You want a roller coaster? Try Ryan Hunter-Reay’s career in INDYCAR.
Sure, you could start with his peaks and valleys with various low-budget teams in Champ Car, but for our purposes, let’s start with 2007 and 2008, where the American driver won IndyCar’s ’07 Rookie of the Year honors with Rahal Letterman Racing, won at Watkins Glen, and had a fine P6 finish at the Indianapolis 500, also grabbing that event’s top rookie honor.
We can flash forward to a tumultuous 2009 season, where he bounced between Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, struggled to qualify for the 500 until the penultimate moment of Bump Day, and recorded a mere handful of Top 10 finishes on the season.
Then there’s 2010’s excitement, winning an emotional race for his new team Andretti Autosport at Long Beach, solidly qualifying for the 500, and racking up 2 additional podiums on his way to a P7 finish in the standings.
2011 would be a mixed bag, with a win at New Hampshire and plenty of competitive races, but also saw him caught on the outside looking in on Bump Day at Indy, in a heartlessly brutal lowlight of his career.
Then we come to this year. 4 wins, a P2, and a P3. An incredibly clutch performance of skill, aggression, and strategy at Baltimore to force the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series Championship to come down to a single race — the 500-mile finale at Fontana.
It has perhaps been more of wild ride than most fans would guess for Ryan Hunter-Reay to be in this position, only 17 points behind Will Power, with a chance to forever have his name among the season champions of American open wheel racing. Now, in his second year with Andretti Autosport, he finds himself not only fighting for a title, but commanding free agency interest from big-name teams such as Penske, to say nothing of the eagerness of the Andretti crew to retain him.
While Power’s route to the title has been one of sheer dominance on any sort of course resembling a twist, Hunter-Reay has made his points on short ovals and street courses alike. Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, and now Baltimore have helped him climb to his current perch, so close to the season’s big prize.
Make no mistake, a championship requires not only skill, but also luck. Hunter-Reay’s luck is famously moody, swinging his way one moment, then deserting him the next (see Sonoma’s spin for a prime example of the latter). Even though he seems to have the momentum after last weekend, a 500-miler can see a whole host of various acts play out before the checkered flag falls. To temper some of the optimism, it’s not enough for Hunter-Reay to get an average result and hope to simply be ahead of Power. In most scenarios, he needs a decisive result, one definitely unmatched by Power at the race’s end
Still, at heart, most race fans want an underdog fight. Now a respected veteran and proven on a top team, Hunter-Reay can’t quite be called that, but neither are the stats fully in his favor. But for RHR, a chance is all he wants for his distinctive #28 DHL/Sun Drop entry. “We all want it bad enough, we can get this thing,” he asserted while celebrating his big victory in Baltimore.
Moreover, it’s a great tale for every driver out there who has struggled through periods of poor or unremarkable results in a bad situation. Have confidence in your abilities, a healthy serving of dogged persistence, and yes, a dose of good fortune, and the sun just might shine on you for a change.
After knowing the lowest depths of dejection in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Ryan Hunter-Reay is ready to go out and give it his all for a shot at the title. No matter how it turns out, that’s still a journey well worth celebrating.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.