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.”