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New Indycar Series Champ Has Strong Orange County Ties

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who for years was a vagabond racer while living in Dana Point, won $1 million and a place in auto racing history.

He grew up watching the Grand Prix of Long Beach but currently resides in Florida. Still, there’s nothing about Ryan Hunter-Reay that doesn’t scream Orange County.

He’s got movie star looks, a heavy foot on the throttle and now an Indycar Series championship. 

Four victories on the season and extraordinary luck on its final night made Hunter-Reay—or RHR as he is known—the champion of the 2012 IZOD Indycar Series.

It's a series that has been dominated by foreign accents and long criticized for its lack of Americans. But it now has an American champion.

From Orange County.

When all the different point possibilities played out, when all the different storylines were consigned to history, Hunter-Reay was draped in an American flag while standing in his yellow DHL/Sun Drop Chevrolet.

All-American boy? The number 28 on the car represents the 28 million worldwide who are fighting cancer, the disease that took his mother in 2009. He helped co-launch the Houston-based Racing For Cancer Foundation.

"It's important to me, I'm very proud of my country," Hunter-Reay said of his role as the new American standard. "I've always looked up to the American drivers. I followed the American greats and that really appealed to me. And now I see these kids looking up to the American drivers ... To do this against the Ganassis and Penskes and the talent in this series ... I feel I'm up against the best in the world. It's just amazing to get it done."

Hunter-Reay is 31, and earlier in the day announced a two-year extension with Michael Andretti’s racing team. In doing so, he turned down an opportunity to join Roger Penske’s team. No one turns down Penske.

But Hunter-Reay remained loyal to Andretti. A vagabond driver with loads of talent but never enough personal funding to sponsor a ride with a good team, RHR opted to remain with the owner who had finally given him some stability. Hunter-Reay had raced for six teams in seven years—including one year that he didn’t compete in IndyCar racing—when Andretti picked him up in 2010.

For most of that time, he lived in Dana Point.

He married Orange's Becky Gordon—NASCAR driver Robby Gordon’s sister—and moved to Ft. Lauderdale a couple of years ago.

But make no mistake, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was close enough to feel like a home race.

He succeeded four-time champion Dario Franchitti, and on one of the great nights in Indycar Series history, he swiped the title from the grasp of Will Power, one of Penske's three drivers.

Midway through the season, with eight races remaining, Hunter-Reay trailed Power by 57 points. Then he reeled off three consecutive victories. Still, with two races remaining, Power had a 36-point lead. Then Hunter-Reay won in Baltimore and cut it to 17.

When the checkered flag waved Saturday night, RHR had won the title by three points. He had made up 36 points in two races after making up only 21 points in the previous six—which included three victories.

Championships are won on skill and luck, and RHR had plenty of both in the MAVTV 500.

He was trailing Power on the track on Lap 55 when Power inexplicably spun and crashed into the wall. A few feet is all that separated RHR from being collected by Power’s car. Had they crashed into each other, Power would have been the champion.

But it was RHR’s night.

At least, that's the way it seemed. But was it?

At that point, RHR needed to finish sixth or better to win the championship, but 69 laps later, Power reentered the 500-mile race with a bandaged car, ran a dozen laps or so and moved from 25th place to 24th place in the race.

And just like that, Hunter-Reay needed to finish fifth instead of sixth.

That was another tall order. RHR had a good car but not a great car. He had a sixth-place car, which is where he spent much of the latter part of the race.

Then, more luck during the most pressure-packed 20 laps of Hunter-Reay's career.

With 20 laps to go on the two-mile oval, one of the drivers battling for the lead, Alex Tagliani, suffered a blown Honda engine. On the final lap, Takuma Sato—running in fourth place and having just passed RHR—hit the wall.

Hunter-Reay slipped past the carnage, finished fourth in the race and won $1 million for the championship. He became the first American champion of a unified open wheel series since Al Unser Jr., in 1994.

Andretti said that among all the championships he has been a part of—one as a driver, four as an owner—this was his most valued.

And he said that having an American as the last man standing was great, too. RHR beat Power, an Australian. He beat Dixon, a New Zealander. He beat Helio Castroneves, a Brazilian. He displaced the champion Franchitti, a Scot.

“It’s great when an American beats the best in the world,” Andretti said. “That’s when it means something. If it was just a bunch of Americans out there it wouldn’t mean as much.”

Today, an American—one with strong South Orange County roots—is the best Indycar driver in the world.

And it means a lot.

jenna September 16, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Well said.

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