INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Hunter-Reay has made the most of second chances.
He found himself out of IndyCar racing more than once during his prime years, bounced from team to team, had to make last-minute runs just to make the Indianapolis 500, and found himself bumped from the race just three years ago before a post-qualifying ride swap put him back in the race.
And, at the Indianapolis 500, he had found himself leading the race at the final restart, only to lose it in the first corner.
He made the most of the second chance in his career – rewarding Andretti Autosport for signing him in 2011 with the IndyCar Series championship the following year. And on Sunday, he made the most of his second chance to lead the Indianapolis 500 to the final green flag. He used all of the racetrack – and then some – to win a wild shootout with Helio Castroneves that saw the two drivers swap the lead five times and finish nearly side-by-side, just 0.0600 seconds apart.
The second chance at Indy has come more than once. In 2011, he was bumped from the field. Two years later, he was leading the field to the final restart, only to be passed in Turn 1 by Tony Kanaan just before a race-ending yellow flag came out.
This time, he was in the same position. Six laps to go, with Castroneves and teammate Marco Andretti on his tail, and a restart coming after the race had been red-flagged when Townsend Bell hit the wall on Lap 191.
Knowing the draft gives a big advantage to trailing cars, both Hunter-Reay and Castroneves took unusually low lines out of Turns 2 and 4 onto the straightaways to cut the air for the trailing car and take a favorable line into the corner.
“There was no practice for it,” Hunter-Reay said. “We never really ran those lines at all the whole month. That was all new. Everything everybody was doing at the end was all new.”
Yet, the lead swapped hands five times in those six laps. Hunter-Reay won the initial restart, but lost the lead a lap later in Turn 1. Six turns after, on Lap 198, Hunter-Reay got a run on Castroneves but ran out of room at the end of the backstretch.
“I tried not to leave any room, but he was able to find some,” Castroneves said.
Hunter-Reay created his own, with the pass in the grass. He dipped his left-side tires off the track very briefly, and then made the move stick in Turn 3.
“When Helio got by me (on Lap 196), I thought that might’ve been it,” Hunter-Reay said. “We were running low out of the corner. My final move, I faked to the top, came back down, cut a little grass and we made it happen.”
While the lead would swap hands twice after that on Lap 199 – Castroneves regained it in Turn 1, Hunter-Reay took it back on the front straightaway right under the white flag, the pass in the grass set the rest of the race in motion.
“I think that was the move that won the race,” said car owner Michael Andretti, who won his third race in 10 years as an owner, with three different drivers. “That caught Helio completely off-guard and wrecked his plan for the rest of the race.”
Castroneves had one final shot – using the draft to try to slingshot his way past Hunter-Reay at the line. He could pull no closer than his back wing, and was six hundredths of a second shy of his fourth win at Indy.
“I was worried he’d be able to come out and draft up and pass me just like Hornish did to Marco in 2006,” Hunter-Reay said, noting Sam Hornish Jr.’s pass in the final few hundred yards to beat Marco Andretti. “I had to be aggressive, I had to come off Turn 4 low so Helio couldn’t draft as well. Had I come off high, he’d have come into my slipstream.”
The race win was reminiscent of Hunter-Reay’s career – one of making the most of a second chance.
That second chance started in 2010, where he had a partial deal to run with Andretti Autosport through the Indianapolis 500. Andretti said Hunter-Reay was attractive because he had shown the ability to be successful on the multiple types of courses IndyCar offers.
Hunter-Reay had previously bounced between low-budget Champ Car teams, spent a year out of IndyCar racing entirely, returned when he joined Rahal Letterman Racing as a mid-season replacement in 2007. He lost that ride a year and a half later, split 2009 between two different teams, and was on the brink with what was essentially a one-off Indy-centric opportunity.
“I was bouncing from team to team. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was very pressure-packed circumstances,” Hunter-Reay said. “We won our second race together at Long Beach. It’ s just a fantastic story. You can’t do it alone. You have to have a team behind you. Michael is the guy I have to thank for making my IndyCar career a reality.”
They’ve been rewarded. Since that win at Long Beach, Hunter-Reay has been a mainstay at Andretti Autosport, and has won at least one race each year sine 2010. In 2012, he won the IndyCar Series championship, bolstered with four wins.
Now, he joins the small group of drivers who have won both an IndyCar Series title and an Indianapolis 500. Among active drivers, only Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan can claim to have done the same.
“When you’ve won an IndyCar championship, you know you’ve done your best better than some of the best in the world at every different discipline,” Hunter-Reay said. “From a driver’s perspective, there’s something rewarding about that. The competition in the IndyCar series is ridiculous. It’s the toughest it’s ever been, and the closest it’s ever been. But (the Indy 500) is the history of auto racing. It’s the oldest, biggest race in the world. It’s unbelievable that we’ve won both.”
He’s also carrying the banner for his country. In 2012, he became the first American to win the series title since Sam Hornish Jr. did so in 2006. Sunday, he became the first American since 2006 – and the third since 1999 – to sip the milk at Indianapolis.
But he’s not done yet. Much like recently-retired three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, he’s just hitting his stride in his early 30s.
“There’s a lot to do in IndyCar,” said Hunter-Reay, who is 33 years old and now has 13 Champ Car/IndyCar wins, a title and an Indy 500 win. His car owner concurs.
“I’m so happy to have him part of our family,” Andretti said. “Hopefully, he’ll be part of our family until he retires.”