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.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500