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Friday, October 8, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Once again, despite uncertain circumstances, Ryan Hunter-Reay managed to put together a solid performance in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Last season, he put together some surprising finishes for Vision Racing before finding a ride at A.J. Foyt Enterprises as an injury replacement for Vitor Meira. This year, carrying the banner for series title sponsor IZOD at Andretti Autosport, he took the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and finished a career-best seventh in points.

Originally, Hunter-Reay landed a limited deal with the reorganized Andretti team on the strength of his personal services contract with IZOD. Much like his 2009 season started, he would have enough money to run through the Indianapolis 500, but anything beyond that would require additional funding. Some strong finishes would be required to keep Hunter-Reay in the car for the full slate.

Immediately Hunter-Reay established himself as a force to be reckoned with, leading 20 laps of the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 before Will Power eventually made the winning pass. Hunter-Reay settled for second place, but fans and competitors alike began to expect more out of the Andretti stable, which had failed to win a race for the first time in 2009.

Finishes at St. Petersburg and Alabama were not quite as strong, but Long Beach proved a beacon of hope for the No. 37 team in their sponsorship hunt. Hunter-Reay managed to beat Power at his own game, if only for a day, leading 64 of 85 laps to take a decisive victory. Hunter-Reay went into the first oval segment of the year third in points, only one back of second-place Helio Castroneves.

Unfortunately, the sponsorship well actually began to dry up after the Long Beach race, as a couple of potential deals fell through. A fifth place run at Kansas, combined with the improved fortunes of the entire Andretti team, helped matters a little; Sprint's two prepaid mobile brands, Boost and Virgin, joined the team once again, and Virgin adorned the engine cover of Hunter-Reay's Indianapolis 500 car.

Indianapolis ended in spectacular disappointment, however, when Hunter-Reay's vehicle suddenly slowed on the track and Mike Conway's car torpedoed over it at full speed. The resulting crash made highlight reels across the nation, ending Conway's season; after the race, Hunter-Reay apologized for not stopping for fuel and causing the accident.

Hunter-Reay's season could have ended right there, but the team sent him to Texas, where he came home a solid seventh after setting the race's fastest lap. For Iowa, Hunter-Reay's former sponsor, the American Coalition for Ethanol, stepped up to back him in one of the nation's largest corn-growing markets.

The team put the icing on the sponsorship cake at Watkins Glen, when it was announced that a team of Hunter-Reay and Andretti sponsors would be teaming up to back the team for the rest of the season. These same groups also established Racing for Cancer, a charity initiative to benefit the Michael Fux foundation. The cause was personal for Hunter-Reay, as he had lost his mother to cancer in 2009.

His season secured, Hunter-Reay became a consistent top-10 finisher week in and week out. His third and final podium of the season came at Toronto, followed by a top-five run at Edmonton and two more decent runs at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. For his efforts, Hunter-Reay placed fourth in the series' road course championship.

Hunter-Reay's final top five finish of the season came at Chicago, where he led two laps and finished fourth. The final three races were a bit of a struggle; mechanical failure at Kentucky relegated him to 21st, Motegi yielded only a ninth place finish, and he could only muster 11th place with a subpar car at Homestead.

Combined with teammate (and closest points competitor) Tony Kanaan's third-place run, this bumped Hunter-Reay down to seventh in the series' final standings. But the team scored a greater victory that weekend, as Hunter-Reay and Racing for Cancer scored a $10,000 donation from founding partner Inland Industrial Services by building Hunter-Reay's Twitter base up to 10,000 followers.

Regardless of a late dropoff, Hunter-Reay and the team have established a solid base with which to work in 2011, provided the team can find sponsorship to keep him in the car. Andretti officials have suggested that at least one company within their sponsorship family has submitted a sponsorship proposal for next year, giving the team hope for the future.

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