The Way It Is/ Ryan Hunter-Reay on his championship yearby Gordon Kirby
Ryan Hunter-Reay did himself proud this year. Hunter-Reay won IndyCar's championship with style, building momentum as the season wore on and chasing down Will Power and Team Penske in the year's closing races. Ryan won four races this year--Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto and Baltimore--and wrapped up the championship with a clean drive through the field to fourth place at the California Speedway while Power hit the fence.
"I think the basis for where our season started was being able to test along with Penske and Ilmor developing not only the DW12 but the Chevrolet engine," Hunter-Reay observed. "I was one of the test drivers for Chevy and I think during the season it really started coming together. Milwaukee is where we got our first win but the speed was there in the season-opener at St. Pete and we finished second in Brazil. The only big thing that was different for me this year than every other year was Indianapolis."
Indeed, the month May at Indianapolis has been a struggle for Hunter-Reay. He finished sixth in his first start at Indianapolis with Rahal Letterman in 2008 but crashed in both 2009 with Vision Racing and '10 with A.J. Foyt. Last year with Andretti Autosport he barely scraped into the field for the 500. But this year Ryan was a front runner throughout practice and qualified on the outside of the front row only to suffer an engine failure early in the race.
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"I've certainly gathered a lot of respect for the Speedway over the years from the hard times that I've had there. But to qualify on the front row I think was the beginning to our championship run."
Ryan enjoyed testing and coming to grips with the Dallara DW12 and Chevrolet's new turbo V6.
"From my first day in the car I knew it was going to be quite a long development road and I knew I was going to have to adapt to it. It wasn't going to be a case of tailoring this car exactly to my driving style and to continue doing what I've been doing the past five or six years. I was going to have to adapt to the car and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed changing my driving style and learning how to get the most out of the new car.
"It was a clean sheet of paper for every driver. With the different handling characteristics and the carbon brakes it was a new challenge. To make the car the way I needed it--and most every other driver will tell you that was the key--was to make the front of the car work further into the corner. As it was, it would turn in rather loose on entry and then go to what I call a snap understeer, or a massive push. So minimizing that and making the entry a little bit friendly while making the front grip longer through the corner--which is always on the Christmas list of any driver--was key. I think over the entire season, even to the last race, we were still honing in on that."
Hunter-Reay sees plenty of room for development in both car and engine.
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Ryan was delighted to do some engine development work for the first time in his career.
"It was my first opportunity to be able to do some engine development. It's a completely different tack than what I've been used to, which is to make the car balanced for a particular goal you're pursuing whether it be qualifying or whatever. But with engine development you're working on driveability and turbo and boost ramp-up. It was a completely new area for me to work on. I had to hone in on that in testing. I had to really focus on this different area that I'd never done before and I really enjoyed it. I think we got a lot out of that."
Hunter-Reay has repeatedly made the point this year that he enjoys a healthy, open and productive relationship with teammates Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe.
"I think the thing that's critical is chemistry. If the drivers are not working in harmony you may as well have three, single-car teams rather than one, three-car team. We definitely made the most of that this year. James, Marco and I get along really well outside the car and away from the racetrack. That really helps our communication. There are really no egos standing in the way. Everybody on this team knows that if you help your teammate you're going to benefit from it.
"We really made a lot of that this year. It was certainly enjoyable and I think the teammate side of it is only the tip of the iceberg. The atmosphere within the entire team--the engineering, the crew--all that has gone really well in addition to the driver line-up. It's been a very nice thing to see, a development I've really enjoyed being a part of over the last few years."
Ryan says he's been fortunate this year to enjoy many first-rate races.
"I've never had so many good races in one season. This was definitely a breakthrough in my career. I think Iowa was big because when we started the last stint we were seventh or eighth and we ended up winning it. Then we had Baltimore which was a do or die race. Will (Power) had sat on pole and won the race the year before and that was the race where I felt like I really came through and I felt like the team came through too. But a lot was in my hands that I really had to deliver on in that one.
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Of course, before the season-closer in California, Hunter-Reay turned down an offer from Roger Penske and signed a new contract with Andretti Autosport for the next two years.
"I have a lot of deep-rooted, long-standing relationships with the team and sponsors," Ryan commented. "We've achieved a lot together and there was a whole lot riding on that. When you have a group of people, especially on the #28 car, that are working that well together where it's just seamless on every front you want to continue that. Yes, we could be faster at some tracks. We need to pick up the pace at some mile and half superspeedways. For sure we have some weaknesses. But every day on the job with this group is exactly the way you would want it. It's ideal.
"Racing is a team sport. It's about people and when you've got such a great group like we have at Andretti Autosport tossing that aside just doesn't make any sense. I just couldn't leave that group. It felt wrong in so many ways."
Over the last ten years Hunter-Reay has endured a long climb to the top of American open-wheel racing. He won two races in his first two years in Champ Car but struggled to find a regular, competitive ride in the IRL until settling with Andretti Autosport in 2010.
"It's certainly been a long road. I came up through karting where I emulated the guys in the CART Indy Car series. When I was in karting Indy car was the biggest racing series in the world, but just when I got to cars with Skip Barber the bottom fell out of the whole thing, and there were certainly some tough times ahead because of the split."
In 2002 Ryan won three races and took three poles in the Atlantic series. He graduated to Champ Car in '03 with Stefan Johnson's short-lived American Spirit team and won at Surfers Paradise at the end of the year. He moved to Keith Wiggins HVM team in '04 and scored a dominant win from the pole at Milwaukee but had to move to Paul Gentilozzi's Rocketsports team in '05.
"Through the Skip Barber series I was able to win quite a few races and scholarships but once you get to Atlantic it's a whole new level of funding and to find the support for that was very difficult. Then, moving into Champ Car, every year was year by year. I felt like every race was another test to prove that I should have a ride and that's how it went for the next five or six years. Every time I was in the car it was somewhat of a make or break feeling."
Hunter-Reay was unable to find an open-wheel ride for '06 so he raced instead in the Grand-Am series. But he got a break in the second half of 2007, landing a ride with Rahal Letterman and scoring an excellent win at Watkins Glen.
"I enjoyed my time with Bobby's team and I was able to show that I was worthy of the seat the next year. But then our sponsor ethanol left the sport entirely for a few years and Rahal closed its doors. Once again a team I had driven for closed its doors. I had the opportunity to drive for Vision and Foyt in '09. I learned a lot from A.J. and I'm certainly very thankful to Tony George for keeping me afloat that year."
Ryan's big break finally came when he got a part-time ride with Michael Andretti's team for 2010.
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"So we went out and finished second at Brazil in the first race. Then we went to Long Beach and won and, lo and behold, the rest of the season came. It's always been like that for me, but I think that makes me hungrier. I know what it feels like watching IndyCar races, the sport that I love, from the couch for a year and a half. For sure, it's made me hungrier. I know what the lows feel like and I never want to get back there again. So I drive like hell to stay on top."
Ryan will also do some sports car racing during IndyCar's off-season. He will race one of the new SRT Viper GT cars at Petit Le Mans next month and will drive either the Viper or a Level 5 Motorsports' LMP2 car at Sebring next March. He also plans to do the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in an as yet undetermined, Chevy-powered Grand-Am car.
"I'm testing an LMP2 car for Level 5 Motorsports at Road Atlanta all this week and I'll be doing Petit Le Mans, the Daytona 24 hours and Sebring. The number one race I want to add to my list is the 24 hours of Le Mans, depending on scheduling conflicts."
Of course, Hunter-Reay is the first American to win the IndyCar title since Sam Hornish in 2006 and he's delighted to have the responsibility and opportunity to help the series regain its lost place in the sports market.
"I think it's a great responsibility to have. I don't feel like it's a burden at all. I'm really looking forward to that. As a kid growing up I was just a fan of Indy car racing. I always watched Indy car races on Sundays. I went to the races and I looked up to the American heroes--Mario, Michael, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., and Jimmy Vasser too. I looked up to those guys.
"I was just a kid. I didn't think about whether they were Americans or from any other country. I always naturally looked up to the Americans and now to be on the other side of that with the young kids looking up to us, it's neat to see that come full circle. I'm very proud to represent the United States in a series that is very diverse with drivers from around the world. Those things are what makes the series so great.
"Certainly being the first American champion since Hornish and since Al Unser Jr. in a unified series back in 1994 is a great thing for me. Al Jr's #31 from '94 was my go-kart number all the way up through karting. So to be in this position is really a dream come true. This is what I've always wanted and it's going to be a lot of fun representing the United States. It's great pressure to have."
Hunter-Reay has proved himself to be an excellent racing driver as well as a gentleman on and off the track. In today's difficult times IndyCar could not have a better champion.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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