Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates his victory in the 2014 Indianapolis 500. (IndyCar Photo)
Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates his victory in the 2014 Indianapolis 500. (IndyCar Photo)

Ryan Hunter-Reay: Still Captain America!

Editor’s Note: This story appears in the September 2021 edition of SPEED SPORT Magazine, which went to press after it was revealed Hunter-Reay would be parting ways with Andretti Autosport at the conclusion of the season. Click here for more on that story.

There was a time when Ryan Hunter-Reay stood out in the NTT IndyCar Series as a bit of an oddity.

He was one of the few winning drivers from the United States. That is what made his 2014 Indianapolis 500 victory and 2012 NTT IndyCar Series championship so unique. When he won the Indy 500, he was the first driver from the United States to win the biggest race in the world since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. 

When he won the 2012 title, he was also the first driver from the USA to win the championship since Hornish in 2006.

Times have changed, however. 

Today’s NTT IndyCar Series has experienced an American revolution of talent, with such young drivers as two-time IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta earning starring roles in the series. Other Americans who have experienced a degree of success include Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly and Santino Ferrucci.

There’s even a 45-year-old American rookie, who gained fame as a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, in this year’s field — Jimmie Johnson.

These drivers have followed the path created by Hunter-Reay when he started his Indy car career in 2003, driving for American Spirit/Team Johansson Racing in the Champ Car World Series.

“When I first got into Champ Car, there were very few Americans,” Hunter-Reay told SPEED SPORT. “As I continued and success grew, there were few Americans, and I was very proud to represent America. That’s how I grew up, watching all the American greats winning and competing against the best in the world. It is certainly great to see that strength in numbers now for the U.S. drivers. I’m very proud of it all. 

“I would like to think that I had something to do with it, and I’m very proud of the fact I could represent the United States so well against the best in the world.”

Along the way, Hunter-Reay experienced enough success, including two wins in Champ Car and 16 in the NTT IndyCar Series, earning him the nickname, “Captain America.”

“I loved it,” Hunter-Reay said. “Every time I got on the podium or the top step of the podium, I had that American flag raised high behind me. That’s what I was proud of. I take a lot of pride in that and I’m really pleased that has been my nickname.”

Hunter-Reay’s greatest accomplishments came under dramatic circumstances. The best complete season of his career came during the 2012 championship, which culminated with a fierce season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Hunter-Reay claimed the championship with a fourth-place finish at the two-mile oval, edging Will Power by a mere three points in the title battle.

“It came down to fighting Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves at the end and I had to hang on to those last two spots,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “I finished fourth and It was crucial. 

“Every spot, every foot on that race track for 500 miles was absolutely crucial and we pulled it off. I believed we could prior to the race.

“I think the championship was really won at Baltimore, how hard we fought there to win that race. That really put us back in the fight. But we still had to hang on at Fontana.”

Two years later, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves engaged in a battle for the ages during the 98th Indianapolis 500. The dramatic conclusion of the race was set up when Townsend Bell crashed on lap 192. After a red flag to repair a damaged SAFER barrier, Hunter-Reay restarted in the lead with Castroneves second.

The final seven laps may have been the greatest seven laps to decide an Indy 500 in history.

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