While Scott Dixon was hot in pursuit of his sixth title against all odds at Laguna Seca last weekend, another younger Kiwi was also chasing his dream at the very same circuit. He too found his hopes thwarted after a stunning debut season in America on what is known as “The Road to Indy” USF2000 championship. Hunter McElrea finished runner up in the series, after rival Braden Eves won the final race of the season. I caught up with Hunter while he was in San Francisco taking some well-earned R & R with his family.
“I’m still a little bit raw coming off the Laguna weekend having lost the championship due to factors outside our control, but overall I’ve got a lot to be happy about.
Going into 1st qualifying all was looking good for McElrea with a front row start alongside his year-long rival Bradon Eves. Then came qualifying 2, to decide starting positions for the final race of the year.
“In Q 2 the wheels fell off the bus through no fault of me or my team – when a throttle position sensor failed. I didn’t get to complete a lap in qualifying two, so I had to start the last race of the season last.
“It was a rough blow, but honestly I wasn’t giving up at all – Race one, long story short, I had an intense race-long battle with Eves and finished 2nd and he finished 4th
“So that extended my lead from 5 points to 12, heading into the last race of the year
“I started last (18th) and my rival Eves started third – In order for me to win the championship I had to finish seventh and Eves would have to finish second or lower. If he finished third, where he started, I would have to have finished tenth and I would have won the championship.
“I’m happy with how I performed, driving from 18th to 7th. Along the way you find out who your friends are as some guys made it not much of a battle while others made it extremely tough to get past. Unfortunately, Eves took the win and therefore the championship.
“It’s heartbreaking, as we literally were racing that day for a $US250,000 dollars in scholarship for the next step.
“The thing that’s so amazing about America is that if you succeed you get rewarded with these amazing scholarships on ‘The Road to Indy’.
“For me, I have won myself money to get where I am now in my career. I wouldn’t say I was banking on it or expected the scholarship, because you can’t expect to win, but it was looking good coming into Laguna. I had a really good chance of continuing my dream – so its heartbreaking. That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Brave and stoic words from such a young man, and to come so close to a half million NZ dollar payday is gut-wrenching.
Hunter’s journey and amazing story goes back so much further than a fateful day at ‘The Corkscrew’ (Laguna Seca).
For many who keep an eye on the junior ranks, McElrea was already a rising star having won the 2018 Australia Formula Ford 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, McElrea became the champion and it certainly got him noticed.
Last December he was selected for the 2018 ‘Road to Indy’ shootout in the USA with 19 other national Formula Ford, F4 and similar counterparts from around the globe.
“It was an amazing experience with such a wide depth of talent all fighting in identical cars. And to come out on top of all of them was awesome to win the $US200,000 scholarship. That was definitely a turning point in my dream, getting kick-started over here in the States. I’m so grateful that Mazda gave me this opportunity.”
He then took that money into the 2019 season and delivered brilliantly. He’d never done a street race or an oval and still managed 12 podiums in 15 races in USF2000. Add that to a career that boasts 108 races with 38 wins, 67 podiums, and 20 pole positions. That’s a 62% podium career at just 19 years old.
It is no surprise every country he’s lived in is claiming him. The truth is he is a dual citizen of both New Zealand and the USA, where he was born in Southern California. Yes, he grew up on the Gold Coast and won an Australian championship, but if this kid goes all the way he will be another “Dixie” – his hero – that is – loved and respected by both New Zealanders and Americans alike. By the way, all his career he’s raced under the New Zealand flag despite also being a proud American.
“I have always wanted to be an Indy Car driver. My dad and granddad raced before me and they were both New Zealand champions. Dad won two titles and my granddad won one. Granddad won in Oscar saloon cars and my Dad won Formula Ford in New Zealand in 1991 and then won the New Zealand TransAM Series in 1996.
“Being here in the States and being on the Indy Car under-card, I sometimes have to pinch myself. To have all these big names and of course my hero Scott Dixon with his support is so special to me. Scott has been watching me from afar, but when I won my first race at Road America he got in contact with me and I met him in his motorhome. We just talked and bounced a few things off each other. He’s such a legend so just to get his advice on the little things and hear what it was like for him coming up through the ranks, it was extremely helpful.
“I’m definitely living the dream and I really hope I can keep doing it.”
At 6ft 3 inch this lanky Kiwi high flyer is well on his way and he is in good company. The 2019 Indy Lights Champion, Oliver Askew, is 6ft 3in tall; and Rinus VeeKay from Holland, who finished runner-up, is 6ft 4in tall.
“Without a doubt, my hope for next year is to step up on the Road to Indy to the Indy PRO2000 Championship. I know I’m ready for this step. I feel like I’ve improved myself enough this year with my results to next year fight for the championship. The biggest thing now is to find the money we lost out on with our mechanical issue – it’s not going to be an easy task at all, but I’ll keep digging and working as hard as can.”
It’s a cruel game this motor racing thing – five-points doesn’t seem much, but it’s a chasm in many other ways when you consider the prize that was at stake.
That said I think Hunter McElrea has already done enough to make American racing sit up and watch his progress .
“2022 is the perfect world scenario to get into Indy Car if I can keep moving up the ladder. I know what I want to do and my goal is to keep chasing my American dream because I truly believe first, its where I belong and second, where the best opportunity is for me. I’ll race anything I can get my hands on.”
Sounds like every Kiwi racer I’ve ever met. I think his Grandad, father and New Zealand racing can be proud of the latest ‘McElrea’. A chip-off-the-block.