Hunter-Reay at Petit Le Mans

First in a series looking at the IZOD IndyCar Series championship season of Ryan Hunter-Reay through various eyes. Today, the feat hasn't sunk yet. 

BRASELTON, Ga. -- Ryan Hunter-Reay paused upon hearing “Hey there, champ,” as if Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Shane Mosley had walked under the SRT Motorsports canopy at Road Atlanta. Slowly turning, a smile that could be the next Internet meme greets the manufacturer rep.

Five weeks after claiming the IZOD IndyCar Series title in a scintillating 500-mile season finale at Auto Club Speedway, Hunter-Reay still is struck by the feat six months in the making. Partly because of a hectic postseason schedule, he hasn’t had much time to explore the magnitude.  

“I think it will all sink in at the Championship Celebration in Indy (Dec. 6) when the car is up on stage with the Astor Cup and the rest of the team,” says Hunter-Reay, whose fourth-place finish in the 200-lap finale wrested the title by three points from Will Power. “It’s been a lot of fun since; it’s been every race car driver’s dream.”

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It has been a whirlwind since he descended the stairs of the championship stage at the racetrack. A media tour of New York was followed by personal appearances with Team Chevy drivers in Michigan, nearly two full weeks of testing two different races cars for the Petit Le Mans and competing in the 1,000-mile race Oct. 20 in the GT class.

On tap this week is testing on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course followed by a celebratory event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he resides with his wife Beccy and golden retrievers Captain Dan and Charlie Daniels. Maybe he’ll be able to unwind for a few days and fit in some fishing.

“To bring the race car to downtown Fort Lauderdale, which is (car primary sponsor) DHL’s base, will be a lot of fun,” says Hunter-Reay, 31. “There’s a lot to be thankful for. Looking back on a tough season, it’s nice to celebrate it with the people in the city that I love and am so proud to be a part of.”

The party will move to Indianapolis for the Championship Celebration in early December – a brief time to catch up and say “thanks” again at the race shop before picking up the $1 million bonus check and assorted hardware and then leaving for Bangkok, Thailand, to represent Team USA in the Race of Champions.

“Racing is a people sport and we have a great group of people at Andretti,” says Hunter-Reay, who on Sept. 15 signed a contract extension with the team. “I’m close with all the guys on the 28 car and really the whole team. It’s pivotal to results and the drive to win. If you get a group that really wants to win you get the results as well.

“It comes down to chemistry, too. I’m not saying we go to the movies every Friday night together, but we’re a great group. It’s no BS; everybody is straight up with everyone. We’re all about getting the job done together. They never gave up on me when we started the season poorly.”

Consecutive victories at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto vaulted Hunter-Reay from seventh to first in the championship standings. He fell behind Power with 24th- and 18th-place finishes at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, but a victory in the penultimate race at Baltimore set up the shootout in California.

“It’s really a never give up attitude,” Hunter-Reay says. “I’ll always have that attitude. Hit me once, hit me twice but I’ll always get back up. It’s kind of how my career has been so it’s been instilled in my brain.

“I’ve always looked for the opportunity to be in a race car with a race team competing for a championship and that’s what we had and fulfilled it. It’s a dream come true.”