Ryan Hunter-Reay was deeply disappointed when his 2012 championship was overshadowed by IndyCar politics. His breakthrough moment was largely ignored by the league as it fought with yet another CEO.
It was a lost opportunity for a series starving for an American star, a role Hunter-Reay has desperately wanted to fill. He would knock on doors, shake hands and kiss babies if IndyCar asked, but no one ever did.
Now he’s an Indianapolis 500 winner, just the sixth American driver in 20 years to claim that title. When Tony George created IndyCar in 1996, he said it was a series that would give American drivers a chance to succeed. But Hunter-Reay is just the fourth American to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since George launched his league, and he’s the first red, white and blue-draped driver to win since 2006.
So maybe this win, the biggest by far of his career, will be the boost Hunter-Reay needs to raise his profile and that of the series he loves.
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“I’m real. I’m genuine. There’s not a whole lot of theatrics about me,” Hunter-Reay said Monday, a day after he nipped Helio Castroneves at the line to win Indy.
“I’m not going to put on a whole big show and jump through hoops. I’m going to be me, and I am thrilled to be here. I’m a hard-charging American and I’ve had to fight every step of my career for this ride.”
That was the story that should have been told in 2012, when Hunter-Reay, who had been out of work six years earlier, reeled off three consecutive wins to climb into the championship race. Then, facing elimination, he won again to send his title fight with Will Power into the finale, where Hunter-Reay walked away with his first championship.
It was a career year and came a season after one of the lowest points of his career: He failed to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 and Andretti Autosport had to buy a seat from A.J. Foyt to get Hunter-Reay into the race.
But IndyCar management was too busy planning the ouster of CEO Randy Bernard to focus on Hunter-Reay, and when Bernard was cut loose a month after the championship, the driver was completely forgotten.
“Yeah, I was overlooked in 2012. The series wanted an American champion and we had one,” he said. “Randy was moving out and the search for a new CEO was on, and I don’t really think that’s big news or anything, but it definitely took precedence.
“This win, I hope it does breakthrough. I’ll be a great and honest champion. I’ll fly the flag for our sport and you’ll always get the real deal with me.”
A casting director could not have chosen a more perfect fit for the role with IndyCar. Hunter-Reay and wife Beccy Gordon, younger sister of American stalwart driver Robby Gordon, could be mistaken for Ken and Barbie.
Their towheaded toddler Ryden, wearing a miniature firesuit to match his father’s, has been the star of the victory celebrations. He looked on quizzically while his parents kissed the bricks after the win, then ran up and down the race track – toy cars in hand – Monday as his father posed for photos.
When he needed to be entertained, Ryden played with the faces on the Borg-Warner trophy.
One of the perks the Hunter-Reays will receive for the victory is a replica of the pace car, a black 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28.
Hunter-Reay’s first car? A black Camaro, of course.
“I’m really looking forward to getting that back home. It’s a car that I’ll definitely use – that thing sounded mean,” he said. “That’s the great thing about this race. You win the race, and then you start thinking about all the things that come with it. I get my face on the trophy. And the pace car, and the check that comes with it. I was presented with an Indianapolis 500 1911 pistol. How cool is that? How American is that?
“And I got a huge belt buckle, so I need a holster with my belt buckle and I’ll be strutting around the garages with that.”
Hunter-Reay is game for playing the role IndyCar wants and needs. He draped himself in the American flag, noted the significance of winning on Memorial Day weekend, and spoke repeatedly about his national pride.
What he failed to mention is that Sunday’s victory moved him to the top of the IndyCar points standings. And he didn’t brag about one of his daredevil passes for the lead, the one in which he nearly drove into the grass.
The irony, of course, is that just a month ago Hunter-Reay was criticized for an aggressive move at Long Beach that backfired and wrecked several race cars.
If Hunter-Reay has his way, those moves will work every time and his legacy as a tough, hard, American racer will be cemented.
“I am aggressive and will always go for it. When I was growing up, I really loved the drivers that were like that,” he said. “I’m married to Beccy, I was a big fan of Robby. He was always the guy that you wanted to watch. He was coming through, one way or the other. He might not finish, but he’s coming through.
“We’ve got a championship to go win this year, for sure. I’ll probably still go 110 percent and be aggressive and I’m not going to let up in any way.”