Road to Indy star Hunter McElrea admits there comes an added dimension of bravery and competence that comes with Oval racing, especially to maximise the most from the car in a pressure-filled qualifying session.
The budding Kiwi ran his debut Indy Pro 2000 Oval race at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana over the weekend, scoring his second straight podium finish.
Since his disastrous baptism of fire at Road America earlier in the year in which McElrea was involved in two separate incidents, the 20-year-old has steadily improved his performances each round and now sits sixth in the championship.
But his most impressive display came at the famed Indiana Raceway which hosts its Road to Indy event annually on Carb Day – the Friday before the Indy 500.
Infamous for its difficultly to overtake given its narrow perimeter and 1.1km length, the opening Oval event of the year offers the perfect proving ground to demonstrate a driver’s versatility across road courses and speedway racing.
Qualifying sixth, McElrea’s late-race charge to second certainly raised plenty of eyebrows in the paddock. Finishing as the lead car out of the regular 17-car field, McElrea has also narrowed the points deficit between himself and the championship leaders.
The young Kiwi admits the result has been a positive shift in momentum for his championship campaign, especially after having to learn and harness a range of new skills to adapt to his first Oval race in the series.
This is emphasised in qualifying where McElrea is only given two flying laps rather than a full 30 minute session to set a competitive time which will determine his position for the start of the race.
“I have some really good momentum and as a team we are continuing to get stronger as the season goes on,” McElrea told Velocity News.
“Ovals are different in a lot of ways, but they also have lots of similarities [to road courses].
“Lap time wise for qualifying, you have a to have a very good combination of calculation and bravery.
“And in the race, you have to be very smart. The track can evolve a lot in terms of what line is fastest, and you cannot follow the car directly in front with the dirty air/aero wash. That can also be like road courses as well.”
Back-to-back Oval races are on the cards for the Indy Pro 2000 field with McElrea returning to action this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in Illinois.
The circuit is longer (2km over 1.1km) and top-end speed is significantly higher than those experienced by McElrea at Lucas Oil Raceway, something he will have to acclimatise too with just a limited number of short practice sessions.
“This coming weekend at Gateway, [the circuit] is a lot faster,” he added. “So, it will be similar to high speed corners on road courses and I will have to manage the high speed balance of the car well.”
This weekend will also mark the halfway point of the championship which is set to conclude in line with the IndyCar season finale at St.Petersburg on October 23-25.