IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay watches his competitors during a practice… (Chris Trotman / Getty Images )
Ryan Hunter-Reay was born in Texas and now lives in Florida, but the reigning IndyCar champion traces many key moments of his life — the highs and the lows — to Southern California.
Hunter-Reay lived in Dana Point when his IndyCar career was teetering in the mid- to late-2000s. Then a comeback win in Long Beach in 2010 finally secured him a ride with a top team.
That led to his capturing his first IndyCar title at a dramatic season finale in Fontana last September, making Hunter-Reay the series' first American champion in six years.
He also met his wife, Beccy, sister of race-car driver Robby Gordon, in Long Beach.
So Hunter-Reay, 32, naturally is looking forward to this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, the third race of the Izod IndyCar Series season.
Hunter-Reay is also riding another hot streak. He won the series' most recent race, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., two weeks ago, lifting him to third in this year's points standings in his quest for a second consecutive title.
And if Hunter-Reay didn't already find Long Beach appealing, he also reveres the legendary Long Beach race on 1.97 miles of the city's coastal streets.
"It's the Indy 500 of road and street racing," said Hunter-Reay, who turned the fastest lap in Friday afternoon's practice. "This race is important to me for so many reasons."
Hunter-Reay never doubted his talent but struggled for years to land a ride with one of IndyCar's elite teams.
"Hunter-Reay has really paid his dues," said Australian driver Will Power of Penske Racing, who narrowly lost the title to Hunter-Reay last year.
Until 2010, the blond Hunter-Reay was known nearly as much for being one of IndyCar's pretty faces — he was an advertising centerpiece for series sponsor Izod clothing — as he was for reaching Victory Lane.
Hunter-Reay earned his first win in 2003 with the old Champ Car World Series (which later merged into IndyCar) but, by 2006, he was without a full-time ride and forced to take jobs where he could find them. He drove in sports-car events and test drove NASCAR stock cars.
"I just got into anything I could, whenever I could, and worked my way back into open-wheel racing," he said.
Hunter-Reay finally returned to IndyCar in 2008 with Rahal Letterman Racing and won at Watkins Glen, N.Y. But lack of sponsorship after that season sent him packing again. The next year he split the season between two other second-tier teams without a victory.
His big break came in 2010 when he was hired by one of the best teams, Andretti Autosport. Hunter-Reay responded by winning the Long Beach race, an emotional victory he dedicated to his mother, who had died a few months earlier.
"That win in 2010 was pivotal," Hunter-Reay said. "Winning at Long Beach is a headliner; it's something you put on your resume."
Power started on the pole in that race, but Hunter-Reay zipped past him after Power's gear box inexplicably got stuck in first gear early in the race.
"It was just a freak thing," Power said, "and I really think [Hunter-Reay] was meant to win that race because his mother had passed away. I just felt so good at the end of the race. I was really happy for him."
Power was less happy after the season finale at Fontana last year. Power started the race with a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay in the title standings but crashed early on. Hunter-Reay, by finishing fourth, edged Power for the season championship by only three points.
"My entire career has been career instability," Hunter-Reay said. "It's been jumping from team to team. So being a champion offers a shot at career stability."
But it hasn't made Hunter-Reay a household name, owing partly to IndyCar being less popular than NASCAR and because Hunter-Reay is anything but controversial.
Polite, well-spoken and focused on his driving, Hunter-Reay is a bit like NASCAR's five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. And it so happens that Hunter-Reay is good friends with Johnson.
"Jimmie's given me advice on how to go about the last three or four races of the championship," Hunter-Reay said. "He's given me advice on being a new father. We communicate regularly on the phone."
And there are still areas where Hunter-Reay needs to improve, mainly on IndyCar's big oval tracks such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hunter-Reay has never won the legendary Indianapolis 500 — his best finish there was sixth in 2008.
In the meantime, "To be a driver in this series is a dream come true," he said. "The path to this point has never been easy. I feel blessed every day that I get to show up on the job."