Just 90 days into his CART Toyota Atlantic career, Ryan Hunter-Reay has already earned the "contender" status for the 2002 CART Toyota Atlantic Championship. On January 31, 2002 Keith Hylton, owner of the defending CART Toyota Atlantic...
Just 90 days into his CART Toyota Atlantic career, Ryan Hunter-Reay has already earned the "contender" status for the 2002 CART Toyota Atlantic Championship. On January 31, 2002 Keith Hylton, owner of the defending CART Toyota Atlantic Championship team, Hylton Motorsports announced he had signed the CART Barber Dodge Pro Series standout to pilot his #1 Swift 014.a.
A 9x national karting champion with a diversified resume, Hunter-Reay had no problem learning the ins and outs of his new Swift. He surprised more than a few when in just his third time in the Atlantic car he broke the existing Atlantic track record by the end of the first day of his two-day test at Sebring.
Hunter-Reay's success continued as he arrived in Mexico ready to make his Atlantic debut. He set the third fastest time in Thursday's test session at Fundidora Park and followed that up by running in the top six throughout the weekend. The determined young American was disappointed by his sixth place qualifying effort, even though he was the fastest "true" rookie, as the five men who qualified in front of him either ran there in the Indy Lights series last year or have competed in the Atlantic series. The first Atlantic race of the year was delayed due to a heavy rainstorm but the green flag eventually fell under dark skies and on a rain-soaked track. After passing two cars on the start and running fourth, Hunter-Reay made contact on the first lap with the 2001 Rookie of the Year Joey Hand. While the damage to his car was not extensive, it was terminal and his first Atlantic race was over almost as quickly as it had started.
The qualifying and race results may have been a disappointment for Hunter-Reay, but his team felt confident they had a special talent in the #1 seat, and the excitement filled the air under the Hylton Motorsports tent, "Ryan's performances have been extremely impressive. He jumped right into a car that he had never driven and started breaking track records immediately. Then we turn up in Mexico and he backed up his testing performances with strong results under a lot of pressure and when it really counts. Sure, it would have been great to leave here with some points, but that's racing and we know Ryan has what it takes. He continues to impress all of us on and off the track and he is a pleasure to work with. I can speak for the team in confidence when I say we are really looking forward to the season ahead with Ryan behind the wheel," commented Keith Hylton.
With round two of the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship over one month away, Hunter-Reay took advantage of the open schedule and accepted an invitation to compete in the Historic 12 Hours of Sebring with the Paris, France based JMB Motorsports. Along with Hunter-Reay, the sole Ferrari factory-back team driver line-up included Formula One veteran Andrea Montermini and Peter Argetsinger. While the race was cut short due to a mechanical failure, the trio completed a full, very successful week of day and night practice with the #31 Aprimatic/Giesse Group Ferrari 360 Modena.
Now a two-car team, the one-month "off" provided no rest for the Hylton crew, as a test schedule was planned for Hunter-Reay and his new teammate, Roger Yasukawa. First up, Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Arizona. The two-day test was Hunter-Reay's first at the popular test track, but after just a few laps around the 1.25-mile road course he was up to speed and by the end of the first morning, he was among the quickest on the busy track which included many of his Atlantic competitors. Hunter-Reay's steady progress and fast times continued on day two of the test, once again giving his team something to smile about, "I just can't say enough about Ryan's performances and his consistent progress. He wastes no time getting up to speed and he follows that up with excellent technical feedback. We are always searching for more, working to give him a better car, while he searches for a faster lap time; his knowledge and ability allows us to really get the most out of these tests. We never give up and neither does Ryan," said Kyle Brannan, engineer of the #1 Medlock Ames Winery/Toyota/Swift.
After a whirlwind week consisting of media events and final preparations for round two of the 12-race series, Hunter-Reay was well-prepared and looking forward to his inaugural Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. A graduate of the Barber Dodge Series, he had never previously competed on the tight street circuit, but that did not hinder the Florida native as he set the provisional pole his first day on the track, earning his first Atlantic championship point, and securing a front row starting position regardless of his final qualifying results. "Today was a fantastic day. This is my type of circuit and there is more left in the car. The biggest factor is traffic, we knew we could do it, as long as we had a clear lap," said Hunter-Reay. He remained in the top-three throughout the remaining practice and qualifying sessions, an impressive feat for anyone, much less a first timer on the famed street circuit.
Hunter-Reay had a terrific start at the fall of the green flag for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, running side-by-side with pole sitter Joey Hand, but first lap gremlins would strike again as Hunter-Reay was one of 13 victims in a first-turn incident. While waiting to be pulled from the tires, he lost one lap, yet Hunter-Reay reeled from the incident, by regaining his lap and setting the fastest lap of the race, which also turned out to be a new Long Beach race-lap record. He finished the event in 18th position, frustrated by the incident but pleased with his performance, "this result is a huge disappointment because I had the car to beat today. I drove the best I have ever driven and I had the best car I have ever had, it is really a shame, but I think we managed to prove ourselves despite our result."
Another one month plus break in the Atlantic schedule means more testing for Hylton Motorsports. Less than two weeks after the Long Beach event, the team made their first ever visit to Portland International Raceway, the setting for round five of the 2002 Atlantic Championship. As the Atlantic series has not competed in Portland for several years, the track was a new challenge not only for Hunter-Reay, but for most of the team as well. However, driver coach Derek Higgins a former Indy Lights driver has years of experience at the picturesque road course and was able to produce plenty of valuable information for Hunter-Reay and the crew alike, " Derek plays a big role for us everywhere, but coming into places that I have never been to before, his knowledge and pointers definitely help me get a jump on learning the tracks," said Hunter-Reay. Once again, Hunter-Reay was on pace within his first ten miles on the track. The crew spent the rest of that day and the following day working on shock development and preparing a perfect set-up for the upcoming event at the raceway while Hunter-Reay continued to set very competitive times, "this test has been probably our best in terms of development. We have developed a very good set-up for this track, but most importantly we have gained a lot of knowledge that we will apply to some of the other tracks we will be racing on later in the season. I am very pleased with our results and the times we ran here," said Hunter-Reay. His test program continues as Hylton Motorsports will visit the Milwaukee Mile, for their first oval test of the year May 16-17th, in preparation for round three next month at the one-mile oval, on June 2nd.
In just 90 days and two events into the 2002 CART Toyota Atlantic season, Hunter-Reay has broken track records, set new race records, started on the front row and created a very successful and productive working relationship with his new team, the defending CART Toyota Atlantic Champions. For more information and all of the latest news please visit HyltonMotorsports.com, RyanRacing.com or ToyotaAtlantic.com.