A Winning Influence

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship. // Jason Nuttle Photography

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship. // Jason Nuttle Photography

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe I singled-handedly won the 1992 NBA Championship for Michael Jordan and the Bulls. That’s right. I’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone on that fact. I mean, if it wasn’t for me readjusting how I was sitting (I went from sitting upright to lying on my belly) while watching the series’ sixth game from my parents’ bedroom in north Florida, I seriously doubt MJ & Co. would have clinched the game in Chicago. After all, the Bulls went on to a 33-14 fourth quarter rout after I decided to switch sitting positions. And that sealed it for them. You’re welcome.

It’s funny how sports fans think they have some influence on a game. From thousands of miles away, we think we have some control over the outcome of things. Call it superstitious or just plain stupid, but I know I’m not the only one out there who feels some uncanny power over my favorite player’s game results. Another case: To this very day, I believe I gave Pete Sampras that extra boost he needed to overcome Pat Rafter in the 2000 Wimbledon Championship. I mean, I truly feel I turned around that second set tie-breaker at 1-4 for Sampras by, again, simply changing my sitting position (from the chair to sitting on the ground).

Which leads me to my influence over a most-recent champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay. He’s always been a winner, but this season he’s won four IndyCar races. All thanks to me. How, you ask? All because I wrote a lil’ article about him. You’re welcome.

Here’s the piece, fully intact, below.

The Fast Times of Ryan Hunter-Reay

“I hate when people drive fast,” Ryan Hunter-Reay mumbles, shaking his head.

That’s right. Hunter-Reay, one of IndyCar’s most prolific drivers, hates when people speed. In this context he’s referring specifically to his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, where the speed limit of a slow 25 mph hasn’t deterred the lead-footed kid down the street or the Porsche-driving doctor from going double that rate on the narrow street.

“I’ve even run down the street before, yelling at them to slow down. Imagine that: me of all people telling you to slow down,” he says with a smile of irony.

If you’ve never driven in the passenger seat with a professional racecar driver at the wheel, I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’ll be the safest ride you’ll ever have. At my request, Hunter-Reay gives me a lift. From my downtown Fort Lauderdale office, we pack into his new black Chevy Tahoe and cruise north on A1A to his home at a blazing 30 mph, pretty far off the normal 235 mph pace he keeps at his day job.

Hunter-Reay, with his driver’s chair reclined at an obtuse angle, sunglasses on, left hand at 8 o’clock and right hand resting on his right thigh, is an unconventional picture of poise behind the wheel. A professional, if you will. And as a passenger, I’ve never felt safer. Hunter-Reay could have been talking on his iPhone, texting, putting his contacts on, fixing his hair, reaching for something in the back seat, driving with no rearview or side-view mirrors, or any combination of those scenes during the six-mile car ride, and I wouldn’t have cared.

As we drive through his quiet neighborhood, it’s becoming increasingly clear Hunter-Reay isn’t going to make doughnuts with his SUV or shift into fifth gear any time soon. That’s just not his style. I guess like with most professionals, he leaves his work at the office. Perhaps being a passenger in the car of the audacious Helio Castroneves, with his Brazilian bravado on full display, might have made for a more exciting story. But Hunter-Reay isn’t looking to give a story; he’s just looking to get me from point A to point B. Safely.

For his day job, Hunter-Reay’s office is a fully loaded 1,500-pound cubicle on four open wheels with a turbo-charged engine that can pump out between 550 to 700 horsepower, and it has wings to boot. In short, it’s the Batmobile.

At 31 years old, Hunter-Reay is already the most decorated American driver currently racing in open wheel. In a field of international racers, he has earned more points this season than any other American driver (at the time of publishing, Hunter-Reay is seventh in the world in points). He won IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 and is one of the premier drivers of Andretti Racing. He also holds the honor of being the only driver to ever win in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar. He’s even been featured on a monstrous billboard in Times Square that promoted the sport and its lead sponsor IZOD.

But for this blond-haired Batman, life is indeed about the journey and not the destination. And Hunter-Reay’s journey (outside of his neighborhood, that is) has been a fast one.

Raised in Boca Raton with a car-loving father, the racing bug hit Hunter-Reay early. When he was a kid his dad bought him a go-cart and started taking his son racing at a track in Naples, and Hunter-Reay just “loved it from go.” He got so good he started getting noticed, eventually enrolling in the Skip Barber Racing School (racing’s equivalent to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy). From there, Hunter-Reay climbed through the ranks, winning, and eventually shifting to Champ Car and finding success in that series.

Now as the top American driver in IndyCar, Hunter-Reay isn’t taking his foot off the pedal any time soon. He has what every great athlete has: tunnel vision. As he sits on his living room couch, leaning forward with an elbow on each knee, hands clasped together, he describes how racing became the engine that moves him forward.

“There’s something about cars that just does it for me,” he explains. “Something about engines that has always fascinated me. Even as a kid I loved playing with Hot Wheels.”

Dressed today in light blue jeans, a green jacket and boat shoes with no socks, Hunter-Reay looks more boyish than his 31 years show. With his warm smile and responsible ways, he fits better into a role of a big brother than adrenaline-pumping race fiend. His kind nature belies the aggressive persona he takes when behind the race wheel. For the non-motor sport fan who thinks all drivers have a fiery Cole Trickle inside them, they are surely disappointed when Hunter-Reay debunks the “Days of Thunder” stereotype.

As with any sport, it can be said auto racing looks easier on TV. For the casual fan, armchair quarterbacking leads to comments like “racing isn’t a real sport” and “the engines do all the work, not the driver.” But don’t tell that to a professional like Hunter-Reay. What separates him from the 16-year-old who just got her license and the guy who’s been driving his whole life is, well, a lot. In short, the difference makers can be summed up as vision and, for lack of a better word, drive.

“With racing, the talent is the best of the best. You’re literally trying to squeeze the last one-tenth of a second to beat your competition. It’s just like football; the best players just have that extra oomph,” the racing savant says. “As with anything in life, it’s a balance; it’s controlled aggression – when to strike, when to hold it.”

The sounds an IndyCar car makes are just sexier than other cars,” says Beccy Gordon, Hunter-Reay’s bride of eight months.
And she would know. Born into the Gordon racing family (her brother, Robby, is the driver of the No. 7 NASCAR, and her father and mother both raced off-road), Gordon has been around cars and auto racing her entire life. She’s competed in off-road racing and even started an all-female off-road team.

Inside their two-story home, the pair are like any young South Florida couple – relaxed, sun-kissed and happy. Neighbors driving past them have no idea this low-key, down-to-earth couple is racing royalty. They live with two dogs, including a 7-month-old golden retriever named Captain, and two cats (“I’m not a cat person, but how do you say no to a kitty?” Hunter-Reay asks, smiling when telling the story of the rescue cats).

When he’s not racing, Hunter-Reay leads a much different, much slower-paced life. In fact, his favorite hobby is fishing, a sport that’s perhaps literally the exact opposite speed from auto racing. A slow and methodical activity, fishing has captivated Hunter-Reay as much as racing has (“I think it’s a South Florida thing, it’s something I’ve always done,” he says of fishing). He can’t find enough excuses to take his boat, a 36-foot Yellowfin, out to the ocean to fish or dive.

“Whenever he’s at home, Ryan is never in the car,” his wife laughs. Instead, she says, he’s either fishing, diving, cycling or running along the Intracoastal. He still remains close friends with his old Pine Crest and Cardinal Gibbons classmates, who Gordon nicknamed “The Dream Team,” and regularly fishes with them when in town.

Dressed today in a light cotton black dress, Gordon is a vision of comfortable beauty. The easy-going, athletically inclined Gordon (she plays softball and volleyball, and surfs) is the perfect complement to the outdoorsy Hunter-Reay. They met in 2004 during the Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend, where Gordon was a pit reporter. After mustering up some courage and receiving some encouragement from his mother, Hunter-Reay asked the 26-year-old Gordon to join his mom and him for dinner. She did. And the rest, you can say, is racing history.

As we chat in the Hunter-Reay-Gordon home’s living room, Hunter-Reay points to the backside of his iPhone case. I can’t forget to tell you about this, he says. The black case sports the number “28” in big white numbers. That’s the number he races under. But it turns out 28 means a lot more than just a number on his Batmobile. Twenty-eight represents the 28 million people fighting cancer. And cancer represents the illness that took his mother’s life in 2009. Diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 2008, Lydia Hunter-Reay’s fight with cancer and her eventual passing propelled her son to promote detection and checkups. He’s become a global ambassador for Racing For Cancer, a non-profit group that unites race fans and drivers to support a fight against cancer. He and Gordon both don the bright yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets proliferated by Lance Armstrong.

As he looks down at his hands, Hunter-Reay says losing his mother “was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through.”

In January he and friends from The Dream Team competed in the Florida Fish for Life charity off-shore fishing tournament in West Palm Beach, with proceeds benefiting Racing For Cancer and LIVESTRONG. Inside Line, the team name of apropos proportions, finished seventh overall.

When asked what he might be had he not become a racecar driver, Hunter-Reay muses quietly for some time, almost unsure if there really is an answer to that question. Could he be a fisherman? Maybe another type of athlete? He takes a few moments to think about the answer, if one really does exist.

“I’m not sure,” he finally says. After pausing again, Hunter-Reay says with honest realization, “I mean, I’ve always seen myself as a racecar driver.”

Hunter-Reay races not just because he loves it, but because he couldn’t imagine a life away from racing. For him, racing is life, and life is racing. Just not on his neighborhood’s street, though.


2 responses to “A Winning Influence

  1. Nila, I laughed myself out while reading this. So well-written and so true – the way we think we had something to do with someone playing miles away.Ha ha ha. This is such a good piece for a stand-up comedy 🙂

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Joy! But I can’t deny if I was able to use my powers and influence to help my teams win their games. 🙂

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