Ryan Hunter-Reay struck gold in more ways than one when he captured the IZOD IndyCar Series championship at the Auto Club Speedway, in Fontana, Calif., on Saturday evening. And he did it by coming from behind. Entering the race down by 17 points and starting in the back of the field, the MAVTV 500 featured continuous drama until the checkered flag dropped, thrilling fans and viewers alike. As the lengthy race wound down, Hunter-Reay needed to finish fifth and he did it one better by garnering fourth place, earning the crown by three points.
“This is unbelievable,” said Hunter-Reay, nearly overcome with emotion. “I can’t put it into words as to how hard I had to fight. We came back, and we really earned this one. This is a dream come true, and this is what I’ve wanted since I was six years old.”
The last 20 laps of the race was the most pressure I’ve ever had in my life.
Regarding the 500-mile season finale, Hunter-Reay said, “I was on edge the entire time just trying to hold on to the car. It was stressful down to the last bit. Then the red flag comes out, and I have to sit there and think about it some more while we had a good rhythm going. The last 20 laps of the race was the most pressure I’ve ever had in my life. This (championship) is just amazing and what racing and sports are about.”
Hunter-Reay drove the Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda Chevrolet fielded by Andretti Autosport. For Andretti Autosport and its owner Michael Andretti, it was their fourth IndyCar championship with the others coming with Dario Franchitti in 2007, Dane Wheldon in 2005 and Tony Kanaan in 2004.
Hours before securing the championship, Hunter-Reay signed a two-year extension with the Andretti Autosport team, ending speculation that he might join the opposition going forward. “I was really flattered with the interest, but I’m definitely happy where I am,” he said. “I am happy to be a champion and looking forward to what lies ahead.” He heaped praise on the total-team effort that propelled him to the championship rung of the ladder. “It is a group effort.”
“It was a crazy, crazy night,” Andretti said. “It actually played out exactly the way I thought it would because we knew it was going to be tough. Ryan did one hell of a job and he drove his butt off when he needed to do. He got this thing done. We got it done and it feels really good.” He went on to praise his team for their extended effort.
Olympic champions toil for years preparing for their shot at glory, working in virtual obscurity and giving up their lives in pursuit of the top step of the victory podium. When it works out and the National Anthem is played in their honor, the sweat and tears are all worth the investment. Hunter-Reay’s biography reads like that of an Olympic champion, as he has been up and down racing’s highest mountains in search of success. He knows adversity but he has never thought about surrendering, even Saturday evening when he wasn’t running well. Keeping his head down while focusing on his life-long dream, Hunter-Reay came through when it counted – the mark of an Olympic champion.
And the payoff was not only advancing to the top step of the victory podium but a lucrative $1,000,000 bonus for winning the coveted Astor Cup. His payday far surpassed that of an Olympic champion, as the United States pays its medal winners $25,000 for bringing home a gold medal.
For Hunter-Reay and the Olympic champions, the money isn’t nearly as important as the quest to succeed – winning is everything to them. Their goals are lofty and difficult for the average person to understand, but the thrill of victory never ends.
In addition to the Astor Cup, Hunter-Reay also was awarded with the A. J. Foyt trophy for his oval-track championship. Two of his four victories in 2012 came on oval tracks. “It means a lot to me to be the oval champion,” Hunter–Reay stated. “It is tough to succeed on ovals, and now I’ve got my sights set on Indy.”
Added Andretti, “I think it’s great when an American beats the best in the world. If it was just Americans out there, it doesn’t mean as much. When an American can beat all these other great drivers from different countries, it’s a great thing. I’m very proud to be an American, and I’m very proud of Ryan.”
And Hunter-Reay scored his gold medal in California, the same state where John Sutter discovered gold in 1848. Today, gold is synonymous with success and accomplishment, and Hunter-Reay is the epitome of an American success story.
Story by: Joe Jennings