Could This Be the End of the Road?

One race is only a snapshot. Sunday’s snapshot shows that Alex Palou is the current points leader in the NTT IndyCar Series, with fifty-three points; while Ryan Hunter-Reay is last in points with a total of six points. I guess that’s your reward for taking the green flag. The tables could turn next week at St. Petersburg where Ryan Hunter-Reay wins and Palou comes down to earth with a last-place finish.

While that scenario may not be likely to happen, chances are that Palou will not win the championship and Hunter-Reay won’t finish last in points among all of the fulltime drivers. But if you dig a little deeper, this past weekend at Barber is a strong indication of which direction each of their respective career paths have taken lately.

Hunter-Reay turned forty last December. He has experienced he highest of highs, and the lowest of lows in his IndyCar career; which started in CART/Champ Car in 2003. He won in his rookie season at Mid-Ohio, while driving for Stefan Johansson. He won again the following season at Milwaukee driving for Keith Wiggins. The following year, he moved to Rocketsports. Things did not go well, and he was dropped with two races remaining in the 2005 season.

After sitting idle for a year and a half, Hunter-Reay replaced Jeff Simmons at Rahal Letterman for the remainder of the 2007 season. Hunter-Reay won for the team at Watkins Glen the following season, but found himself unemployed again as Rahal Letterman shifted to “Indy Only” status for the next three years due to lack of sponsorship. Hunter-Reay caught on at Vision Racing, but was farmed out to AJ Foyt’s team after the Texas race in June – at a time when the Foyt team was even worse than usual. This move yielded only two Top-Ten finishes in the final eleven races of the 2009 season.

Any random interview with Hunter-Reay during the 2009 season, gave the impression he had a severe case of chronic hemorrhoids. He had a permanent scowl on his face and had a gloom and doom demeanor. That changed in 2010, when he was signed by Andretti Autosport on a race-by-race basis. Winning at Long Beach assured an extension for a few more races. When the season ended, Ryan Hunter-Reay had driven every race of the 2010 season for Andretti, and he finished seventh in points.

When 2011 rolled around, he had been signed to a multi-year contract with Andretti Autosport with sponsorship from DHL and Sun-Drop, but the results at the first part of the season were disastrous – bottoming out with a DNQ at Indianapolis. A deal was struck where Bruno Junqueira would be bumped out of the car he had qualified for Foyt. DHL and Hunter-Reay would occupy the car, but the car would be managed by Foyt. Things turned around for RHR in the second half of the 2011 season, which set the stage for 2012 – when Ryan Hunter-Reay won the IndyCar championship.

Suddenly, Ryan Hunter-Reay was golden. Roger Penske pursued him, but he was loyal to Michael Andretti, who had been loyal to him when non one else wanted him. He stuck with Andretti and won the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

Since those years in the early 2010s, Ryan Hunter-Reay has been in a steady decline – finishing twelfth, ninth eighth and tenth in four of his last five seasons. He rallied with one good season in 2018, when he finished fourth in the points – but that season also produced his last win. For the last two seasons, his infamous scowl from 2009 has returned, as his winning ways have left him.

Alex Palou has a much shorter story. He came upon the IndyCar scene just before Christmas of 2009. When I heard the name, like most people – I had never heard of him. But he raised eyebrows at Dale Coyne Racing in 2020. When Felix Rosenqvist bolted Ganassi for the greener pastures (and payroll) of McLaren; Ganassi surveyed the field and plucked Palou away from Coyne. Based on what we’ve seen in the small sample size of one race, it looks like things have worked out very well for Ganassi and Palou; not so much for McLaren and Rosenqvist.

With twenty-one year-old Pato O’Ward winning the pole and twenty-four year-old Alex Palou winning the race; the weekend at Barber showed that this crop of young drivers is not going away. In the past we’ve seen promising young drivers brushed aside after a year or so – mostly due to lack of funding. Alex Lloyd, Tristan Vautier, Gaby Chavez and Carlos Muñoz are all examples of the many whose funding dried up before they could get a fair shot. Pato O’Ward was dangerously close to joining this group before Arrow McLaren SP came calling. He and Palou just happen to be at the right time and the right place. They along with Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson and still young veterans like Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi seem to be the ones that will be collecting the hardware for years to come.

Where does that leave the forty-something crowd? Well, if you’re not winning in your later years – you’re expendable. Just ask Tony Kanaan, Juan Montoya and Helio Castroneves. Except for his two wins in 2018, Ryan Hunter-Reay is winless since 2015. His championship was almost a decade ago, and his 2014 Indianapolis 500 victory is becoming a faded memory.

Successful athletes are notorious for holding on too long. AJ Foyt did it. So did Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser. Rick Mears is one of the few of the IndyCar royalty that went out while still on top of their game – but even Mears went winless in 1992, his last year to drive.

This will not be received well by many, but I personally believe we are watching the last of Ryan Hunter-Reay. I really don’t think he will drive past 2021. He has a beautiful wife and three young sons. He seems to be set financially, and he has won everything he can in the sport. The only thing that would seem to be drawing him back to the sport each season would be his love of competition. The sad thing is he’s no longer competitive. Does he see that? How could he not? But most of the great ones don’t. They have to be forced out very ungracefully.

I was hoping that Ryan Hunter-Reay would announce this would be a farewell season, or something to that effect. That way, it would give the appearance that he would be leaving on his own terms. With sponsorship dollars and rides at a premium, I really can’t see Michael Andretti letting him hang around and be a backmarker after this season.

Of course, I could be proven dead-wrong. As I mentioned earlier, Hunter-Reay may dominate at St. Petersburg and have a championship-caliber season from here on out. But qualifying seventeenth and finishing twenty-fourth in the season-opener is no way to silence your doubters.

I am not cheering for Ryan Hunter-Reay to fail. On the contrary, I hope he has a terrific season. I have a soft spot in my heart for the older drivers, seeing that I am older than dirt myself. But from what I’ve seen for more than two seasons, the writing may be on the wall. If this is it, I just hope he can see it.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Could This Be the End of the Road?”

  1. I hope you are wrong about RHR. I too have an affinity for the older drivers. The guys that are slowly being put out to pasture. I was at the 2000
    Indy 500 that JPM won and it seems like yesterday. He absolutely schooled the IRL field. I also remember you writing this same type of prediction for Will Power and look how that turned out.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I very much doubt Hunter-Reay will be a backmarker this year, even if he is not a championship contender, even last year he was steadily better than half the grid. I would also contend that there is a good bit of distance between leaving at the top of one’s game and hanging on too long, and that Hunter-Reay is in that middle distance. That said, I do expect Hunter-Reay to retire from full time competition within the next few years.

    Also, while I would agree on Foyt and Rutherford and maybe even Mario, I would absolutely not place Al Unser in the hanging on too long category. Unser quite literally won the championship the last time he raced full time and finished in the points in half the limited starts he made after that, winning a race and taking 3 other podium finishes.

  3. jollinger Says:

    I’m a cynic. I think RHR will have a ride as long as he keeps the DHL sponorship. If DHL wants someone else or drops out entirely, Ryan should be practicing his on-camera commentary techniques.

  4. Davis Brewer Says:

    DHL seems to like RHR ?

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