MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Ryan Hunter-Reay’s overall victory in Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring gave the 2012 NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner another tremendous career accomplishment.
Although he was part of the LMP2 class winning team at Sebring in 2011, that lower division entry finished 20th overall that year in the endurance classic.
Last Saturday in the 68th running of America’s famed sports car race in central Florida, Hunter-Reay was on the team that was first to pass under the checkered flag.
The NTT IndyCar Series star for Andretti Autosport was one of three drivers in the No. 55 Mazda Motorsports entry that also included Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell.
“It was a career-long goal,” Hunter-Reay told SPEED SPORT. “That’s my home race – the 12 Hours of Sebring. I’ve always wanted to win that one, even winning the class win 2011 was pretty cool, but winning overall is what really matters. That was a big one checked off the list.
“The 12 Hours of Sebring is one of the big sports car races in the world. That’s one I really wanted to notch. The Daytona 24 is a big one as well. I’ve been second there a few times, but Saturday night was a big race to win.”
One of the most unique aspects of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the various classes of cars all compete in the same race. When a driver is in one of the lower classifications of race cars, he or she is actually competing against the other cars in the same class while trying to stay out of the way of the faster cars from the other classes.
“I’ve driven GT Le Mans, I’ve driven LMP2 and then this era of IMSA, the prototypes are the fastest,” Hunter-Reay explained. “My preferred class is always looking ahead instead of looking in your mirrors. The GT cars and the LMP2 cars have it difficult. You have to drive ahead of you, and you have to drive in your mirrors and that is especially difficult at night with the blinding lights and the mirrors.
“I’ve had my fair share of experiences in each. The overall win was the ultimate goal and it’s really nice to have that. The only thing that was missing is 2020 and COVID, the whole family was there, but nobody was allowed in the paddock, the IMSA bubble, to celebrate with us.”
The 12 Hours of Sebring normally takes place in mid-March, but with COVID-19 shutting down the sports world earlier this year, it was moved to November. That created a unique situation with nearly half of the race being held in darkness because of Daylight Savings Time in March and the switch to Standard Time in the fall.
“It was definitely different,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “The temps were a bit higher than we would expect in March and the humidity was higher, so for most people it was pretty welcome for that sun to go down. But Sebring at night is genuinely dark. It’s definitely a challenge. It all comes at you so fast in those cars because of the bumps and all the traffic, it’s an awesome experience.”
The race weekend itself was a unique experience for the winning team. The No. 55 Mazda team had to overcome some early struggles at the start of the weekend and stay within striking distance of the lead group late in the race.
“We had some issues in practice with setup and didn’t have the pace,” Hunter-Reay explained. “We found some pace in qualifying. But the experience we have on this team, the race changes so much. It’s not about who is leading in the first two hours. You have to keep in it. Keep your head in it. Keep the pace up at all times and you will have a shot at it in the end.
“That was our whole goal, to be there at the end. We wanted to fight in the last two hours. I got into the car in P5, got out of the car in P2 and handed it over to Jonathan Bomarito. He held it in P2, and Harry got in. We were there to pounce on it. That was our goal, to be there for the last two hours because crazy things happen in those races. It’s not really endurance racing any more, it’s a 12-hour sprint race. It’s action packed.
“Everything you thought would happen, then it suddenly changed.”
Hunter-Reay was one of numerous current and former IndyCar Series drivers that were part of the storyline at Sebring. That included three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who finally won a series driving championship in Acura Team Penske’s final IMSA race. Castroneves’ was part of the championship winning No. 6 Acura team that also included Ricky Taylor. The extra driver in the endurance race was IndyCar star and winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500, Alexander Rossi, Hunter-Reay’s teammate at Andretti Autosport.
“I talked to Helio after the race and I’m very happy for him and Ricky Taylor to grab a championship,” Hunter-Reay said. “To get it in his last race for Team Penske, is pretty amazing. It’s well deserved. It was a nail-biting experience for that team and Helio for sure. It was a special race and great to share that with them as well.
“It’s great he is coming back. He’s got the fire and he is as fast as ever. Age is only a number. It comes down to your motivation, your desire and talent level. He has all of those boxes checked off.”
Although this was one of IMSA’s biggest races, it helped showcase the incredible versatility of IndyCar’s best drivers.
“The driving talent in IMSA is exceptional, especially in the Prototype and GTLM categories,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s great to see that crossover. That’s always been a big part of my career, doing the open wheel side of it with IndyCar and supplementing that in with IMSA, Grand-Am, ALMS, I’ve always made that a big priority. I really enjoy it. It makes you a more rounded driver. It’s a discipline of racing that I really enjoy. It’s something you have to adapt to and come out of your comfort level where the team is molded and focused on you. You have to share the car with other drivers and a different way of going racing.
“The IndyCar drivers certainly showed well. It was a great showing for IndyCar.
“There isn’t any question that IndyCar drivers are diverse. That would be safe to say. Hopefully, we’ll have more shots at it.”