(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 2-18-09)
Here's a question to get Indy racing fans thinking:
Who is the only driver to have won races under CART, Champ Car and Indy Racing League sanction?
There's only one. And it's not Paul Tracy, no matter how much some people still believe that PT was the winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
Here's a hint: He's articulate, ambitious and American.
And he's unemployed.
Welcome to Ryan Hunter-Reay's world. In 2008, he completed modern Indy car racing's trifecta by driving Rahal Letterman Racing's IndyCar Series entry to victory at Watkins Glen International, then capped the season by finishing third in the unofficial series finale at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Yet when the 2009 IndyCar Series kicks off Feb. 24-25 with an open test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hunter-Reay will probably still be logging cell phone minutes instead of seat time.
His 1½-year tenure with Rahal Letterman came to an end when the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council ceased operation, ending its three-year sponsorship of RLR's Indy Car program. With no alternate funding on the horizon, team owner Bobby Rahal had no choice but to cut Hunter-Reay loose.
It's a reality of racing that the 28-year-old Floridian has gotten used to.
"It was the worst feeling," Hunter-Reay said. "Unfortunately, I've been somewhat accustomed to that over the years -- funding falling through at teams. It's not something I am happy about being accustomed to, but unfortunately I am."
Maybe that's why even though Hunter-Reay is unlikely to be in a car at Homestead, his attitude remains positive and upbeat.
American Spirit Team Johansson folded after one season during which Hunter-Reay won a CART race as a rookie (Surfers Paradise 2003); RHR led all 250 laps to win the Champ Car race at the Milwaukee Mile in 2004 but it wasn't enough to save his seat when sponsor Herdez pulled out; and a confidence-sapping 2005 campaign with Rocketsports Racing put Ryan out of open-wheel racing for most of 2006.
He made the most of the opportunity when Rahal made a driver change in mid-2007, dropping Jeff Simmons in favor of Hunter-Reay. In just six IndyCar starts, Hunter-Reay earned enough points to claim the series' rookie of the year honors.
The momentum carried into 2008, with RHR claiming ROY honors at Indy and coming close to winning at Texas Motor Speedway before a late crash with Marco Andretti. Consistency was an issue, with ten top-10 finishes offset by seven in 15th place or lower.
Rahal and his COO, Scott Roembke, indicated that Hunter-Reay would be their first choice if they find funding. And Ryan has only positive things to say about his 23-race stint with the team.
"The most unfortunate thing is that was really the first year in my racing career that I had a really great chemistry with the team," he said. "I loved the guys I was working with and the engineer I was working with, and things were starting to build up and flowing our way.
"It's just so unfortunate to not have that continuity when you could actually feel it moving forward and feel the progress happening. It's unfortunate, but such is life and off to the next opportunity."
It's a fact of life that Indy car racing has become a pay-to-play game if you are not already connected to one of the sport's big three teams -- Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing. Hunter-Reay confirmed that he was in the running for the Penske seat that could potentially open up depending on the outcome of Helio Castroneves' tax evasion trial.
Penske selected Australian Will Power as Castroneves' replacement in waiting.
"I spoke to them, as did Justin Wilson and Will," said Hunter-Reay. "I think they had three of us in line there and it was a great group to be in. Those guys are very talented and I know the Penske organization really put a lot of thought into it. There are not that many times in your career where there is the potential of a seat at Penske opening up.
"I really look up to Penske and how they could have easily jettisoned Castroneves at the hint of bad press or controversy," he added. "And they are staying behind him to the last hour."
Hunter-Reay can only wish he could have enjoyed that kind of loyalty throughout his open-wheel career. He has fielded sports car offers this offseason, but doesn't want to give up on the Indy circuit quite yet.
"I've had Grand Am offers, but … I'm an Indy car guy," he said. "That's what I want to do and I've really worked hard my entire career to make it happen. Last year we had some momentum with a great team, even with only one car. A lot of tracks were new to me last year, Indy being one of them, but we showed up and did a great job each weekend for the most part.
"I did what I could last year to create some stability and be a legitimate name in the series," Hunter-Reay continued. "And that's what I'm working to do. The Indy car fans have been great. I'm happy to say that I think last year I did pick up a lot of fan support. Being an American and having won a race and being a threat every weekend, it was big for me, it was big for the team and I think it was big for the series."
Still, with the season looming, a winning, marketable driver is working the phones, 10 hours a day, just trying to keep his career alive.
"It's just unfortunate that it's two weeks before the open test and I'm fighting every day working different angles, business to business deals, whatever I can," he said. "The league has been very supportive. We're working every day until the last day. The water level is rising and we're treading."
His best bet would seem to be a return to HVM Racing, which is entering its second season in the IndyCar Series and hopes to add a second car alongside EJ Viso. Other teams with 2009 programs that aren't finalized include KV Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Conquest Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
"I had a great time with [HVM] in Champ Car -- we had that Milwaukee win and some other promising races there," Hunter-Reay said. "I believe that team can do a good job with the right program, with the right resources available to them. I really respect Keith Wiggins as a team owner and I have a relationship with the guys, not only with the engineering room, but on the car.
"So it's a logical potential pairing," he concluded. "With that said I am speaking to a couple of teams. Every day, for 10 hours we're just working -- anything we can do to narrow the gap to make ends meet. I'm tapping all my resources; they are tapping all of their contacts. We're really trying to be proactive and make this thing work."