Hunter-Reay hopes his time has arrived

Dave Martin/Getty Images

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- He has model good looks, a model good-looking fiancée and the kind of talent Danica Patrick wishes she had. Now with Andretti Autosport, Ryan Hunter-Reay will finally get the opportunity to define himself as America's best red, white and blue open-wheel race car driver.

He is not driving for a shoestring budget team that took stock in moral victories against the big boys.

Hunter-Reay has, in the first three races of the IZOD IndyCar Series, outscored all three of his higher-profile teammates, former champion Tony Kanaan, Andretti racing heir Marco Andretti and media darling Patrick. As the series rolls into town this weekend for the 36th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, Hunter-Reay is seventh overall, a scant eight points out of fourth place and 17 behind two-time and defending champion Dario Franchitti for third place.

That's not a bad spot to be as Hunter-Reay gets acclimated to his new team in what could be a pivotal year for his career and for gaining recognition as a top-flight driver.

"Right now the 37 car is the top Andretti car, and I feel we're contributing to the big picture at Andretti Autosport," he said, noting he has gone from CART, the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League and that four times he has been with a team that, "the following year succumbed to financial difficulties and had to fold."

He is not out of the woods. Right now, sponsorship doesn't exist for him to race the full season, but Michael Andretti expressed confidence "that if he continues to do as well as he's doing and gets some more good results, we'll be able to put it together."

"That's the state of open wheel," Hunter-Reay said. "It's on the rebound, but I've had no continuity in my career. Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, these guys have been there with their teams. It's very important to get to that point where I can just concentrate on racing instead of securing sponsorship for the next race."

Yet such a condition only magnifies Hunter-Reay's position within the sport. He is the only driver to win in CART, Champ Car and IRL, and they came on three types of race tracks: a street circuit at Surfers Paradise in 2003; a wire-to-wire victory on the one-mile Milwaukee Mile oval in 2004; and on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 2008. He has shown he can win; he just needs a realistic opportunity to flaunt his stuff.

"He's a young driver with the best opportunity of his life to show something," said Kanaan, the 2004 series champion. "This is his chance, and he's been doing a good job, pushing me to the limit. … The results haven't shown our potential yet, but it reminds me of when I had Franchitti and [Dan] Wheldon as teammates."

Franchitti won a title for Andretti in 2007, Wheldon in 2005.

Hunter-Reay, 27, is a lover of watersports who moved in January from Dana Point to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He also carries a special burden: The series sponsor is also his car sponsor, at least through the Indianapolis 500. In some ways, that makes him the face of the series, at least on the marketing side.

"He is the perfect size, height and has the perfect temperament," Mike Kelly, executive vice president of marketing for Phillips-Van Heusen Company, said of the 6-foot-1, 175-pound driver. "There are lots of reasons to like Ryan."

Modeling and being featured in print and television ads is one thing, but driving the car is another.

"It's a unique position to be in," Hunter-Reay said. "I can't say there are any downs -- all ups. It's an awesome honor. … With that comes a lot of pressure, but that's the only way I want it. I put more pressure on myself than any other influence can."

Not only will RHR, as he is commonly called, race in the IndyCar Series, but on Saturday he will compete in the American Le Mans Series LMPC class for Level 5 Motorsports driving the No. 95 Oreca FLM09 entry with owner Scott Tucker.

Hunter-Reay's relationship with Kanaan seems particularly fruitful. In a preseason test session in Florida, they discovered -- by using the same car during the test -- that they not only like the car set up the same way but also deliver the same feedback to race engineers. That's a rarity among teammates, and that should help both as they try to break the lock that Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have on the series. Only one race in the last 22 has been won by a different team.

"He's in the caliber" of a championship driver, Kanaan said, "but if I had to give him some advice, he still has to learn patience and let the race come to him, but that's natural. Alex Zanardi used to tell me that all the time. Ryan has a lot of potential."

Andretti also recognizes that Hunter-Reay has the makings of a champion. "Oh yeah, or he wouldn't be here," Andretti said. "We felt he was going to push our other drivers by bringing him in, and that's exactly what he's done. He's going to raise the level of our team. … I think he's going to have a good weekend."

However, teams don't become championship-caliber overnight, and neither will Andretti Autosport. Yet perhaps more than anyone in the series, this is his moment to seize.

"It's not make or break, but it's some of the best equipment and the most resources that have surrounded me," Hunter-Reay said.

"This racing is some of the best in the world right now, it's a great show, the series is on the way back, and IZOD is going to take it to a new level.

"I'm an American kid who had to work through it every year to pay the bills, I'm having a blast driving IndyCars, and it's the opportunity of a lifetime."