The Contenders, Part I: Ryan Hunter-Reay

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As the IZOD IndyCar Series heads into its championship weekend, there are two drivers eligible to win the title. Today Oilpressure.com will take a look at Ryan Hunter-Reay. On Wednesday, we’ll discuss Will Power.

There is a new name in contention for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship this weekend. The past few seasons have seen drivers from the juggernauts of Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi vie for the title in the last race of the season. Not since 2007, has a driver from another team battled for the title – but this weekend, Andretti Autosport will try to win its first championship in five years.

For the first time ever, Andretti driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is not only mathematically alive for the championship, but has a strong shot at winning it. Although he is seventeen points behind Penske driver Will Power, he proved at Baltimore that he is more than capable of doing what he has to do in desperate situations.

It’s good being Ryan Hunter-Reay right now. He leads all drivers with four wins this season. He is married to the beautiful and extremely likeable Beccy Gordon and is currently being pursued by the most successful team in the history of American open-wheel racing – Team Penske. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Life was not so good, not that long ago. His career was stuck in reverse. His ride with Rahal–Letterman went away as Rahal withdrew from competition just before the 2009 season. He got a last minute ride with an under-funded second car at Vision Racing on the eve of the season opener at St. Petersburg. Surprisingly, he finished second; giving Vision Racing their highest finish to date. But after a disastrous month of May and mediocre finishes in the two races afterwards, Hunter-Reay was “farmed out" to AJ Foyt, who needed a driver to replace the injured Vito Meira for the rest of the season. The results were abysmal. All the while, he was watching his mother, Lydia, battle cancer and eventually succumb at a much too early age in November of 2009.

Shortly thereafter, it was a series of ups and downs for the talented driver. He got a ride with Michael Andretti’s team in 2010, but there was only funding in place from series title sponsor, IZOD, for four races. Hunter-Reay won the Grand Prix of Long Beach. But his funding would remain a lingering question throughout the season as he posted a solid seventh place finish.

He and Michael Andretti secured funding through Sun Drop and DHL for 2011, but there would be dark days ahead. As the entire Andretti team struggled in qualifying for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 – teammates Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay found themselves in the unenviable position of being on the outside looking in when the gun went off on the final day of qualifying. Conway never made the grid, but a very unpopular deal was struck between Michael Andretti and AJ Foyt to remove popular driver Bruno Junqueira from Foyt’s second car in favor of Hunter-Reay and his sponsorship. This did not go over well with fans and Hunter-Reay finished twenty-third after starting from the back of the field.

The 2011 season started out poorly with the DNQ at Indianapolis along with a best finish of fourteenth at Barber in the first four races. He defended his 2010 win at Long Beach by finishing twenty-third in 2011. On July 3, 2011; during a break between the Iowa and Toronto races – Ryan Hunter-Reay and Beccy Gordon were married. That began a stretch of mostly good luck on the track for Hunter-Reay that extends to where we are today.

Since their wedding day, Ryan Hunter-Reay has started twenty-two races. He has won five of them. In that span, he has also racked up four additional podiums and seven more top-ten finishes. Do the math and that means he only had six finishes outside the top ten in those races – not too shabby. That record makes a strong case for matrimony.

After some tumultuous seasons where his open-wheel future was in doubt, Ryan Hunter-Reay is now in his prime and on the threshold of greatness. He is thirty-one and poised to win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship. He has a very difficult decision to make in the coming days, however. Roger Penske is reportedly pursuing his services to replace Ryan Briscoe at Team Penske. This is the job that probably most open-wheelers dream of. Fifteen Indianapolis 500 wins and multiple championships are no fluke. This is the best team in the business. This is the team that has had names like Donohue, Andretti, Mears, Fittipaldi and three Unser’s driving for them. Before even discussing financial terms – that’s tough for any driver to turn down.

But Michael Andretti stepped up and took a chance on Hunter-Reay when others didn’t or wouldn’t. He risked the possibility of having to run Hunter-Reay out of his own pocket in 2010, just to keep his season going. Hunter-Reay hasn’t forgotten that, now that he and Michael are on the verge of seeing the rewards of their earlier efforts come to them. Although it’s a good problem to have, I don’t envy Hunter-Reay in having to choose. I could make an argument for either way he went, but I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

But if that’s the only problem that faces Ryan Hunter-Reay right now, I’d say things are going well. If he doesn’t win the championship this weekend, I think he’ll be in this position again, regardless of who he is driving for. He has paid his dues to this sport and it’s satisfying to see someone very deserving in this spot. It’s good to be Ryan Hunter-Reay right now.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “The Contenders, Part I: Ryan Hunter-Reay”

  1. George, that is a well written column on a very deserving Ryan Hunter-Reay. As you know, I have been a fan of RHR since the beginning and it is a lot of fun to see his career unfold like I expected. As for the team he drives for next year, Penske isn’t the be all, end all. Andretti is proving that as a team owner he has what it takes to win and shows that this series is dominated once again by “The Big Three.” RHR can win right where he is and Michael has the desire to get it done as well. By the way, RHR has a terrific teammate in Hinch. He is going to be a winner, too.

  2. Tony Kaanan chose loyalty to Andretti over a seat in one of the Big Two’s cars, and was dumped a year later. Something for RH-R to ponder?

  3. Excellent choice of subject matter for this week George. Well done.

  4. I suspect the wild card in the decision making might be with Marco Andretti and what, if any, his being on the AA team impacts the other AA drivers. For some reason, I don’t think he seems like a very good teammate to me, but I may be mistaken. I would always be leary of a father-son relationship as a teammate. If RHR does leave for Penske, I would think there would be a long line of drivers wanting that seat at AA (any hope for Simona?). With RHR and Hinchcliffe’s competitiveness this year, AA seems to be back among the “power” teams in the series.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Great read George. I’m quite happy to see Hunter-Reay with a shot at the Indycar championship, not just because he’s a new face at the top of standings, but also because it’s great to see his hard work and resilience pay off.

    – He revived his career after spending 2005-2007 running either a partial schedule or not at all.
    – His career has survived sponsorship fallouts at ASTJ, HVM, Rocketsports, Rahal, Vision, and nearly Andretti,
    – He has also survived awful rides at ASTJ, Rocketsports, Vision, Foyt, and Andretti’s Indy 500 program.
    – In 2009 and 2010, he was the series’ only full-time American male without a family pedigree in Indycar racing.
    – He’s won races for 4 different teams, and recorded the most recent win for 3 of those 4 teams.

    This is a career that should give any downtrodden race car driver hope. It is the definition of “paying his dues”.

  6. You can’t say no to Penske unless your Ganassi contract is already signed.

    -Steve K

  7. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    A great column George…

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