May 26, 2014, 4:49 PM EDT
As Ryan Hunter-Reay began the celebration and all else that comes with winning the Indianapolis 500, in the immediate moments after Sunday’s 98th running concluded, someone else stole the show.
It was his young son, Ryden, all of 16 months old and in a matching yellow DHL firesuit.
The younger Hunter-Reay is about the only person that can upstage the elder one in terms of national Verizon IndyCar Series awareness and notoriety the rest of the calendar year and until next May, when they run this race for the 99th time.
That’s because Ryan – who survived a several-year career purgatory not knowing whether he’d ever make it back to open-wheel, or have a top-flight team opportunity – has entered the elite club of North American open-wheel legends.
He’s got both a series championship and now, an Indianapolis 500 victory.
“That’s a big deal to me personally. That’s probably the biggest point to me,” he said during Monday’s day-after media conference. “From a driver’s perspective, the championship is immensely rewarding. This race is the history of our sport. It’s our biggest. Even to compare it to the Super Bowl is not right, because this is bigger than the Super Bowl. It stands on its own.
And after this one, his awareness level should increase. In theory, anyway.
Hunter-Reay made it to the top of IndyCar’s summit in 2012, putting in a dynamic comeback in the final two races for Andretti Autosport to beat Team Penske’s Will Power to the title.
But on a national stage, “RHR’s” chance at glory was overshadowed by management turmoil at the top of the series, and the beginning drawdown of activation and support from then title-sponsor IZOD. Ironically, it was Hunter-Reay who brought IZOD into the frame in the first place, as it served as his personal sponsor before jumping to its series role in 2010.
“I’m not going to put on a whole big show and jump through hoops if people want me to do a certain thing or be a certain way,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m going to be me, and I am thrilled to be here. I’m a hard-charging American and I’ve had to fight every step of my career for this ride.
“Yeah, I was overlooked in 2012. The series wanted an American champion and we had one. For whatever reason, things didn’t go the way they did. This one, I hope it does. I’ll be a great and honest champion. I’ll fly the flag for our sport and you’ll always get the real deal with me. I’m definitely not going to fake anything. Hey, maybe it will let me come out a little more and show even more of me.”
Those who followed the series in detail last year saw a guy who, even as champion, still had a chip on his shoulder and was driving better than he had in 2012. Hunter-Reay was more consistent and quicker in qualifying, but bore the brunt of horrible luck in more than a third of the 19 races. He ended an unrepresentative seventh in points.
This year, back with his champion’s number of 28, has seen Hunter-Reay reassert himself firmly at the front of the field across all disciplines. He finished third on the streets of St. Petersburg, won at Barber, came second in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and now has won the Indy 500. Save for a controversial passing attempt in Long Beach that ended in tears for RHR, teammate James Hinchcliffe and another American in Josef Newgarden, he’d be five-for-five in podium finishes in as many races.
Sunday was a bit of exorcising of demons at IMS. Hunter-Reay was the 2008 Indy 500 Rookie-of-the-Year but barely made the field in 2009, had a last-lap accident where he served as Mike Conway’s launching pad in 2010, needed to take over a qualified car in 2011 and had a mechanical DNF in 2012.
Last year, of course, he had the bad luck of being the leader headed to the final restart and was essentially a sitting duck – falling to third behind Tony Kanaan and Carlos Munoz.
“This place has been the extreme of emotions for me. The lowest of lows and highest of highs, really. From bottom to the top,” he said. “It kind of really wraps it all up in one summary. This is the Indy 500. It can be evil and it can be so rewarding. It’s on that pedestal.”
And realistically, so too is Hunter-Reay, who has gone from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.
He’s not apologizing for being who is; he’s not going to separate the Long Beach move from the Indy move because they both showcase his style behind the wheel. And at 33, you roll with what’s working.
He’s made it to the top of the IndyCar summit… again.
And with his stats to play with, you wonder if the national awareness will follow given that he’s now got the key stat in the one race that stands out more than any other on the calendar.
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