Catching Up With Hunter McElrea
 January 17, 2019| 
  • Series News
Hunter McElrea Catching Up With

For the casual observer, Hunter McElrea would appear to have burst onto the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scene last December, out-dueling 19 other junior series standouts from around the globe to earn a $200,000 Mazda scholarship into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.

But for those who had watched both Road to Indy off-season testing and international series like the Australian Formula Ford Championship, McElrea was already a rising star. He’ll get his chance to make good on those promises in 2019, as the 19-year-old begins the season as one of the favorites in USF2000 competition.

The first step for McElrea appears to be setting the record straight on what amounts to a rather convoluted citizenship equation. Is he Kiwi, Aussie or American?

“I have lived in Australia for the last 10 years, so that’s my only claim to Australia,” said McElrea. “My parents are from New Zealand but my mom and dad lived in Southern California for about seven years (dad Andy worked for aftermarket auto parts company Stillen) and that’s where I was born, so that makes me half American, half New Zealander. I’ve raced under the New Zealand flag my whole career, but I’m proud to be American as well. After that, my parents moved to Sydney, then to the Gold Coast of Australia, which is sort of similar to Southern California, so it’s nice. My little brother Cooper was born in Australia which makes him an Australian citizen, and makes it just that much more confusing!”

McElrea was only 8 years old when the NTT IndyCar Series last raced in the Gold Coast, so his memories are mostly of standing on a fence trying to see the cars and drivers – especially fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon, whose Indy 500 victory earlier that year had captured his imagination. McElrea’s racing lineage, however, goes back beyond birth, as his grandfather and father were both New Zealand national champions. He doesn’t remember a time in which racing was not part of the picture.

“I’ve always loved it and my whole life has revolved around it. There’s a photo of me at two months old sitting in a race car, and it was always my passion. I started in karts when I was 7 or 8 years old, but my dad was so busy, I only was able to go out a few weekends a year – but those weekends were like Christmas.  I didn’t have a chance to get serious about it until I was around 13 years old, but when the time came that I could, I knew what to expect, and I appreciated the chance a lot more. I had learned so much about the sport and I knew that nothing would come easy. When you’re going up the ranks, you can’t race every weekend, and I was used to that, so I was able to progress quickly.”

McElrea made a name for himself on the karting circuit despite the somewhat sporadic race weekends, and his career really took off once he graduated to cars. He did a local Formula Ford event and suddenly, everything changed. Competing against much older drivers, and without practice time, McElrea put the car on pole by almost a second.

Competing in three Queensland Formula Ford Championship events in 2015 (earning two wins and a pole position), McElrea moved to the New Zealand Formula Ford series in early 2016 and claimed five podium finishes before heading back to Australia. He raced in regional and national Formula Ford series in 2016 and finished fourth in the 2017 Australian Formula Ford Series, with the most pole positions that season. But the 2017 season stands out more for what didn’t go right for McElrea – and what he learned from the experience.

“I made too many mistakes and took too many chances. I wanted to prove myself and pushed too hard. Last year, there were more expectations – and the goal all along had been to win the championship so that I could win the Shootout entry ticket, then try for the Shootout win.”

McElrea did everything he could to win the 2018 title, including moving away from home to be able to work with the team during the week. He scored a dominant victory in the championship, taking 13 wins (including a three-race sweep on three of the seven weekends), 16 total podiums and three pole positions in 21 races. Earning the championship crown took a huge weight off his young shoulders, and placed his immediate gaze firmly on the United States as his goal. McElrea had tested with Pabst Racing in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just before his 2018 season, turning speeds among the leaders. The effects of the lessons learned in his championship were readily apparent when he returned for the test last September, setting the quickest overall time.

“I grew so much as a driver and as a person last year. I had tested with Augie Pabst and Pabst Racing in 2017, my first time on slicks and my first time in a car with wings. I was in the top three, and that was mega, and it gave me a good sense of what it would take to succeed. When you see what the level of competition is at here, even in a test, it’s such a step up.

“I had it in mind then that if I could put the pieces together, win the championship at home and come back in 2018, I would do even better. And we did. I had proven myself as a driver, and I knew what to expect.”

McElrea had kept his eyes on the $200K Road to Indy Shootout since its inception in 2016, and he knew that the Formula Ford win would get him on the road to his ultimate goal: the chance to follow fellow Kiwi Dixon into the NTT IndyCar Series. To have something like that in mind for so long, and to have the experience go completely according to the dream he’d held, was a moment he can only describe as “surreal.”

“The Shootout was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There were so many good drivers there and the pressure was so high. The whole thing was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The two days went by in a blur, it was so intense. You meet all the other drivers, and it was fun, but everyone was there to win. Everyone had worked so hard to get there in the first place so they were all good drivers. I made some good friends over those two days and I hope I see many of them on the grid this year, but I have never been as nervous as I was when they were announcing the names that would be in the final six! It was a dream come true.

“For me, this means everything. The Mazda scholarship will literally put me on the grid this year. I have amazing supporters at home, but it would have been a massive struggle.”

As McElrea puts his 2019 season together, living in a soon-to-be-announced town near a soon-to-be announced team, his focus is firmly on what’s ahead.

“I’m going to move to America full time, so I’m sorting out my living situation now. I want to have a career here so I want to be here. In the meantime, I’m working on my fitness – I’m quite tall so I have to stay very lean. I know I’m ready for it but I know it will be really hard – there are so many quick drivers and quick teams. To be at this level, to be able to race alongside the IndyCar paddock, will be incredible.”

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