While I don’t discount the potential of Hunter-Reay’s nationality to drive more interest in IndyCar racing, what’s more interesting – and a little scary – is perhaps how close the Floridian came to ending up in sports cars or NASCAR.
More than a few times during Hunter-Reay’s open-wheel career - which goes back to 2003 - it appeared that his results and talent weren’t going to keep him in a seat.
That has been a familiar problem in open-wheel racing long before the split. In Hunter-Reay’s case, though, thankfully various teams stepped up to keep his career going.
Hunter-Reay notched wins in his first two years in Champ Car at Australia and Milwaukee driving for American Spirit Team Johansson and Herdez Competition, respectively.
He then spent a lost year with Rocketsports Racing in 2005 (that’s three teams in three years), and it appeared his open-wheel career was at best at a crossroads, if not over completely.
He made no open-wheel starts in 2006, spending the year driving in the Rolex Sports Car Series with an eye toward a possible career in NASCAR as Hendrick put together a driver-development program for him.
Rahal Letterman Racing deserves a ton of credit for getting Hunter-Reay back into the IndyCar community with a partial season in 2007, followed by a full-season program in 2008 that included winning Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500.
Rahal Letterman was heavily backed by the ethanol industry at that time, though, and once that dried up, Hunter-Reay was looking for work again.
This time the two stalwarts of the Indy Racing League- Tony George and A.J. Foyt – kept Hunter-Reay racing in 2009. Andretti Autosport picked him up for 2010.When Hunter-Reay failed to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500, the team bought Bruno Junqueira’s mount from Foyt to get him in the field.
Hunter-Reay rewarded that investment with a win later in the season, the series championship in 2012 and last week’s win in the 500.
Hopefully other American drivers will get the same type of support. Is J.R. Hildebrand, for example, capable of producing results like Hunter-Reay if he’s given some stability? Sage Karam is another American who turned heads in May – will he get the support he needs?
The American talent is there; teams just need to invest in it.
Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway