WHAT MAKES AN INDYCAR CHAMPION?
Hunter-Reay’s monumental feat
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Fri, Sep 21, 2012
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Brian Kennedy Why are you and I and our uncle Louie not professional race drivers? Because we can’t get in a car going speeds so fast that, as Ryan Hunter-Reay said, “there’s no time to think out there,” and know how to drive it just by feel. Feeling the car, sensing its characteristics—people who race for a living have been doing this since they were kids, and it all looks so easy on TV, even at the top levels, where speeds get upwards of 215 mph. That minute perception of changes becomes instinct for these drivers, but not without trial and error. Synchronicity with machines is not a biological imperative. It’s a finely acquired skill. When that synchronicity is with a race car, you’re likely to end up on top of the world that is IndyCar, and that’s precisely what happened to this American from Fort Lauderdale. Yet amid the championship glee that had him offering to “spray all of your computers with champagne, because I haven’t had a chance to spray champagne yet,” as he said long after the Fontana race ended Saturday night to a crowded press room, you have to know the reality. Hunter-Reay’s is not the storybook tale that it seems with the championship safely secured. Prompted by press questions, he expounded on his trail, and the trials of getting from national go-kart champion in the late 1990s to the top of the IndyCar world now: No ride in parts of 2006-07, a chance from Bobby Rahal, telling him, “If you ever need somebody last minute to jump in and go, go, go, I’m there for you. Got the call middle of the way through the ’07 season. I credit Bobby for that. He brought me back into IndyCar racing.” A successful 2008 season was highlighted with one win, at Watkins Glenn. But in 2009, he didn’t have a ride again. He started with Vision Racing, then midway through that year, AJ Foyt brought him on board with his team. He credited his time with Foyt as key in his career, and earlier had said that winning the AJ Foyt Trophy as this season’s oval champion meant a great deal to him. “I learned a lot from AJ. He’s a great individual. I can’t say enough about him. I feel honored and lucky to have had his support.”
But support and to keep your job, really. In ’09, that was rough. I tried as hard as possible to punch above my weight, got a few looks from Michael [Andretti].” His best finish with Foyt was fourth, at mid-Ohio. He had opened the season with a second-place finish at St. Petersburg driving for Vision. The next year, he raced with Andretti, winning Long Beach on the way to finishing seventh in the points. He also had two other podiums, in Sao Paolo to open the season (second) and in Toronto midway through the year (third). Last year, he again notched one win, at New Hampshire, and was seventh once more in points. “I was flattered with the interest that came with the wins,” he said speaking of Penske having a look at him, but he’s been pleased with the Andretti team. “It’s a people sport,” he indicated, “the drivers are out there with their helmet on. Their names are on the side of the car, but it is a group effort.” But even with the good year in 2011 that again garnered him looks from other teams, his numbers show just three races where he led laps, and only three laps lead at the two races other than New Hampshire, where he was out front for 71. He again had two podiums other than his New Hampshire win, at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, both in third place. Yet this year, he’s the champ, on the strength of four wins and a fourth-place finish at Fontana which nudged Will Power out of the title lead by three points. How’d that happen? He stormed away with the oval races, winning Milwaukee and Iowa and piling up more points on this type of circuit than any of his competitors. He also won two street courses, Toronto and Baltimore. The latter race was defined by a call that put him on dry tires. Made by Michael Andretti while it was still wet, the team owner told his driver, “Just stay on the island for a couple of laps. It will dry out,” he explained Saturday after his driver had secured the championship. That allowed Hunter-Reay to close up the points chase, and come into the last race behind by just 17. As he said it, “We were in the position—there was more pressure on Will—to hunt for the championship.” Not quite an underdog, but a driver who had to pull it all out in the final race, gut past his competitors, and hang on, and he did it. He also has the security of two more years, which he signed on for mid-way through the Fontana race weekend. There had been renewed talk that Penske was trying to poach him, but largely out of loyalty to his team and also to honor his sponsors, who have stuck with him over the years, he inked with Andretti.
King of the Izod IndyCar world. That’s Hunter-Reay today. But nobody ought to think that it’s been easy, not to win this year’s title, nor even to have a career in this sport. Follow Brian on twitter @growinguphockey. More of Brian Kennedy’s coverage of Ryan Hunter-Reay and the season finale at Autoclub Speedway: Who’s Tough Enough to be Champ? MAVTV 500: The Results Hunter-Reay, Power Play: IndyCar qualifying creates more puzzles The Dream Race: The IndyCar points chase in Fontana Culture Club: When does car culture equal IndyCar culture?