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Hunter-Reay, Andretti Put America Back On Top

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 17 2012

Ryan Hunter-Reay has won three IZOD IndyCar events in a row and has put an American in contention for a series championship. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Not since the glory days of Sam Hornish Jr. have fans of domestic open-wheel racing seen an American driver emerge with championship credentials.

But three consecutive IZOD IndyCar Series victories have propelled Floridian Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport into the point lead with only five races remaining. And while it’s a global economy out there and in the paddock, a little flag-waving by the people for RHR certainly seems in order.

“I’m definitely honored to be carrying the American flag at the front right now, and every time I get on the podium, I raise that thing up there because I’m proud of it,” Hunter-Reay, 31, said during a recent teleconference. “I think what hits home for me is when I was a kid, before I started racing go-karts, my dad took me to a couple Indy-car races in Miami and I watched the series as a fan of the sport, as a fan of the series. I was really focused on the American drivers. I don’t know why that is. I was just a kid. So I didn’t have any agenda or anything like that.

“I just really, really liked to watch the American drivers. I liked to watch Michael (Andretti), Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears – the big American guys – Al Unser Jr., the big names. I loved watching those guys. Even as recently as (Jimmy) Vasser in ‘96 when he had such a great year. I feel like now that I’m in

Ryan Hunter-Reay goes for a fourth-straight victory this coming weekend. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

INDYCAR and doing well, hopefully there is some kid sitting there doing the same thing, so that’s kind of cool.”

Hunter-Reay enters Sunday’s Edmonton Indy riding a three-race streak on a variety of racetracks – the flat and venerable Milwaukee Mile; the 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway featuring compound banking and the 1.75-mile, 11-turn Toronto street course. RHR is the 23rd driver to win three open-wheel races in a row since 1979.

“Yeah, Ryan has done a fantastic job,” said Englishman Mike Conway, who finished third at Toronto for A.J. Foyt Racing. “Three wins in a row on different types of courses, it’s fantastic. All credit to him. He’s definitely a contender for the championship. He’s definitely on a run. Got to try to slow him down a bit.”

The 154 points Hunter-Reay has accumulated during the past month have pushed him into a 34-point lead over Australian Will Power, who won three road/street course events early in the season. Brazilian Helio Castroneves, Power’s Team Penske stablemate, sits third, 46 points behind.

“I don’t know if I would say I expected to be the point-leader,” said Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Michael Andretti. “I certainly expected to be contending for the championship. It’s just nice to see that this team is reaching its potential because the potential has been there. It’s a great group, and we have even better performances in us in the future.

“So it’s been a lot of fun, but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. It’s lap-by-lap, and just concentrate on being solid.”

With the exception of mechanical issues at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (27th-place result) and Texas Motor Speedway (21st-place), Hunter-Reay has finished in the top-10 in six of the other seven races (he

Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrate in Toronto. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

was 12th at Barber Motorsports Park after starting 11th). Qualifying in the top-five in five events has contributed to those results – all part of a package that led Andretti to add RHR to his powerhouse roster for the 2010 season.

“As a team-owner, that’s something we liked about Ryan, that we could be competitive on all types of tracks,” said Andretti, who won more races (42) than any driver in Championship Auto Racing Teams history. “We’re looking forward to the next how many races we have. I don’t think there’s a weak track for him.

“And I don’t think Ryan should do anything different. He’s been late every Thursday for his engineering meeting, so he’s got to plan on being late for the next one in Edmonton. I don’t think the team should do anything different. We should just continue to do our job. If everybody does their job, we should be OK. If there’s no mistakes made the rest of the year, I think we have a good shot at winning the championship.”

Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, now of INDYCAR’s Dragon Racing, was the last driver to win four in a row at the outset of the 2006 Champ Car World Series season. Bourdais will join Hunter-Reay and 23 other competitors on the 2.224-mile, 13-turn City Centre Airport course beginning Friday. The race will be televised Sunday by NBC Sports Network at 2 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on SiriusXM (Channel 94 and Sirius 212).

Of Hunter-Reay’s eight Indy-car victories, four have been on ovals and four on road/street courses. Four of the five remaining events will be contested on road/street circuits, with the season-finale to be run on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Sept. 15.

“I don’t know what my stronger suit is, really. It’s kind of tough to pin that one down,” said Hunter-Reay, who made 43 Champ Car starts with one win before joining the IndyCar Series with Rahal Letterman Racing in 2007. “That’s what IndyCar has always been for me, even when I was a fan of the series before I even started racing go-karts. I just loved the fact that every weekend you see the cars on a different type of track, and it’s constantly changed up.

“To do well in the series and in this championship, you’ve got to kind of master it all. We have some great

Ryan Hunter-Reay waving flag for his country. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

racetracks coming up with two road courses, two street circuits and an oval. I love them all. When you have a good car on an oval – that is some of the most fun you can have in a race car. I’ve found some success on road and street circuits as well.”

Hunter-Reay has finished seventh and fifth the past two years at Edmonton with Andretti Autosport.

The last American to win four consecutive races was Al Unser Jr. in 1990, a streak that started at Toronto. The most recent American IndyCar Series champion was Hornish in 2006 with Marlboro Team Penske. Sudden Sam also claimed championships in 2001-02 with Pennzoil Panther Racing.

“The only nerve-wracking part about the championship chase is that you don’t want to come under anybody else’s mistake,” said Hunter-Reay, whose INDYCAR resume includes stints with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing in 2009. “It’s not so bad if you take yourself out of the race. That’s your own fault. If somebody just cleans you out, that’s what you worry about most.

“To beat Will, (Scotsman) Dario Franchitti, (New Zealander) Scott Dixon, a lot of these guys, it’s just going to be really tough week-in and week-out. It’s going to take something special from us – maybe something even more special than we’ve already done.”

Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, is the four-time/reigning series champion. Teammate Dixon is a two-time series champ. But armed with his point-lead, Hunter-Reay said his game plan for the stretch run is quite simple. “The singular focus is qualify and run in the top-six, that’s it,” said Hunter-

Ryan Hunter-Reay will go for a fourth-straight win in Edmonton. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Reay, who scored his first Indy-car victory on the Surfers Paradise street circuit in Australia in 2003. “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.”

To that end, Hunter-Reay believes he has found an ally in the Dallara DW12 chassis, an evolution of the car that served the series for eight seasons.

“I think that the new car has leveled-off the playing field a little bit and allowed Andretti Autosport to get back where it belongs up in the front,” said Hunter-Reay, who was born in Dallas but considers himself a native of Boca Raton, Fla. “I think that combined with the fact that I’ve been working with the same group of guys and the same team for three years, there are a hundred variables that go into one IndyCar race let alone three of them in a row. That’s pretty special.

“I don’t know that I could really point one thing out. It’s a number of factors that have brought us to where we are right now. I’ve had the opportunity to drive for many different teams. What is nice about that is that you really get to hone your skills in developing relationships with people and relationships that actually benefit on the racetrack. Now that I’ve been with the team for three years, we’re like one big family. We know what one another wants. We support each other.

“Ray Gosselin and I, my engineer, just the communication is easy. It happens. He knows what I want. I know what he wants. With Michael in the stands, you’ve got a legend there that is calling the race and talking in my ear…couldn’t get much better for me.”

Recapping the three-race open-wheel winning streaks since 1979, with sanctioning body listed in parentheses:

1979 (U.S. Auto Club): A.J. Foyt Jr. (Milwaukee, Pocono, Texas World Speedway)

1981 (Championship Auto Racing Teams): Rick Mears (Michigan, Watkins Glen, N.Y., Mexico City)

1986 (CART): Bobby Rahal (Mid-Ohio, Sanair, Michigan)

1989 (CART): Emerson Fittipaldi (Detroit, Portland, Cleveland)

1990 (CART): Al Unser Jr. (Toronto, Michigan, Denver, Vancouver)

1991 (CART): Michael Andretti (Vancouver, Mid-Ohio, Road America)

1994 (CART): Al Unser Jr. (Long Beach, Indianapolis, Milwaukee)

Al Unser Jr. (Mid-Ohio, New Hampshire, Vancouver)

1997 (CART): Paul Tracy (Nazareth, Rio, Gateway)

Alex Zanardi (Michigan, Mid-Ohio, Road America)

1998 (CART): Alex Zanardi (Detroit, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto)

1998 (Indy Racing League) Kenny Brack (Charlotte, Pikes Peak, Atlanta)

1999 (CART): Juan Pablo Montoya (Long Beach, Nazareth, Rio)

Juan Pablo Montoya (Mid-Ohio, Chicago, Vancouver)

2002 (CART): Cristiano da Matta (Laguna Seca, Portland, Chicago, Toronto)

2003 (CART): Paul Tracy (St. Petersburg, Fla., Monterrey, Long Beach)

2004 (Champ Car World Series): Sebastien Bourdais (Portland, Cleveland, Toronto)

2005 (IRL): Dan Wheldon (St. Petersburg, Motegi, Indianapolis)

2005 (Champ Car): Sebastien Bourdais (Edmonton, San Jose, Denver)

2006 (Champ Car): Sebastien Bourdais (Long Beach, Houston, Monterrey, Milwaukee)

A.J. Allmendinger (Portland, Cleveland, Toronto)

2007 (IRL): Scott Dixon (Watkins Glen, Nashville, Mid-Ohio)

2007 (Champ Car): Sebastien Bourdais (Long Beach, Houston, Portland)

2012 (INDYCAR): Will Power (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo)

Ryan Hunter-Reay (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto)

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 17 2012
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