Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoying the random moments of his Indianapolis 500 win ‘in the strangest places’

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INDIANAPOLIS – There are visibly obvious perks to being an Indianapolis 500 champion – namely your mug etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy and imprinted on the ticket for the next year’s race.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has been taken by the unexpected moments in random airports and restaurants around the country since he outdueled Helio Castroneves for the checkered flag in the closing laps last year.

“It’s happened in strange places where people come up and say, ‘I was there in Turn 3 and say that was best racing move I’ve ever seen,’ ” Hunter-Reay said. “It made our year. Those comments have come in the strangest places. I’ve had pilots greet me on airplanes talking about the race, and you see how far-reaching this event is.

“It’s been a fun ride being the Indy 500 champion. It’s just been phenomenal.”

But while enjoying his time in the limelight, Hunter-Reay also has been out of the spotlight for much of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, particularly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With Honda at a disadvantage on the five and road street courses that start the season, Hunter-Reay is ranked 12th in points with a best finish of fifth at Barber Motorsports Park. He has qualified a modest 16th for Sunday’s 99th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

But it’s the same starting position as 2011 winner Dan Wheldon, and Hunter-Reay hasn’t given up hope he could snatch his first win since Iowa Speedway last July.

“There’s a lot of things I could take from last year’s race and apply to Sunday,” the Andretti Autosport driver said. “I’m trying to apply how my car felt last year, and we’re not quite there yet. Certainly, there were a lot of lessons learned in last year’s race.”

It’s not the first time Hunter-Reay seemingly has been overlooked after ascending to the pinnacle of the sport. After capturing the 2012 championship, he expressed reservations about being underutilized by IndyCar marketing promotions.

Being feted as an Indy 500 winner, though, is an automatic and unavoidable routine that lasts a full year. Hunter-Reay received his facsimile of the Borg-Warner in Saturday’s public drivers meeting.

“It’s a celebration for a full year,” 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan said. “I make sure I put the Borg Warner in a strategic place in my house, so every time I walk out of the house, I see that.”

Hunter-Reay has relived the memories whenever his 2-year-old son, Ryden, asks about the finish.

“He loves watching the highlights of that,” Hunter-Reay said. “Whenever he gets asking for it, we put it on. It is strange watching it. I didn’t remember the details of the shootout. You’re in such a special place mentally at that point. You’re using 110 percent. You’re not banking memories, you’re using everything to maximize the here and the now.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”