Indy 500: Hunter-Reay reflects on historic accomplishment

Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, celebrates after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS – The morning after winning the 98th Indianapolis 500 Ryan Hunter-Reay was back at the same “Yard of Bricks” where he defeated Helio Castroneves by just 0.0600-seconds in the second-closest finish in the 103-year history of the race.

It was time for the traditional Indianapolis 500 Winner’s Photo and Hunter-Reay still felt like he was in a dream.

“Obviously, it’s a dream come true,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s a great feeling to be sitting out there with that car and with the Borg-Warner Trophy. With all the friends, family, team – Andretti Autosport is a big family. To be out there taking pictures with everybody. The experience just keeps sinking in and it’s coming closer to reality now. Like I said Race Day, I don’t think the whole magnitude of the whole thing has sunken in yet.

“I was looking back and how I think experience really helped me let the race come to me. We made the right changes on the pit lane at the right time. I was just thinking about how strong our car was. Usually when somebody got around us, we’d get right back around them. It would usually take them two laps to get back by us. I certainly think we had the best car out there and we put it all together. It was just an amazing job by a great team.

“It’s still a little hazy right now because of not enough sleep. And I’m wearing the same suit I drove 500 miles in yesterday. It smells like milk and sweat, which is an awesome combination if you’ve ever tested that out.”

Twenty years or so ago, drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson would have been logical drivers to come to IndyCar racing instead of NASCAR. Tony Stewart actually began his career as an IndyCar driver, winning the 1997 Indy Racing League championship before leaving open-wheel at the end of the 1998 season to become a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 1999.

At one time, it appeared Hunter-Reay might have had no choice but follow a similar career path. That was before a phone call in 2007 solidified his career choice.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do some testing with Hendrick Motorsports,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “Then, I got the call up to drive for the Ethanol car, Bobby Rahal’s team, and I switched to IndyCar full-time at that point. 

“It was always IndyCar for me. I grew up a diehard fan of the sport. I came up in karting emulating these guys right when Michael was at his prime. It was a one-way, one-track road. There was no other avenue. This is the top, IndyCar, the Indy 500. Having a shot, being in this race alone is a privilege, but in the end leading it at the end has always been my dream.”

There are drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series that have won the championship but not the Indianapolis 500. There are others, such as Castroneves, who have won the Indy 500 but not the championship.

Gallery: American Indy 500 winners through the years

Hunter-Reay has done both, and the driver who was born in Texas and raised in Florida has become one of the elite drivers in all of racing.

“That’s a big deal to me personally,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s probably the biggest point to me. I mentioned it yesterday in the press conference. From a driver’s perspective, the championship is massively rewarding. It’s not just one race. It’s an entire season of racing on every different discipline of track. 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’s stands on its own. To have the two of them, like you said, it’s huge. I feel privileged to be in this spot.”

When Hunter-Reay won the 2012 IndyCar championship as the first driver from the United States since Hornish in 2006, it was a tremendous opportunity for IndyCar to use that to increase its fan base and awareness in this country. But just a few weeks later, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard was fired and there was more upheaval in the sport.

Hunter-Reay’s season championship was overlooked as the series once again had to reinvent its management staff.

Now that he is the Indy 500 winner – INDYCAR gets another chance to turn this driver into a true American hero.

“I’m real. I’m genuine. I’m a genuine person,” Hunter-Reay said. “There’s not a whole lot theatrics about me. 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. 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. I’m proud to be here. 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. Randy moving out and the search for a new CEO was on. I don’t really think that’s big news or anything, but it definitely took precedence.

“This one, I hope it does. I’ll be a great and honest champion. I’ll fly the flag for our sport and you’re always getting the real deal with me. I’m definitely not going to fake anything.”

Hunter-Reay’s victory was also important to the 300,000 or so fans that come to the “Crossroads of America” – the purely Midwestern city of Indianapolis – and the millions at home on television for another reason.

Hunter-Reay holds off Castroneves to win Indy 500

The Indianapolis 500 is the signature-sporting event held on the great American holiday of Memorial Day Weekend. It’s a time to honor those who served in the military and paid the ultimate price. Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl Fisher believed it was the perfect sporting event to hold on Memorial Day and an American Classic was created in 1911.

Throughout it’s history, the race has been one by the greatest drivers from the United States as names like A.J. Foyt, Louis Meyer, Wilber Shaw, Bill Vukovich, the Unser Family and Rick Mears all became legends in the Indianapolis 500.

When Emerson Fittipaldi won the 1989 Indianapolis 500, the two-time Formula One World Champion from Brazil was the first foreign driver to win at Indy since Graham Hill of Great Britain in 1966. Fittipaldi’s victory ushered in an International Revolution of the Indianapolis 500.

Since 1999, only two drivers from the United States were able to win the Indy 500 – Buddy Rice in 2004 and Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.

After Hunter-Reay thrilled the fans with one of the most exciting Indianapolis 500 battles ever, the massive crowd of 300,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began to chant, “USA! USA! USA!”

An American driver was back in victory lane of this great American spectacle of speed known as the Indianapolis 500.

“To hear the USA chants on Memorial Day weekend, just sent chills down my back,” Hunter-Reay said the morning after the single-greatest race victory of his career. “It really did. It was so cool to be part of. Hopefully, we have it all on video. We’ll watch that one plenty of times. It was amazing and surreal to be in that position, and to look up at all these fans.

“This place is so big. You realize how big it is when you do that victory lap. It is enormous. It felt like 35 packed basketball stadiums. It was crazy. The noise was epic. It was really cool.”

Fans that come to the Indianapolis 500 come to see the world’s most famous auto race. While many of them root for drivers from Brazil, Colombia, France and Canada there are plenty more who want to see “one of their own” celebrate this classic American sporting event.

As he does after every Verizon IndyCar Series race, Hunter-Reay proudly draped an American Flag over himself in Victory Lane.

Gallery: 98th running of the Indianapolis 500

More chants came from the crowd – “USA! USA! USA!”

“Being an American boy, I think when you look at maybe the NASCAR side of it, it’s all Americans,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is an international sport, open-wheel. We do battle on every different type of discipline, short ovals, and street courses, the only series in the world like that. The Verizon IndyCar Series is a true drivers championship. That’s what I love most about it. 

“Winning this one here is definitely a game changer.”

Even the driver he beat by the smallest of margins understood the importance of having a driver from the United States as the Indy 500 winner.

“It’s great because for several years the series was a foreigner up front,” said Castroneves of Brazil. “It’s great to see American drivers succeed. Third was Marco Andretti. You see the top two are American drivers. The IndyCar Series is showing it’s the right way to go, as well. I say that in a positive way, and I mean it.”

Hunter-Reay has experienced both sides of the Indianapolis 500. He thought he was going to win the race last year but finished third. He also failed to make the field in 2011 and got back into the starting lineup when team owner Michael Andretti struck a deal with team owner A.J. Foyt to put Hunter-Reay in the same car that Bruno Junquiera had qualified into the field.

“This place has been the extreme of emotions for me,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “The lowest of lows and highest of highs, really. From bottom to the top. It kind of really wraps it all up in one summary. This is the Indy 500."

The reason the Indianapolis 500 has stood the test of time is because it’s authentic and genuine. There is nothing fake about the Indy 500 because it’s a homegrown “Red-White-and-Blue” celebration.

And now Hunter-Reay gets to reap all the prizes, money and fame that come with it including one hot ride that was this year’s Pace Car.

“My first car was a black Camaro Z28 and here we are and we have a black Z28,” Hunter-Reay said. “This the first year they came out with it. I’m really looking forward to getting that back home. It’s a car that I’ll definitely use.

I hope that it’s the actual Pace Car. That thing sounded mean. I spent a lot of time behind the Pace Car under caution and it sounded mean — you could hear it from the car. I was pretty impressed. I definitely want that one.

“That’s the great thing about this race. You win the race and you’ve won the race. And then you start thinking about all the things that comes with it. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get my face on the trophy. And the Pace Car, and the check that comes with it.’

“Just out here, I was presented with an Indianapolis 500 1911 pistol. How cool is that? How American is that? You’re not going to win a gun anywhere else in the world. And I got a huge belt buckle, so I need a holster with my belt buckle and I’ll be strutting around the garages with that.

“It’s a real gun. It’s killer for sure. It’s awesome.”

There are many things that make the Indianapolis 500 uniquely American – from the traditional bottle of milk to the Pace Car to a real gun.

And for the first time in eight years, it has an American driver as its champion.