Will Power had started on the pole and was stretching his lead early in the Grand Prix of Baltimore when it started to rain lightly on part of the street circuit. The Team Penske driver pitted for rain tires and most of the leaders followed. The exception was Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay had started 10th and desperately needed to get to the front. The 31-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had started the next-to-last race of the IZOD IndyCar season 37 points behind Power and his only hope of keeping the championship in play was to win.
Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay's team owner and race strategist, told him on the radio to stay out and to stay off the concrete barriers that line the track. It was the second part of the instructions that had Hunter-Reay nervous.
"I can't describe how nerve-wracking that is when it rains on a street circuit and you're on slicks and you know the championship is on the line," Hunter-Reay said. "[Andretti] said, 'We are going for the championship. If we are going to do it, let's do it. Coming in fourth or fifth is not going to do anything for us.'"
Hunter-Reay leapfrogged into the lead and stayed up front through multiple lead changes and leaders primarily caused by different pit strategies. He was running second to Ryan Briscoe for a restart with seven laps to go and was on the throttle first at the sight of the green flag. Hunter-Reay pulled away to take the checkered flag 1.4 seconds in front.
Teammates Briscoe and Power thought Hunter-Reay had jumped the restart and deserved a penalty; it became a controversial conclusion that overshadowed Andretti's call and Hunter-Reay's tenacity in keeping his Dallara DW12-Chevrolet on the track. But without them, it's doubtful Hunter-Reay would have been on the front row for that restart.
"We took a little bit of a gamble," Andretti said. "[The rain is] so bad, but yet we saw that the rain was going to stop. We thought if we could get through one restart and get to three or four corners because we thought there was going to be another yellow right away, let's just go for it.
"[Andretti's call] was a pretty brave move," Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay now trails Power, who finished sixth at Baltimore, by 17 points going into the 500-mile finale at Auto Club Speedway on Sept. 15. He's within reach of the championship, and could become the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to take it. Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, both frontrunners throughout the season, were eliminated from title contention at Baltimore.
Hunter-Reay has won four of 10 races since Andretti became his race strategist at the Indianapolis 500. Clearly, they're doing something right.
"We told Ryan, 'Just keep it on the track, don't try to beat anybody and I think if we do that, it's going to go yellow again and then it's going to have time to dry out,' and that's actually what happened, Andretti said. "It's nice when the plan comes together. I think that was the difference in the race for sure because that gave us track position from then on and then it came down to Ryan, really, in the end."
Hunter-Reay is at the peak of his up-and-down career. He was an emerging star in 2003 when he won in the Champ Car World Series at Surfers Paradise, Australia, and he backed it up with a victory at Milwaukee the next season. But Hunter-Reay was bounced out of his job 11 races into 2005, a victim of Champ Car's deteriorating financial condition that led to its bankruptcy in early 2008.
"That period from the end of 2005 to 2007 -- those were the longest days of my life, not having a ride, an answer, not having anything," Hunter-Reay said. "I just kept my faith at the racetrack and kept working at it."
Hunter-Reay ran seven Grand-Am sports car races and dabbled in NASCAR. Finally, midway through 2007, Bobby Rahal hired him for the final six races of the IndyCar season. He finished with a sixth place and two seventh places, which was good enough to convince Rahal to keep him for another year. In 2008 Hunter-Reay won at Watkins Glen, was sixth and Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis and finished eighth in the championship.
Rahal Letterman Racing should have established Hunter-Reay, but lost its sponsor. Instead Hunter-Reay, who signed with IZOD as a personal sponsor, decided to extend that funding to a team in 2009, and he kept his career going in a season split between Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing.
In 2010 Hunter-Reay signed a three-year contract with Andretti Autosport, which expires after this season. Even though he's won six races with Andretti, seven in IndyCar, and is its top American driver, Hunter-Reay hasn't made a decision on which team he'll be with next year. But, undoubtedly, he has several offers from top-tier teams.
"I've always rated him very highly," Power said. "It was a matter of time before he got in a good team situation where he could win consistently. He's probably the best all-around driver in the series because he wins at every discipline."
Hunter-Reay probably needs to win at Fontana to overtake Power to have a chance for the championship, but he's applied pressure with the win at Baltimore.
"The championship was on the line (at Baltimore) and that's really the only thing I'm fixated on winning," Hunter-Reay said. "This is all I've worked for my entire life. I haven't been nervous at all or anything. I've just been enjoying it and driving 110 percent and really getting along with the cars and feel like I'm in rhythm with the car.
"Hopefully, we'll have that at Fontana, too."