Ryan Hunter-Reay’s IndyCar accolades merit national awareness on their own

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As Ryan Hunter-Reay began the celebration and all else that comes with winning the Indianapolis 500, in the immediate moments after Sunday’s 98th running concluded, someone else stole the show.

It was his young son, Ryden, all of 16 months old and in a matching yellow DHL firesuit.

The younger Hunter-Reay is about the only person that can upstage the elder one in terms of national Verizon IndyCar Series awareness and notoriety the rest of the calendar year and until next May, when they run this race for the 99th time.

That’s because Ryan – who survived a several-year career purgatory not knowing whether he’d ever make it back to open-wheel, or have a top-flight team opportunity – has entered the elite club of North American open-wheel legends.

He’s got both a series championship and now, an Indianapolis 500 victory.

“That’s a big deal to me personally. That’s probably the biggest point to me,” he said during Monday’s day-after media conference. “From a driver’s perspective, the championship is immensely rewarding. This race is the history of our sport. It’s our biggest. Even to compare it to the Super Bowl is not right, because this is bigger than the Super Bowl. It stands on its own.

And after this one, his awareness level should increase. In theory, anyway.

Hunter-Reay made it to the top of IndyCar’s summit in 2012, putting in a dynamic comeback in the final two races for Andretti Autosport to beat Team Penske’s Will Power to the title.

But on a national stage, “RHR’s” chance at glory was overshadowed by management turmoil at the top of the series, and the beginning drawdown of activation and support from then title-sponsor IZOD. Ironically, it was Hunter-Reay who brought IZOD into the frame in the first place, as it served as his personal sponsor before jumping to its series role in 2010.

“I’m not going to put on a whole big show and jump through hoops if people want me to do a certain thing or be a certain way,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m going to be me, and I am thrilled to be here. I’m a hard-charging American and I’ve had to fight every step of my career for this ride.

“Yeah, I was overlooked in 2012. The series wanted an American champion and we had one. For whatever reason, things didn’t go the way they did. This one, I hope it does. I’ll be a great and honest champion. I’ll fly the flag for our sport and you’ll always get the real deal with me. I’m definitely not going to fake anything. Hey, maybe it will let me come out a little more and show even more of me.”

Those who followed the series in detail last year saw a guy who, even as champion, still had a chip on his shoulder and was driving better than he had in 2012. Hunter-Reay was more consistent and quicker in qualifying, but bore the brunt of horrible luck in more than a third of the 19 races. He ended an unrepresentative seventh in points.

This year, back with his champion’s number of 28, has seen Hunter-Reay reassert himself firmly at the front of the field across all disciplines. He finished third on the streets of St. Petersburg, won at Barber, came second in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and now has won the Indy 500. Save for a controversial passing attempt in Long Beach that ended in tears for RHR, teammate James Hinchcliffe and another American in Josef Newgarden, he’d be five-for-five in podium finishes in as many races.

Sunday was a bit of exorcising of demons at IMS. Hunter-Reay was the 2008 Indy 500 Rookie-of-the-Year but barely made the field in 2009, had a last-lap accident where he served as Mike Conway’s launching pad in 2010, needed to take over a qualified car in 2011 and had a mechanical DNF in 2012.

Last year, of course, he had the bad luck of being the leader headed to the final restart and was essentially a sitting duck – falling to third behind Tony Kanaan and Carlos Munoz.

“This place has been the extreme of emotions for me. The lowest of lows and highest of highs, really. From bottom to the top,” he said. “It kind of really wraps it all up in one summary. This is the Indy 500. It can be evil and it can be so rewarding. It’s on that pedestal.”

And realistically, so too is Hunter-Reay, who has gone from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.

He’s not apologizing for being who is; he’s not going to separate the Long Beach move from the Indy move because they both showcase his style behind the wheel. And at 33, you roll with what’s working.

He’s made it to the top of the IndyCar summit… again.

And with his stats to play with, you wonder if the national awareness will follow given that he’s now got the key stat in the one race that stands out more than any other on the calendar.

NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Following his victory in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel arrived in Russia on Thursday targeting a third win of the year to extend his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

Not since 2004 has a Ferrari driver made such a good start to a season, putting Vettel in contention for a fifth world title this year – although with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hot on his tail, it will have to be a hard-earned success.

The fourth round of the year sees F1 head to the Olympic city of Sochi, which hosted the winter games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom played host to its first grand prix the same year, and is now a key part of Russia’s post-Olympic legacy.

Bringing you all of the latest news and interviews ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Will Buxton brings you Paddock Pass.

 

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.