Just a couple years ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay was competing hard to make sure he had a job, fighting to prove himself to race team owners so they'd give him a car to drive.
Even in the early stages of the 2012 season, Hunter-Reay wasn't considered one of the top drivers in the IndyCar Series. Then he won consecutive races at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto, throwing himself into the championship hunt.
With a fourth-place finish at Fontana in the final race of the year, Hunter-Reay clinched the championship and thrust himself to the forefront of the sport.
Regarded as one of the top American drivers in open-wheel racing, Hunter-Reay is hoping for a strong finish in the IndyCar Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday.
Q: You had a good run going last year at Texas before the car gave out. Are you looking forward to getting back down there?
A: “Absolutely. We had a great car last year, running probably fifth or so, and then we had a mechanical issue that sidelined us. So yeah, we feel like there's some unfinished business there, for sure.”
How have things changed for you in the last year as the series champion?
“Going through the championship, dealing with that amount of pressure, and knowing you can come out the other end and succeed was a big moment in my career. Being the champion, the bar is raised and you have to perform to a champion's level. But it also comes with some good pressure, and all the right things. But we're hoping to go win some more races, so we feel like the job's just getting started.”
You used the phrase “good pressure.” Considering that drivers feed off adrenaline, don't you have to be able to manage the good pressure — particularly on the track — to get to a championship level?
“You have to be able to channel that pressure and that energy into something that's positive for you, something you can use. If that pressure makes it to where you can't think properly, or you crack and make mistakes, that's obviously a huge problem. You never really know how you're going to perform under an immense amount of pressure until it happens. There's no real way of preparing for it. Experience is the biggest asset you can have.”
Was your ability to handle that pressure something you learned about yourself last year?
“I've had a certain type of pressure all through my career of trying to keep a seat and keep racing, having to get in and drive as fast as I can in a new environment. But this was a different pressure. Especially at Fontana and Baltimore, it felt like a lifetime of work and effort coming down to the final race, those final laps, and how much rides on it, and how hard you've worked to get to that point. You think about how bad the team wants it, and how bad the sponsors want it. It's a different place to be, mentally.”