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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Michael Andretti on Ryan Hunter-Reay's championship season

by Gordon Kirby
Since Dario Franchitti's departure after winning the 2007 Indy 500 and IndyCar championship Michael Andretti has been searching for the right man to lead his team. Michael found him in Ryan Hunter-Reay who joined Andretti Autosport in 2010 on a part-time basis and cemented his job by winning that year's Long Beach GP. In 2011 Hunter-Reay won at New Hampshire and scored more points than anyone else in the season's second half paving the way for this year's run to the championship.

Last week Hunter-Reay and I discussed Ryan's uphill push to this year's IndyCar title and his long climb to the top. This week, Michael Andretti provides his perspective on Andretti Autosport's fourth IndyCar championship, breaking Chip Ganassi's string of four straight titles with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. I started by asking Michael what first attracted him to Hunter-Reay.

"I think one of the things we always liked about Ryan was he was able to perform on all different types of racetracks," Michael observed. "Obviously, you have to be versatile in our series. That was the thing that really got our interest because he did a really good job with Rahal (in 2009) on all the tracks. So when the opportunity came to talk to him that was what originally attracted me.

"Then, once we got to know Ryan and brought him into the family there were so many other great things about him. One is he's the ultimate team player and good guy. He just was a nice addition to the team. I think he fit in really well."

Michael added that Hunter-Reay is in the best years of his career.

"When you're in your early thirties you are in your prime," he remarked. "So it's a perfect time to have Ryan in our stable."

Hunter-Reay and teammates Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe have repeatedly emphasized the value in their entirely open way of working together as fully-fledged teammates. The chemistry is right and in 2012 at least, Andretti's trio of drivers achieved a working relationship that's rare in motor racing.

"It's something you can't plan," Michael observed. "It's got to happen organically. Bringing James into the mix I think really helped us do that. That was definitely one of the things that added to our competitiveness this year."

After struggling to get his cars qualified at Indianapolis in 2011 Michael decided to re-organize his engineering group and brought Allen MacDonald back into his team to lead the engineers.

"Indy was a big wake-up call for us last year and we made some big changes within the team," Michael said. "I think those changes really turned things around in our team to the point where Ryan scored more points than anybody in the second half of the season. That gave us a lot of confidence going into the new year. We just had to continue to build on that and we were able to do that over the winter.

"Allen came back as the technical director and he's done a great job. He pushed us really hard to do things to try to improve and he's got great guys under him. He and Tino (Belli) work really well together and (Hunter-Reay's engineer) Ray Gosselin works really well with them. We've got great chemistry there, like the drivers have great chemistry, and that's our big key."

Michael believes his team took full advantage of winter testing and development of the Dallara DW12 and new turbo Chevrolet V-6.

"The rules opened up so all the teams were able to test," he commented. "It came down to who did a better job with their testing. I wouldn't say that was the key because we were on even ground with everybody except we had three cars and going in we hoped they would work together better than Penske's three cars or the two Ganassi teams. It's really important that they work together at the tests and races because you only have so much track time and you've got to maximize it. Our guys did a great job of doing that this year."

As the year wore on Chevrolet appeared to build a small performance edge over Honda but Andretti believes any advantage came from the collective strength of Chevy's teams.

"Where I give credit is Chevrolet went out and got really good teams," Michael said. "I think that was a big thing. On the racetrack the engines were quite even. I think the difference was not necessarily just in the horsepower but more in all the other parts of it that you need to get the results."

Andretti announced a two-year contract extension with Hunter-Reay at the season-closer in California. Another offer had come Hunter-Reay's way from Roger Penske but Michael says he never had any doubts that Ryan would continue with his team.

"We've been talking for the longest time and we basically had a handshake agreement," Andretti said. "It just wasn't done until right before the last race and the reason why was we had to wait for our sponsors to get done before we could make a commitment to Ryan.

"We were able to get that finally done the week of the race, but as far as I was concerned we had a deal a lot earlier. We wanted him and he wanted to be here. He feels like this is home and we feel like he's at home and part of the family. So to me, it was more a technicality than anything."

At a time when other teams, Penske and KV included, are trimming back or going through some belt-tightening, Michael hopes to run a fourth car in 2013 for Sebastien Saavedra and a fifth car at Indianapolis for Ana Beatriz.

"The goal is to have four cars and five at Indy. That's our goal. I think we're close to four at Indy right now and we're still looking for the fourth full-timer. We're still working on that."

With other IndyCar teams laying-off employees Michael believes there won't be a problem finding the needed additional people to run more cars

"We're around 100 people right now," he said. "I don't know exactly. It fluctuates. If we add a fourth car we'll have to add another ten to fifteen people."

Michael is a big supporter of the Mazda Road to Indy. This year, Andretti Autosport ran two cars in each of the Indy Lights, Star Mazda, and F2000 series and Michael intends to continue these programs next year.

"We're looking to do all three levels of the Road to Indy again," he said. "We're working on getting all of those together."

In recent years Michael has expanded into event promotion. This year his marketing division promoted IndyCar's races at Milwaukee and Baltimore. He plans to continue promoting both races and says he wants to do other events, some beyond racing.

"We are looking at two or three more events," he said. "We started our marketing company and it wasn't just to promote events. It's also to do sports marketing, not just racing. So we're looking at doing other types of events as well with the company. We're branching out.

"For sure, it's all to help the racing and it's been going really well. I think we did a great job with the two races we had, especially if you consider the time we had to get the job done. At Milwaukee we had three months and at Baltimore we had three months and there was a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.

"To pull it off the way our team did was just amazing. It's all a testament to the great people we have. We're really lucky that we've been able to put a team together there and with such a great team we want to hopefully expand to promote some more IndyCar races as well. So we're looking at a few different venues."

Michael had serious discussions with Dodge this summer about expanding into NASCAR. It didn't happen but he says he would love to broaden Andretti Autosport's racing ventures.

"We're still very much interested in doing NASCAR if the right deal comes about," he declared. "It just comes down to finding the right sponsor. We were down the road quite a ways and it just fell apart, which happened the year before as well. So one of these times, hopefully it will work and it all comes together. But I don't want to do it half-assed. I want to do it where we can be competitive. In the end we thought like it wasn't going to be the right deal so we backed off.

"But we're still looking at not only just NASCAR but other series as well. We've run an ALMS team before and we're certainly interested in how this new partnership between the Grand-Am and ALMS comes about.

"It's all to help the cause," Michael added. "If we were to do something else we would be adding to our group, not taking away. But to do that, you have to do it right."

Despite the stone face or even glum expression he often wears, Michael remains an eternal optimist.

"It's all good," he said. "Now, we've just got to go and repeat."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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