Defending Grand Prix champ Ryan Hunter-Reay has turned a corner in his career

Things are looking up for Ryan Hunter-Reay after he won the IZOD IndyCar Series (as well as the Grand Prix of Baltimore) last year.
Things are looking up for Ryan Hunter-Reay after he won the IZOD IndyCar Series (as well as the Grand Prix of Baltimore) last year.(Robert Laberge, Getty Images)

Ryan Hunter-Reay's racing career might have been summed up in last year's Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Starting in the middle of the pack, Hunter-Reay took a number of chances to get into contention and then used a late restart to surge to the front. His victory helped the 31-year old Floridian clinch his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship a week later in California.


Reflecting recently on how things unfolded in Baltimore, Hunter-Reay said he had come into the week "being down" after crashing in the previous race in Sonoma when he was hit from behind while running third with three laps to go.

"I thought the championship was lost at that point," Hunter-Reay said. "Then I came to Baltimore and we had kind of a renewed sense of 'Let's go for broke. Just go for it.' I was taking every risk I could, just passing cars every other corner, and that's what we did on every restart, every opportunity.

"We stayed out on slicks in the rain. We really risked everything. Many people don't know it, but I almost put it into the wall on the hairpin on Turn 1 [toward the end]. I came in there so deep, I was two inches from the wall."

The race ended in controversy when some of his fellow drivers accused Hunter-Reay of jumping the last restart before the green flag was lowered. At the time of the restart, Hunter-Reay had made it all the way up from 13th at the start to second behind Ryan Briscoe of Australia.

"I came out of that chicane and I came out to line up with Briscoe. I was pulling up. You don't want to pull up too fast because then you go past the leader," Hunter-Reay recalled. "The green flag came out and I put my foot on the floor and Briscoe stayed. So it looked that much worse. He stayed to try to prove a point that I jumped it, and it backfired on him."

Finding a home

The 150-mile journey around Baltimore was similar to what Hunter-Reay has endured in his career. Considered a rising star at 18 when he won the Skip Barber Dodge National Championship in 1999, Hunter-Reay went another nine years before his IndyCar career took hold. He raced for different teams and was considered inconsistent.

"I was the journeyman. I popped around to every different team," said Hunter-Reay, who landed with his current team, Andretti Autosport, in 2010. "Now I finally found a home and I feel content with where I'm at at."


The same is true away from the track. Hunter-Reay and his wife, Beccy, became first-time parents with the birth of their son Ryden in December. It certainly helps Hunter-Reay that his wife's family has been involved in racing for more than a century. Her paternal great-grandfather, Huntly Gordon, raced around the country in the early 1900s. Her parents were off-road racers in California. Her brother Robby has raced both CART and NASCAR.

"I think sometimes I know too much throughout a race or even in the industry, it might be better if I didn't know as much as I do," said Beccy Hunter-Reay, who competed on the first U.S. women's softball team to play at the Olympics in 1992. "There's a few wives around here who really know nothing about racing and they don't have a care in the world because they don't stress about the little things. Unfortunately, I know about the little things."

While Hunter-Reay has followed up his 2012 championship season with another solid year that includes victories in Birmingham, Ala., and Milwaukee — as well as three second-place finishes — the disappointment of this year's Indianapolis 500 lingers.

Hunter-Reay led at four different points of the race for a total of 26 laps, including near the end before a late restart helped Tony Kanaan win for the first time. Though his third-place finish behind Kanaan and Indy 500 rookie Carlos Munoz was the best of Hunter-Reay's career, it was unfulfilling.

"It does leave you empty," Hunter-Reay said, sitting in an Andretti Autosport trailer before the Grand-Prix of Mid-Ohio earlier this month. "I said to myself a couple of times during the race, 'We have a car good enough to win the Indianapolis 500.' Anytime you can have that moment on that track is a blessing. I had a chance to win the biggest race in the world and hopefully I will have a chance again next year."

Still, that disappontment offers some perspective for how far Hunter-Reay has come.


"He was devastated [right after the race ended], but then again there's the other side of it," Beccy Hunter-Reay said. "You look back to 2009 and he barely qualified, so now he can say, 'It's OK. I had a shot to win the Indianapolis 500. It's not that bad a day.'

"But he still has a hard time watching or talking about it. When he sees a picture from it, it's like, 'Arggghhh.'"

"Opportunities and timing"

Hunter-Reay is a long way from 2009, when the Rahal-Letterman team announced that it would not be able to fund a full season and Hunter-Reay was forced to scramble for another deal with Vision Racing. Though he finished second in his first race with the new team, Hunter-Reay didn't have another top 10 and was again looking for another team in 2010.

Enter Andretti Autosport, which first signed him through the Indianapolis 500, then extended him when he won in Long Beach, Calif., and ultimately gave him a two-year contract. Last year's win on Pratt Street and the season championship turned Hunter-Reay from a journeyman into one of the more respected drivers on the circuit.

"You start the season knowing that the overall championship is the goal," said Hunter-Reay, who comes to Baltimore third on the current points list behind Helio Castroneves of Brazil and Scott Dixon of New Zealand. "Though experience, you know your goal is to drive to the capabilities of your car. Once you start striving for more than what you actually have, you're reaching."

Still trailing Power after last year's win in Baltimore, Hunter-Reay wound up needing to finish fifth or better in Fontana, Calif., after Power crashed early then returned to finish the race. Hunter-Reay came in fourth and beat Power by three points.

"The pressure was immense," said Hunter-Reay, who was running 12th when Power crashed. "The target was moving as the race was going on. I remember almost a numb feeling in my hands because of how much pressure there was. That helps you in future championship situations. Having dealt with the pressure, you definitely learn a lot about how to deal with all that."

Hunter-Reay is getting to the point where he should have opportunities to drive for other teams — his contract is up at the end of the season — as well as other racing circuits. While his future with Andretti Autosport seems secure, Hunter-Reay keeps the door open to someday leaving IndyCar.

But he doesn't think it will be soon.

"I still have a lot of unfinished business here, and I have a lot to achieve. I feel like we're just getting started," he said. "Life is all about opportunities and timing. If the timing is right, I'd never say never to anything."