Ryan Hunter-Reay has gone from good to great

Good looking Ryan Hunter-Reay has turned into IndyCar's all-America star

Good, not great. He can definitely score the occasional, opportunistic win. Yes, he’s popular with sponsors and fans, but often has weekends in which he seems to totally disappear. Also, he doesn’t qualify well enough to compete for championships.

Overall, he is a good driver, but rates a clear level below the elite drivers in the Izod IndyCar Series such as Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Dario Franchitti.

And in fairness, six months ago, a cold, unbiased study of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s resume, would reasonably have rendered such a conclusion. Yes, he had proven the ability to score the occasional, opportunistic win. Yes, he had often scored said wins and other impressive results, in average to below average equipment. But anything to predict he would be the one taking the championship fight to Power and mighty Team Penske all the way to the bitter end? Sorry, didn’t see it.

2005 driving for Paul Gentilozzi's team was a season Hunter-Reay would just as soon forget

See, despite Hunter-Reay’s success, there were gaps; incongruencies. There was a four year stretch from 2004-2008, without an Indy car podium. There was a disastrous 2005 season spent with Paul Gentilozzi’s Rocketsports. There were unheralded teammates such as Mario Dominguez and Timo Glock, who over the course of a season, outperformed him.

Further, Hunter-Reay never was, nor is he is currently, a great qualifier. Coming into this season, RHR had one career pole. By comparison, Takuma Sato has two career poles in 83 fewer starts, while Alex Tagliani has seven. Also, if you look at the top drivers in the series such as Power, Dixon and Franchitti, they all boast sterling qualifying records.

And despite the widely adopted revisionist claim that his first two seasons with Andretti Autosport foreshadowed this year’s championship form, there is, in fact, strong evidence to the contrary. Yes, he scored a victory in each season. However, he finished seventh in the series standings both years. Last year, he recorded a mere 4 top-5 finishes. Again, good, but not exactly earth shattering stuff.

If anything, the first two years with Andretti, in my opinion, would have simply confirmed the thesis that Hunter-Reay was good, not great; that he was capable of the opportunistic result, but not consistent enough to fight for championships.

Simply, when it came to Ryan Hunter-Reay, we wondered what to make of the conflicting evidence. Was he simply a good, not elite talent, who could score the occasional, opportunistic result. For example, was he a driver of the Arie Luyendyk, Adrian Fernandez pedigree? Or was he in fact, as shown in the junior formulae, and in a number of stirring drives at the top level, sporadic as they were, a supreme talent, who simply needed the right team and opportunity to showcase his talents?

I think we now know.

Yes, a three race mid-season win streak, a career defining drive nearly two weeks ago, and taking the championship fight to Power and mighty Team Penske right to the bitter end, will completely transform the prism through which your career, past and present, is viewed. And that, championship or not, has already happened this year with regards to Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay won pole at Edmonton this year

Of course, Hunter-Reay broke onto scene in 2003 with American Spirit Team Johannson in CART. While results for the start-up team were sporadic in under performing Reynards, Hunter-Reay did score a third place finish at Mid-Ohio and an opportunistic victory in the rain at Surfers Paradise.

However, when ASTJ did not return for the 2004 season, it would be the beginning of a trend that would soon come to define RHR: a nomadic lifestyle.

Hunter-Reay led every lap at Milwaukee in 2004

RHR did catch on with Herdez Competition for 2004, and scored a dominant win at Milwaukee from pole. Still, the funding at Herdez dried up and despite winning races in each of his first two season, Hunter-Reay’s services were once again, not renewed. He moved to Paul Gentilozzi’s Rocketsports for 2005, a season that was by any measure, an unmitigated disaster. Hunter-Reay’s best finish was sixth, as he was consistently outrun by teammate and rookie Tim Glock, and once again was looking for work, this time, with two races left in the season.

He would spend the entire 2006 season out of Indy cars before replacing the underwhelming Jeff Simmons at Rahal Letterman Racing for the last six races of the 2007 IRL season. While the results were not spectacular, Hunter-Reay scored three top 10s, and returned as RLR’s lone entry in 2008. He then won that year’s race at Watkins Glen, scored a third at the non-points event in Surfers, and finished the year eighth in the series standings.

And where did RHR find himself after 2008? Out of work. Again. RLR lost their Ethanol sponsorship, and RHR was back to grinding it out with back of the grid teams. He was able to contest the 2009 schedule in split duty with Vision and A.J. Foyt, and put together some strong drives including a second at St. Petersburg for Vision.

Still, after six seasons at the top level a trend had clearly emerged. Hunter-Reay was capable of scoring the occasional win, but seemed to lack the consistency of a regular contender. Sure, you could argue that he had never found a consistent ride in top equipment, but you couldn’t argue with the results. And with few top seats available, RHR seemed destined for a nomadic career, picking up work wherever and whenever it arrived.

Michael Andretti gave Hunter-Reay the break he needed to prove himself

However, a career lifeline arrived two years ago, when Michael Andretti offered Hunter-Reay a partial season deal at the start of 2010. With Izod backing, the ride with Andretti ultimately became full-time, and Hunter-Reay won one race each in both 2010 and 2011, finishing seventh in the standings each year.

Of course, 2012 has been an entirely different story. With the same team for more than consecutive seasons for the first time, Hunter-Reay has clearly come into his own. And two weeks ago, with his championship hopes hanging very much by a thread, RHR put in what I believe may turn out to be the signature drive of his career.

After, a poor qualifying effort that saw him 10th on the grid, Hunter-Reay and Andretti knew they would have to get creative on race day. Power was on pole, and a strong result by the Aussie, would effectively end the championship.

Early in the race as rain began to fall, many of the leaders including Power, pit for rain tires. Andretti, believing the rain would quickly subside made the risky call to keep RHR out on the damp track with slick tires.

As the leaders pit, Hunter-Reay stayed on track and moved to the lead. However, for the strategy to work, Hunter-Reay had to deftly tip toe the circuit on slick tires and wait for the rain to subside, which it did. RHR would take over from there.

Whether it was overtaking cars on restart after restart, or simply outdriving guys at the top of their game like Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Briscoe, on a day when he absolutely had to win, RHR was aces. Hunter-Reay held of Briscoe and Pagenaud to take the defining win of his career.

And now it is a career that looks a lot different than it did six months ago. All of a sudden those wins for American Spirit Team Johannson and HVM look a whole lot different. In fact, Hunter-Reay scored the only win for ASTJ. His 2nd place for Vision was a team best for them. And that win at Watkins Glen for Rahal Letterman? Well, they haven’t won since, and before hadn’t won since 2005.

And if you dig a little deeper, some impressive numbers on RHR start to emerge. For example, since 1980 only four drivers have won races for four different teams: Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti, and surprise, surprise, Ryan Hunter-Reay.

So, as we head to Saturday night, a lot is on the line for Hunter-Reay. Still, nothing that happens Saturday evening, will alter the fact that 2012 has already been a banner year. After all, we now view Hunter-Reay’s entire body of work in a totally different light.

Simply put, Ryan Hunter-Reay had the talent all along. Just as Hunter-Reay is the one guy who negotiated a wet track on slick tires in Baltimore, he was the guy who took teams like Vision and ASTJ to the podium.

And no matter what happens Saturday, nothing will change the fact that in 2012, we finally realized just that.

Brian Carroccio is a 36 year-old writer from beautiful Rockville, MD, where he lives with his wife Allison, and their two children, Stella and Walter. He acquired a love of auto racing from his father, a longtime SCCA crewman, who regaled him with stories of his favorite racers, Jimmy Clark and Dan Gurney.

In addition to his love of Indy car racing, Brian is a fan of the Washington Nationals, Manchester United, and Cal football (really long story). However, he is most passionate about the Burgundy and Gold, his beloved Washington Redskins

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