Just a few short years ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay was testing a Nationwide Series car for his now brother-in-law Robby Gordon’s team. Financial difficulties with the uncompetitive Rocketsports Racing team left him rideless. Sponsorship issues forced Rahal-Letterman racing to cease operations for a few seasons even after Hunter-Reay took his maiden victory at Watkins Glen. The next season, Hunter-Reay would move to Vision Racing in a last minute deal, securing a ride for the talented American driver shortly before the commence of the season. Like seemingly every other ride in Hunter-Reay’s career, the rain clouds would come out, and he’d swap teams one more time. That’s when he secured a fill-in spot with A.J. Foyt Racing for the balance of the 2009 season, filling in for the injured Vitor Meira.
Once again, the end of the season would leave Ryan Hunter-Reay rideless.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had arrived.
Unfortunately, 2011 is a season Hunter-Reay would probably like to forget for the most part. The first half of the season was nothing but heartache, culminating with his failure to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Even though he’d make the race with some help from the crew at A.J. Foyt Racing, Hunter-Reay’s 2011 season would not begin to turn around until the Iowa race. He strung together a series of Top Ten finishes, capped off by a very controversial win over Oriol Servia at New Hampshire. RHR once again managed to finish 7th in points, but it was a hard fought 7th.
The singular focus is qualify and run in the top six, that’s it. If we do that, we’re most likely going to stay out of trouble and we’ll be contending for the win. That’s the big thing. We have to be solid. We have to be in the top six. We don’t need to light the world on fire. We need to go out and gun it, hoping for more wins. That’s what we want to do. We’re going to win races. If not, our bad days need to be fifth or sixth place, and our good days need to be wins. That’s where we’re at.
That’s exactly what he did.
After the Texas race, here’s how Hunter-Reay’s season played out; first, first, first, seventh, 24th, 18th, first, fourth. Only a mechanical problem at Mid-Ohio and an altercation with Alex Tagliani at Sonoma made things exciting. Even with that hot streak, Hunter-Reay still found himself in 2nd place overall going into the final race at Sonoma. RHR had to finish at least 6th to have a shot in his best case scenario. Ryan didn’t get his best case scenario, but he certainly got a hand when Power caught one of the seams in the pavement and crashed out early in the race. Even though Verizon Team Penske repaired Power’s car enough to complete some laps and move up a position, Hunter-Reay was able to finish the race in fourth place; good enough to clinch the championship by three points.
After the race, this is what Ryan had to say:
“I have no idea (how I got won this championship). It was team effort right there. We were struggling all weekend. I didn’t want to let anyone really know about it. We were really in the woods. This hasn’t sunk in yet. I just drove 500 miles for my life. I can’t believe we’re INDYCAR champions. I can’t even believe this. DHL, Sun Drop, Circle K, Chevrolet, the fans, INDYCAR. My dream has come true. This is unbelievable.” (About the late race red flag): “I just wanted to get set in a rhythm because I knew when we got in a rhythm it was a little bit better. With the red flag, that really got the nerves going. Sitting in pit lane, I knew the tires would take in a heat cycle and that it would slide around a lot. Everybody raced tough, but they raced clean. My god. I didn’t think we had it for the first half of the race and we kept getting it better and better and better. Michael (Andretti) did a great job on the radio and the guys did a great job in the pits. This hasn’t sunk in yet.” (About the Power incident): “I don’t know how close it was. He was right next to me and I saw him lose it, so I bet it was pretty close. He was joking around that he would take me out if I was next to him and he almost did.”
Meanwhile, this was Will Power’s post race statement:
“There were definitely times there where it was looking hopeful. All credit to my guys, getting the car out and doing those 12 laps to get a couple of points. At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is definitely a deserving champion. A real fighter. Probably as far as all around drivers go, he’s probably the best in the series because he wins in each discipline. If I look back on the season, once again the ovals – three crashes on three of the ovals this year, that’s a massive hit in the points. Three years winning the road course championship, quite convincingly, so it’s very obvious where I lack.”
After everything Ryan Hunter-Reay has been through, it’s quite nice to see someone finally get their chance to stand on top. It’s equally nice to see someone have as much class in defeat as Will Power. These were two true gentlemen who competed like true champions down to the wire. In the end, it’s sad to see such an incredible battle end with one driver crashing out, but that is just how racing works. Some days you’re on the right side of luck. Other days, the luck is nowhere to be found. These two drivers are guaranteed to be back on top of their game next season, fighting each other for the championship once again.
Just a few short years ago at this time, Ryan Hunter-Reay sat awake at home, contemplating his future in open wheel racing. Just like true champions do, Ryan saw a crack in the door, and pried it open with his foot. Now he’s completely inside, right at home on IZOD Indycar Series Champion Boulevard.