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Deal Puts Hunter-Reay Into The Indianapolis 500

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 24 2011

Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive for A.J. Foyt in this year's Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Longtime open-wheel rivals A.J. Foyt Jr. and Michael Andretti have struck a corporate deal that will see Ryan Hunter-Reay replace Bruno Junqueira in the 100th anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500.

Hunter-Reay, who was knocked out of the 33-car field by Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti in the final minute of Sunday’s Bump Day, will take his sponsorship package to Foyt’s No. 41 Dallara/Honda. Junqueira had qualified the car 19th Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 224.691 mph.

Faced with the prospect of disappointing his major sponsors, Michael Andretti turned to Foyt at the suggestion of Hunter-Reay, who drove for “Super Tex” in 2009.

Foyt, first four-time winner of the Indy 500, helped Hunter-Reay when Tony George’s Vision Racing closed its doors after the first six races of the 2009 season, leaving the Dallas native without a ride. Foyt hired Hunter-Reay to replace regular ABC Supply driver Vitor Meira, who was sidelined for most of the ‘09 season after suffering a back fracture in an accident on Lap 174 of the Indy 500. When Meira returned to Foyt for the 2010 season Hunter-Reay landed a full-time ride with Andretti Autosport.

Meira, like Junqueira a native of Brazil, will start 11th Sunday in the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda he qualified at an average of 225.590 mph.

“We’ve been competitors for many years but still it’s the kind of relationship when someone is really down-and-out, you can’t turn your back on them – at least I can’t,” Foyt said in a statement. “This is going back to the way racing used to be, where if people were in a lot of trouble, you tried to help each other out. I know it’s a tough deal for Bruno but he understood the situation. I appreciate that more than anyone knows.”

Hunter-Reay, 30, previously competed at IMS for Rahal Letterman Racing in 2008, Vision Racing in 2009 and Andretti Autosport in 2010. He admitted to experiencing “an incredible range of emotion” since 6 p.m. Sunday, when the field was set.

“Commercial decisions and corporate support is what makes it possible for both of our teams to compete, and this was a commercially driven decision,” said Hunter-Reay, whose four career wins are most among American drivers currently competing in the IZOD IndyCar Series. “I am an IndyCar driver and I’m also a representative for DHL, Dr Pepper and its brands, including Sun Drop Citrus Soda. I know this is not the first time this has happened in Indy 500 history but I feel terrible for Bruno and I thank him for his efforts and I hope he understands.

“It’s cool to be driving for A.J. again, especially with Michael’s support and encouragement. This is not how I envisioned the month of May this year, but we are still committed to winning this race for DHL and Sun Drop.”

According to INDYCAR rules, the driver switch will move the No. 41 car and Hunter-Reay to the back of the 11-row grid. The car will still carry original sponsors ABC Supply on the sidepods and front cowling and Alfe Heat Treating on the engine cover as well as the front cowling. A.J. Foyt Racing’s trademark Coyote Red paint scheme will be altered to accommodate the addition of the Andretti Autosport sponsors.

The switch marked the second time in Junqueira’s career that he had been pulled from a car he had qualified on the 2.5-mile oval. Conquest Racing substituted Canadian native Alex Tagliani for Junqueria after the latter had qualified for the 2009 race. Ironically, Tagliani earned his first Indy 500 pole on Saturday via a four-lap/10-mile qualification run at 227.472 mph for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

“I have to thank A.J., Larry (Foyt, team director) and the team for giving me this opportunity to drive at Indy this year because otherwise I would have been riding my bike in Miami,” said Junqueira, 35, who finished fifth as an Indy 500 rookie in 2001 for Chip Ganassi Racing. “I always respected A.J. before, but after working with him, I respect him even more. He has a lot of knowledge and I learned a lot from him. I had a great time working with him and Vitor, and I hope my work helped them this month. I also hope the team has a great race.”

A resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Hunter-Reay was named Indy 500 Chase Rookie of the Year in 2008 after a sixth-place finish. Hunter-Reay scored his most recent series win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April 2010, leading 64 laps en route to giving Andretti his first win as sole team owner. Hunter-Reay, who recorded six top-five and 12 top-ten finishes in 17 starts last year, is working under a contract that will take him through the 2012 season.

Foyt and Mario Andretti, Michael’s father and winner of the 1969 Indy 500, forged a fierce rivalry beginning with Mario’s rookie season in 1965 and Foyt’s final Indy 500 appearance in 1992. A.J. and Mario combined for a total of 64 starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“I can’t thank A.J. and his team enough for giving us an opportunity to put Ryan, DHL, Sun Drop and our other valued sponsors in the Indy 500,” said Michael Andretti, who competed in 16 Indy 500s between 1984 and 2007. “Obviously, this is a unique circumstance for our team, but the thought of A.J. Foyt joining forces with the Andrettis for the Indy 500 could result in something special. It’s a credit to A.J. for being willing to help us with one of our full-season IndyCar entries at a time when we need it.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 24 2011
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