For as long as Ryan Hunter-Reay can remember, the Indianapolis 500 was a huge deal. As a small child growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Hunter-Reay used to plop down a plastic race track and line up his miniature race cars in front of the television set on the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend.
For the next few hours, he was mesmerized.
"My dad was a gearhead — he loved cars. I grew up loving cars as well," Hunter-Reay recalled Monday. "He took me to a few races as a fan, and that's where it started. I always watched the Indy 500 on the carpet in the living room. I remember that stuff. … I always wanted to be an IndyCar driver."
So it was "completely surreal" when Hunter-Reay, having moved through the ranks from being a six-time national karting champion all the way to getting his first IndyCar Series ride in 2007, found himself at the starting line of the 2008 Indianapolis 500 as a member of the Rahal Letterman Racing Team.
"Nothing can prepare you coming up on that driver entrance stage and you see 350,000 to 400,000 people in one place," Hunter-Reay said. "Being the first time, it was overwhelming. It blew me away, the enormity of the event. It's still the single-day biggest sporting event in the world.
"Everything was new to me and just to see from Turn 1 to Turn 4, it's almost like a mile and it's all people on either side. It's very cool to see. And to be a part of it, to be one of the 33 [drivers], it's amazing."
Hunter-Reay finished a respectable sixth that day, but hasn't come close since. Everything from the slow cars Hunter-Reay said he drove in 2009 and 2011 to his team running out of fuel in 2010 to his car breaking a drive shaft shortly before the midway point of the race last year has doomed his chances.
"You're only as fast as the horse you're riding, and some days, some years it's your year, and some years it's not," said Hunter-Reay, who signed a two-year deal with Andretti Autosport in 2010 and was resigned for another two years. "In '08 I had a great car my rookie year. Had I been maybe a five-year vet, maybe I would have won the race, I don't know.
"Now I'm in the position with the team I won the [Izod IndyCar Series] championship with, the only thing I can ask for is to have a car capable of winning and I have that now. I had it last year, too, but we didn't finish the race because we had a mechanical problem. We have a shot at winning this year."
Which is why the 32-year-old driver — whose four victories last year (including in the Grand Prix of Baltimore) helped him become the first American to win the the IndyCar Series overall championship — is excited about this year's 500, scheduled for Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Hunter-Reay admits that his performance last year, when he narrowly edged out reigning champion Will Power at the top of the points list, and his performance so far in 2013 — which includes a victory in Alabama — adds to the expectations.
"It puts a lot of pressure on you. When you know you have a chance and you're in the equipment capable of doing it, it kind of comes down to you and your crew," said Hunter-Reay, who qualified seventh overall for this year's Indy 500 and will start inside on the third row. "I'm pretty optimistic about it."
Hunter-Reay was one of several IndyCar Series drivers who spread across the country Monday to promote the upcoming Indy 500. As one of the few American-born stars and now the circuit's defending champion, coming to the nation's capital seemed a natural place for Hunter-Reay.
"I think there's two links to the common fan in racing," Hunter-Reay said. "The one link is the fascination with automobiles in general. People love cars and they love to see cars go fast. There's the machinery side of it that they love to see, the technology and all that. Then there's the other like, the person driving it, man against machine.
"That's the real bond; you can there'a human being in the car going 235 miles an hour, pushing themselves to dangerous limits. And I think that's the real key there, to know the personalities of the drivers and the people who do this, that we're pretty normal people in general, risking our lives on the race track. That's what we're trying to get across. We're much like the fans in many ways."
Not that Hunter-Reay's appearance in downtown Washington turned many heads or drew anywhere near the amount of media that Tiger Woods attracted a few miles away in Bethesda to talk about the upcoming U.S. Open outside Philadelphia and his own local tournament.
"They had to bring me in through the back door," Hunter Reay joked as he sat eating lunch at the Mayflower Hotel. "It is nice to still be a regular person and have our privacy. At the racetrack, we're extremely popular people. In Indianapolis, everybody knows you. It's like being in Hollywood for a movie star."
That could change if Hunter-Reay wins the Indy 500. What began as a dream for a little kid in South Florida plopping down his plastic race track and his miniature race cars on the carpet in front of the living room television set to watch with his father has turned into a reality being played out in front of hundreds of thousands of fans at the track and millions watching, just like he did.
Hunter-Reay is just hoping that his No. 1 car — because of his status in the IndyCar series — makes it to the finish line first.
Barring another mechanical mishap, Hunter-Reay thinks he can be there.
"Anytime you're in the top 10, you're close to winning the 500 because it gets so mixed up at the end, there's so much passing," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun