Ryan Hunter-Reay remembers vividly when he caught the bug to race Indy cars.
The 35-year-old Andretti Autosport driver, who won the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series championship and 2014 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, gladly recounted the story as part of a special roundtable discussion at the Arizona Concours d’Elegance in Phoenix featuring a quartet of Indy 500 winners. The Concours ran Jan. 23-24 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and featured nearly 100 rare cars on display, including several vintage Indy cars on loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum and private collectors.
Joining Hunter-Reay on the panel to discuss the upcoming 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 and other racing matters were Tom Sneva (winner of the 1983 Indy 500), Arie Luyendyk (1990 and ’97) and Dario Franchitti (2007, ’10 and ’12). Lyn St. James, a seven-time Indy 500 starter and 1992 Indy 500 rookie of the year, moderated. The crowd of Concours attendees listened eagerly as each famous driver reminisced.
Hunter-Reay recalled when, as a youngster, he attended a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) street race on the streets of Miami. That’s all it took to determine his destiny.
“I remember pressing my cheek up against a fence for the first time ever at an Indy car race in Miami and feeling one of those cars go by,” Hunter-Reay told the audience. “That’s when it hit me. That was it. I remember the chills going down my back. Being a kid, these guys were my superheroes.”
Sneva had the crowd rolling with laughter when he told the story of the day in 1978 when he became the first driver to complete a four-lap Indy 500 qualifying attempt at better than 200 mph. Sneva’s run came early, so he spent most of the day wandering Gasoline Alley to see if his speed held up for the pole. Part of his afternoon was spent in the garage of Indy veteran Jim Hurtubise, which was known as a social gathering spot where beverages flowed freely.
After he clinched the pole, Sneva was asked by a media member how he spent the day.
“I told him I was at Hurtubise’s garage talking with the consumption engineer,” Sneva said with a smile. “These (media) guys are writing this down and are pretty serious. Finally, one guy asks, ‘What’s a consumption engineer?” and I said, ‘Well, that’s the bartender.’”
Asked about the fiercest competitors they faced on track, Luyendyk offered up how difficult it was to pass Mario Andretti on ovals – until he figured it out.
“You could never get Mario going into the corner because he would drive it in harder just because of his ego, like, ‘I’m not going to let anyone by,’” Luyendyk said. “But then he would get all messed up and understeering in the middle of the corner and come off the corner really slow. So you had to time it with Mario, to set him up to get him at the exit.
“In Phoenix when I won here in ’91, that’s how I got him for the lead.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Phoenix International Raceway following an 11-year absence for the Phoenix Grand Prix on April 1-2. Hunter-Reay, in particular, is glad PIR is back on the schedule.
“I think it’s great for the series,” said Hunter-Reay, who has seven career wins on short ovals like the 1-mile PIR. “Short oval racing is unbelievably exciting for our cars. Having Phoenix back on the schedule is a big deal to me. With Andretti having a lot of success at Iowa and Milwaukee, I’m really psyched to see it on the schedule.”
All photos below courtesy of Randall Bohl: