a test in late 2017, but I felt I wasn’t ready yet to come here and win. Purely because of mistakes, too many tiny driver errors. But then in 2018 I had a really strong year in Formula Ford and dominated the championship.”
Subsequently, in late 2018, he won the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, providing him with a USD 200,000 scholarship that allowed him to run a full USF2000 campaign in 2019. Despite eventually losing out on the title, he is still satisfied with his results. As he should be: four wins, twelve podiums and five poles is nothing to sniff at for a rookie who had to get to grips with a new series and new tracks.
“Looking back I am happy, but I also made a few mistakes,” he says, referring to incidents in Toronto and at Lucas Oil Raceway. At the same time, he kept on improving throughout. “Yeah, Braden had a good start of the year, but we got stronger and stronger. The key was the momentum switch from Mid-Ohio onward, especially since I was so far behind after Toronto. I learned a lesson there: never ever give up, even if it looks like you might be losing your grasp. Just keep hustling and digging!”
Following his idol
His character sufficiently built, McElrea’s attention now switches to the Pro 2000 season ahead. One uncertain factor is that both he and Pabst are making their debut in the series, but he doesn’t see that as an issue. “To be honest, from what I have seen and felt at the few tracks we tested, this car is phenomenal,” he enthuses. “At our first test at Indianapolis last year, we were immediately in P1. Obviously there is going to be a learning curve, but the car feels really strong at any type of track. I’m really looking forward to getting to St Pete and see how everyone stacks up.”
As for expectations, not only does the young Kiwi believes he needs to keep winning, he also thinks he will. “I have to be realistic of course, but I expect us to be really strong,” he offers. “I can’t see why we can’t be as strong as we were last year, if not stronger. The team needs to put the car in the window, but when it is, it is up to the driver to do the job. This year I feel a lot more comfortable, with the added track knowledge, and I think it is going to be a good title fight between Braden, Parker (Thompson) and me.”
Assuming he wins the title this year (or secures those extra sponsors), that would put him on track to reach the NTT IndyCar Series by 2022 as per his career plan. If he does, he follows in the footsteps of that other Kiwi, arguably the greatest driver of his generation. “Yeah, Scott Dixon really is an idol,” says McElrea. “He is the one who made me decide early on that I wanted to be an IndyCar driver. I remember seeing him win the Indy 500 in 2008 when I was 8 years old. I thought: if he can do it, so can I. Obviously reality is a bit more complicated and difficult than the brain of an 8-year old!”
Now that they share a paddock, McElrea continues to see Dixon as a source of inspiration. “In the end, he also came and worked his way up from a humble background, and I would love to achieve what he has achieved,” he says. “I spoke to him a couple of times last year - I know he is very busy so I try not to bug him too much, but he has been helpful with contacts and recommendations.”
At times, McElrea still feels humbled by how fast he has progressed in recent years. “If you would have told me four years ago that I would be getting help from Scott Dixon, I wouldn’t have believed you! When you’re inside a season you get a little bit of tunnel vision, so you don’t really take everything in. But it actually hit me over the Christmas break how far I’ve come already.”