Asked by a reporter about having a target on his back Ryan Hunter-Reay jokes that he now knows what it’s like to be Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
Achievements are only as valuable as the vision they inspire.
Ryan Hunter-Reay has it mentally tattooed entering the 19-race IZOD IndyCar Series season – six months after exiting balmy Southern California with his first series championship in a hard-fought, season-long duel.
He’s back, driving the Chevrolet-powered No. 1 DHL car for Andretti Autosport — relaxed, rested and raring to back up the four victories and seven overall top-five finishes procured in the drive to the title won by a scant three points over Team Penske’s Will Power. It all starts with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend.
“The best thing about winning a championship is that it’s what I’ve been working for my entire life. It’s a dream come true,” says Hunter-Reay, 32, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident. “Nobody can ever take that away from me, from our team. It’s something that we accomplished. We earned it, straight up earned it.
“We’re starting new now. We’re the defending champions, and that does absolutely nothing for us when the green flag flies in St. Pete. We’re starting all over again. We have to go out there and live up to the No. 1 on the side of the car. That’s where the pressure comes from — living up to that No. 1.
“I know if we execute and put a decent car on the racetrack, we’ll be competitive, competing for race wins. Putting the package together is the tough part. That’s what we have to focus on.
We know how to do it from last year. We know where we need to be a lot better. Hopefully, if we do that we improve in the areas we need to, then we can make a serious run for this championship. I know one thing; it’s going to be interesting. (The title chase has come down to the) last race (for the past six seasons), and it certainly will this year. I guarantee it.”
Of course, he hopes to – expects to – be among the contenders. Hunter-Reay posted a pair of podium finishes in the first four races of 2012, including third place at St. Petersburg. Following mechanical issues at Indianapolis and Texas, he reeled off three consecutive victories to get back in the title picture. A victory at Baltimore in the penultimate race set up the duel with Power at Auto Club Speedway, where he accomplished all that was necessary.
“How do you follow up a year like last year? I really don’t have the answer for that,” Hunter-Reay says. “We’re going to have to be better than last year, that’s for sure. That’s what we’re looking to do, is come back and improve in our weak areas. We didn’t have too many weak spots last year, but if anything you can point out, the superspeedways. I guess the big tracks we need to step it up a little bit.
“But I think across the board we’re just going to have to be better than last year. It’s going to be a really tough season. I think this is going to be the tightest competition we’ve seen in IndyCar in a very, very long time.”