With last week’s announcement that he would return to Andretti Autosport for his sophomore season, McElrea looks to finish strong in the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca doubleheader finale

When Hunter McElrea announced that he would return to Andretti Autosport for the 2023 Indy Lights season, it was perhaps the earliest the 22-year-old California-born, Australia-raised New Zealander has known exactly what he would be racing the following year. And for McElrea, it was a no-brainer.

“I’ve loved driving for Andretti so this makes sense,” said McElrea. “Linus (Lundqvist) has had the championship sealed for a while and, like most of the field, my opportunity to move into INDYCAR would really only be if I won the championship. And this year, there just aren’t any seats. So put that together and it makes sense. It’s so nice to have the deal done early – it’s a huge weight off my mind. I’m still finalizing all the sponsor deals I secured my naming rights sponsorship with Smart Motors, so huge thanks to them. I appreciate that they’ve stepped up with me again next year, I couldn’t do it without them. I’m really excited.”

McElrea can now take the time to plan for next season and evaluate what worked and what didn’t in 2022. Given the fact that he is gunning for second place in the championship behind runaway champion Linus Lundqvist, clearly much more worked than did not.

McElrea came to the US in 2018 to attend the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Pabst Racing, in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship car. He set the quickest time of the weekend, leading three of the six sessions. He then won the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scholarship shootout over 18 other international junior formula champions, earning a full USF2000 season. Finishing an agonizingly close second in the 2019 USF2000 championship, he finished fifth and third in two successive Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires seasons. Moving up to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this year, McElrea adapted quickly – he has scored two race victories (Mid-Ohio and Iowa), three pole positions, and nine top 10 finishes, and completed 91% of the 476 laps contested so far this season.

But what has impressed observers as much as his race craft is his poise outside of the race car.

“I feel that the job outside the car has really stepped up this year,” McElrea continued. “I’ve had an engineer in previous years, but it’s been shared with the other team drivers. Now, I have my own engineer (Matt Sanderson), my own tire guy, and three mechanics. There are more resources, and that just comes from stepping up a rung on the Road to Indy ladder. The team is so much more structured. Even the debriefs are INDYCAR-level debriefs, so we’re learning that as well.

“The driving part I got used to really quickly: I was on pace pretty much straight away. It was a lot faster than, say, the Indy Pro 2000 car, but you adapt pretty quickly to that. But driving fast is only part of it. I think I’ve proven a lot this year from where I was early in the season until now. It’s been a good year, especially in the second half – since Detroit, I’ve had the most wins, the most poles, the most points. That shows my trajectory through the season.

“We’re strong now, but with another year to grow and refine everything, we’ll be even stronger. I want to make sure I’m ready for INDYCAR and we’re hoping there will be more seats available next year.”

McElrea moved from Wisconsin to Indianapolis last year and feels that he has benefited from the opportunity to connect often with his engineers and mechanics, and with team management.

“It’s nice that I’m living in Indy now. I get along well with everyone on the team, they’re a great group of people. To be able to go into the shop, debrief with my engineer, work on helmet issues or whatever – it’s a good place for an aspiring INDYCAR driver to live!”

The Andretti team will take a few weeks to process the data from 2022 and take a break from a whirlwind second half of the season, then get back into a regular testing schedule through the Fall and Winter. The Indy Lights series is on the upswing, with more teams and cars expected on the grid in 2023, and McElrea plans to be ready.

“We’ll get back to testing in mid-October. It will be interesting, once we switch to the Firestone tires. Everyone will get thrown into that at the same time, but it will add to the learning curve for the rookies. It’s going to be a good field next year, with the drivers coming from Indy Pro 2000 and with the Cape brothers moving up. More cars will make for even better racing.

“I’m also looking forward to taking a bit of time off after the season. It’s been a blur since Detroit!”

Indy Lights will have two races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – 12:25 p.m. Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Sunday (all times Eastern) ahead of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.