Another season, another career twist, another new team – it's just a year in the life of Ryan Hunter-Reay. RACER editor David Malsher wonders (for the umpteenth time) why a driver of such obvious star potential is so rarely given a chance to establish himself in U.S. open-wheel racing.
I used to worry about Ryan Hunter-Reay. I worried that years of being smacked around by Lady Luck and certain prominent – albeit temporary – figures in his career would eventually have a detrimental effect on his personality. One day his professional attitude would surely drop during a live TV interview and he’d vent his frustrations. Given what he’s sucked up over the last five years, if he spat it back out in bitter fashion, most would sympathize.
Never happened. Never gonna happen. Professional attitude doesn’t begin to describe it. During the Month of May, as the Vision Racing crew searched in vain for a remedy for his wayward No. 21 car (overlooking the obvious “box of matches and can of gas” answer), Hunter-Reay was stoical. No, he didn’t have an explanation, because if he did, he’d have done something about it and helped his engineer find the answer. No, the car wasn’t as off the pace as it had been in Kansas, but it was a damn sight scarier, given the necessity for low downforce at The Brickyard during qualifying. But yes, he was desperately unhappy. Not only was there his personal pride at stake, there was also the sheer disappointment: after his second place at St. Petersburg in the IndyCar Series’ opening round, this was a major comedown.
Trying to tame the second Vision car pitched Hunter-Reay into a high-speed spin that had fortunately resulted in relatively light contact with the wall in the first week of practice, but the repaired car was no better. Teammate Ed Carpenter, who’s no sucker on ovals, had tried the No. 21 car and agreed that there was something fundamentally wrong with it, despite it having a near-identical setup to his own No. 20 car. Ryan appreciated the endorsement of his own views, but it got him no nearer a solution.
And yet on the second weekend, during Versus’ generally excellent coverage of the Month of May, Jack Arute carried out an interview with Hunter-Reay, and his line of questions and comments clearly implied that he, Arute, reckoned the problem was in the driver’s head, presumably legacy of his first-week accident.
It was a moment to cringe. “OK, this is it,” I thought as I watched the broadcast, “this is where Ryan cracks and shoves the microphone somewhere the sun doesn’t shine.” But though clearly taken aback, Ryan retained his dignity while firmly correcting his questioner. A few hours later, RH-R was still annoyed by the incident. A month on, he simply dismisses the moment. “I think Jack made a mistake just because he was on the spot, and trying to wrap things up with a soundbite,” he says now.
Anyone who had wondered if there was a kernel of truth in what Arute had observed was surely put right if they watched the final weekend of qualifying/Bump Day. No way can a spooked driver take a car by the scruff of the neck in the manner that Hunter-Reay did when it was all on the line at Indy, and bump it miraculously into the field.
Ultimately, however, he posted the race’s second retirement with a crash and spin into the pit lane, yet dogged persistence through the races at Milwaukee Mile and at Texas Motor Speedway have somehow kept Hunter-Reay in the Top 10 in the ICS point standings after six rounds. However, Vision has now reverted to its preseason plan of contracting to a one-car outfit (for Carpenter), so there’s another change for Hunter-Reay this weekend as he switches to A.J. Foyt Racing.
But Vision team owner Tony George’s original intention for ’09 was to have been a one-car team. So why suddenly expand – just nine days before the start of the season, remember – when it involved brushing cobwebs off tubs and taking chassis out of mothballs? Given IZOD’s commitment to Hunter-Reay and the series, leaving the company’s poster-child on the sidelines was unthinkable, yes. It was a brave commitment by George to commit to sign Hunter-Reay when IZOD’s business to business deals aren’t expected to yield for another three to four months, yes.
But one wonders if George’s decision was unnecessarily brave. It came 36 hours after Ryan had tested for HVM Racing, a team where he had flourished back in 2004. Had he stayed on there, it would have meant working with – or at least, near – engineer Michael Cannon again (Cannon currently engineers EJ Viso). That seemed like a good match, and one that would have kept IZOD just as happy. No one makes a little go a long way like HVM owner Keith Wiggins and, however skeletal that team is currently, I’m not alone in believing Hunter-Reay’s results in a second HVM car would have been better than in a second Vision machine. My point is, had George left Ryan there, he could still have scooped him up for 2010, as per his stated intention.
Instead he went to Vision, a team insufficiently prepared to run two cars, and the results – St Pete apart – showed that all too graphically. So Hunter-Reay is in the middle of yet another disrupted season, but he at least heads to A.J. Foyt Racing with a spring in his step. Had he been coming from the No. 20 Vision car, you might have described it as a sideways move. After his season so far, however, you’ve got to assume that the only way is up. Given Foyt Racing’s situation post-Vitor Meira shunt, the feeling of relief will be mutual.
“A.J. and Larry Foyt had spoken with me in the past,” says Hunter-Reay, when we speak just before he flies to Iowa for IndyCar's seventh round, “but we had never quite got our acts together. Then in Texas, Tony went to them and said, ‘Look, rather than play musical chairs with your drivers, how about this: I’ll keep this driver still on contract, he’ll still be mine, but you can use him to the end of the year.’
“That made me happy. Tony’s a straight shooter, you know? He tells you how it is, and he’s a good guy. He could have told me, ‘Hey, your stuff’s on the doorstep, I’ll see you later.’ But instead he went ahead and did what he thought was right, and lived up to his contract – which is a lot more than some people do.”
Interesting comment, that. Yes, people have moved the goalposts on Ryan’s behalf – and to his detriment – in years gone by, and that’s contributed to the absurd statistic that he’s never spent two complete seasons with the same team. But he’s quick to point out that the state of flux that has dominated his Champ Car/IndyCar career has largely been down to sheer misfortune. “A lot of it’s been timing,” he says. “I mean, we had a really good situation going with Rahal Letterman Racing. From when I joined mid-2007 to the end of ’08, we really had momentum building. It was a great program. And right up until November last year, we thought that was going to continue. But then fuel prices went down, ethanol was hurting pretty bad, and circumstances what they were, the sponsor disappeared. Suddenly I was back to square one.
“If there’s one thing that has constantly…haunted… my career , I suppose, it’s been sponsor funding falling through. And I’m talking team sponsors. But I guess that’s the case for drivers throughout U.S. open-wheel, unless you’re with Penske or Ganassi.”
One thing we have to hope for is that, given the support he has from IZOD, and the faith that Tony George clearly has with him, that Hunter-Reay is able to go to Foyt’s team and drive with confidence. If I had a criticism of RH-R in the past, it was that out-of-cockpit considerations would sometimes intrude in his gameplan in a given race. For example, if he was driving for a cash-strapped team or had been in a run of bad results – irrespective of whether they were his fault or not – he’d settle for a definite fifth place, rather than go hard for a fourth. I guess that’s only human, and probably shows wisdom, but sometimes I was left wondering what he might have achieved if he’d felt uninhibited.
Last year laid my doubts to rest, for at Rahal Letterman Racing, he cut loose. The most obvious demonstration of this was his pass on Darren Manning for the win at Watkins Glen last year: it was opportunistic and incisive. His drive to third at Surfers Paradise was no less impressive. And his overtaking maneuvers on ovals last year were clinical and well judged. Hunter-Reay concurs that he does give of his best in the circumstances RLR presented to him.
“You’re always trying to surround yourself with people who believe in the direction they’re headed, who believe in you as a driver, who you can believe in at pit stop time, and so on. It’s a chemistry deal. And yes, that definitely reflects in the on-track performance of a driver. If you’re going out there worrying about stuff falling off your car or you don’t believe in who you’re driving for, you’re not going to get that extra three or four tenths out of the car each lap. Last year at RLR, I was in a great environment of complete and total support: there was no “take it easy out there” message. It was: “Hey, go get ’em!” And that’s why we had the performances we did. We were on a roll…
“It’s an interesting point, actually. Had St Pete this year not been my first race with Vision where I needed to gather a lot of points, I’d definitely have stuffed it down the inside of Briscoe [the winner]. To get into second, I stuck my nose down the inside of Justin (Wilson) and being the guy he is, he played it clean, thought I was committed to the bottom lane and left a gap and I took advantage.”
A man like A.J. Foyt is really going to appreciate that kind of feistiness, and so it’s important for Hunter-Reay to get back into that maximum attack mode starting this weekend in Iowa. Neither team nor driver can seriously be expecting victories this year, so there’s no harm in just going for every chance and opportunity that’s north of 50/50.
“Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to drive to the standards that he’s expecting,” says Ryan. “We’re not anticipating lighting the world on fire right away, but we’ll go out and work on it and punch above our weight and see what comes of it. I’m going there hoping to bring them continuity and a solution at the same time.
“My goal is to have a solid and consistent end to the season, while having some breakout performances. That’s my whole M.O. at the moment. Take it to the next level, and be able to show up some places and put that ABC Supply car in the top five.”
Then, come the end of the season, Ryan will be on the move again, back to Vision when, one hopes, the team will be ready to run two cars at a competitive level. It’s no less than he deserves.
He’s 28, American, smart, good-looking, and he’s a race-winner whenever he’s in the right team. In other words, he's a sponsor’s dream and potentially the IndyCar Series' biggest (male) draw. You could consider him the 21st century Peter Revson.
That’s the theory. To put it into practice will require a team that is prepared to reciprocate Ryan's dedication and match his talent.