The trajectory of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s career has been a roller coaster. A graduate of the now defunct Atlantic Series, he made his big league Open Wheel debut in 2003, winning a race for American Spirit Team Johansson. When sponsorship issues forced the team to shutter at season’s end, he switched to Herdez Competition, where he won again in 2004.
Yet, despite his talents and a marketable “All-American” style, sponsorship was a constant hindrance. Like the previous year, Hunter-Reay saw Herdez Competition run short of funding at year’s ending, forcing him to switch teams once more. After spending much of 2005 with the underwhelming Rocketsports outfit, Hunter-Reay was again released when funding ran short. He then spent nearly two years out of the sport entirely, his open wheel career stalled out and possibly over.
Even when he rejoined the scene, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing midway through 2007, funding still hamstrung him. Though the combination immediately found success and picked up a win at Watkins Glen in 2008, Hunter-Reay was on the sidelines again when the American Ethanol Council pulled its sponsorship at the end of the year. He suffered another underwhelming season in 2009, bouncing around between Vision Racing and the A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
Further still, Hunter-Reay’s initial contract with Andretti Autosport was only for the opening six rounds of the 2010 season. But, after finishing second at Sao Paulo (a race in which he could have won) and then scoring an emotional victory at Long Beach, Michael Andretti, IZOD, and other partners secured the budget to keep Hunter-Reay in the car for the rest of the season.
Now in his third year with the Andretti group, Hunter-Reay’s true talents are coming to the fore. On the heels of three consecutive wins, a first for an American driver since A.J. Allmendinger with did so with the Champ Car World Series in 2006, Hunter-Reay has skyrocketed into the points lead, holding a 34-point edge on Will Power in the title chase.
And, because of the aforementioned struggles, Hunter-Reay is very appreciative of the opportunity he has been granted. “I struggled to find a home really,” he said matter-of-factly in the post-race press conference. “I've been saying it in some interviews today. This is a team sport, it really is, in every way, as much as football, soccer, anything. It's a team sport. And to find continuity, to find a home, to work with the guys around you for two, three years in a row makes a massive difference. I can see it now. That's why (Scott) Dixon has been with Ganassi for so long; for (Dario) Franchitti; Helio (Castroneves) has been with Penske for so long. It makes a difference. I'm enjoying that part of it now.”
He also credits the Andretti Autosport team and the atmosphere they create, which has allowed him the chance to shine. “It's everything,” he said of their work ethic and attitude. “To win one of these races everything has to come together. You have to be firing on all cylinders. Everything has to go right. You might even need a little luck along the way. I have to give the engineering department a lot of credit at Andretti Autosport. They are given the opportunity from Michael, the team owner, to do what they're doing. Here we are making the results happen on track from their hard work.”
For team owner Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay could bring his organization its first title in five years, and the first since the team’s rebranding. “I think he's a real factor in the championship,” Andretti claimed confidently. “He's really strong on these types of [street] tracks as well. He doesn't have a weakness when he's driving. That's what you need to have as a driver. As a team owner, to have a driver like that, that's something we liked about Ryan, that we could be competitive on all types of tracks.”
In there eyes, the formula for securing a championship is simple. “Don't do anything different than you've been doing the last three races. He's been late every Thursday for his engineering meeting, so he's got to plan on being late for the next one in Edmonton,” Andretti laughed. “I don't think Ryan should do anything different. I don't think the team should do anything different. We should just continue to do our job. If everybody does their job, we should be OK. If there's no mistakes made the rest of the year, I think we have a good shot at winning the championship.”
Hunter-Reay concurred with his boss’ sentiments. “We just won two races in a row. We came here and didn't do anything else. People weren't acting any different. We were having fun doing what we do. Like I said, the team is really clicking together. We're all good friends. It's the right environment. We just keep doing that.”
And, despite the hurdles he has had to jump through to get to this point, “RHR” is as passionate about his IndyCar career as ever. “You know, to win three races in a row is very special. It's a dream of mine,” he asserted. “This is what I've always wanted since I was little, to be competing in the IndyCar Series, top-level team, winning (back-to-back-to-back) races, and being in a place for the championship. This is incredibly special for me. I'm appreciative of every lap that I get in this series because I love it.”