Occasionally in the sporting world, we get to witness the birth of a star. In baseball, you could point to a highly-sought prospect such as Bryce Harper. In football, you might point to a sterling rookie, such as Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.
Sometimes, the transformation to star isn’t an immediate thing. Not every athlete comes with a sure-fire pedigree, and even the ones that do don’t necessarily pan out. At times, there is a refinement, a slow realization of potential that transforms that potential into real stardom.
What we have seen from Ryan Hunter-Reay since last season falls into the latter category. The IZOD IndyCar Series’ most recent champion did not start out as a star. In fact, fans can easily recall days of frustration, of bouncing from team to team, and a general perception of poor luck and circumstance interrupting positive development.
Even as he grew into his full-time ride with Andretti Autosport, Hunter-Reay had drawbacks, races where the frustration from the school of hard knocks was palpable. There were the ups and downs in ChampCar, the Vision Racing and Foyt outsourcing, and even the brutal Bump Day events as late as 2011.
How remote did the possibility of Ryan Hunter-Reay as champion seem back then? How far did that goal seem with what we knew of RHR and his struggles? He had worked through a number of shaky rides, had never been with a top-tier team, and seemed to be one of those drivers capable of winning now and again, but not real championship material.
Yet slowly, a transformation took place. The Ryan Hunter-Reay that won Sunday at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was on top of his game, with a sort of serenity and unbroken display of talent that comes from the realization of excellence. Hunter-Reay won’t win every week, but the off weeks are handled well, mistakes are minimized, and when he’s on his game, he’s as good as there is.
And so it has been that we’ve seen a driver refine his craft, hone his skills, and arrive, not just as a sometime winner, but a triple-threat winner who has proved his mettle on ovals, street courses, and road courses alike. This is not the Ryan Hunter-Reay of five years ago, or even two years ago. He’s reached another level, and it’s tremendous to watch.
For every star that seems born to a great run in their sport, there is another driver who only achieves their fullest level of true skill with trial and error, heartbreak and perseverance. These stories, like those of RHR, are perhaps so satisfying, because we can mark the hero’s journey from where it began.
So now, in 2013, we have Hunter-Reay once more embroiled in a title fight, facing many of the greatest all-around drivers in the world on a variety of challenging courses. It brings the joy and satisfaction of seeing an athlete at the top of their craft face up against the very best. It is stardom realized.
Ryan Hunter-Reay may or may not repeat as champion this year, but no one can deny he is a threat, a contender, a front-runner. He is a star of IndyCar, and that is a rise to celebrate.
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 (@indycaradvocate), or via email at mail.rpgblog@gmailcom.