Hunter-Reay kept eyes on prize

Ryan Hunter-Reay's Sunday Conversation (2:47)

Ryan Hunter-Reay discusses winning the Indianapolis 500 and how much it meant to him. (2:47)

INDIANAPOLIS -- You can't help wishing there were more like Ryan Hunter-Reay. More who'd stayed the course.

Then there might not be such cause for so much celebration that an American driver, for the first time in a long time, has won the Indianapolis 500.

"USA! USA! USA!" fans chanted as Hunter-Reay made his way through the paddock to the in-depth winner's interview on Sunday.

That might be normal for the Olympics, but it somehow sounded weird to me at the Indy 500, a 103-year-old American institution on a 105-year-old American track on an American holiday born out of the American Civil War.

Weird -- because it shouldn't have to be that way.

While so many talented Americans -- and I mean open-wheel drivers -- of his generation, give or take a few years, were distracted then diverted by big bucks and show biz to NASCAR, Hunter-Reay's focus, from childhood in Fort Lauderdale, remained "right here," he said.

"This is what I've dreamed of since I was a little kid. This is everything that I worked for."

I pressed him. Was there not even a sideways glance at the more-lucrative, more-massive appeal of NASCAR? Well ... he admitted to receiving a wink or two from that side before moving on, never seriously distracted.

"I had the opportunity to do some testing with Hendrick [Motorsports, which was interested in him as a developmental driver in 2006], but then got the call-up to drive for Bobby Rahal's team and went to IndyCar full time at that point.

"It was always IndyCar for me."

And it wasn't always easy. In fact, it almost never was.

The now-defunct Champ Car series, the carcass of CART, was on the wane when he arrived in 2003, but he won a race in Australia, then another at Milwaukee in '04 and received the Greg Moore Legacy award, named for the Canadian star who'd died so young in 1999.

In IndyCar, Hunter-Reay bounced from Rahal Letterman Racing to league founder Tony George's Vision Racing, until a childhood hero of his, Michael Andretti, by 2010 a team owner, gave Hunter-Reay the ride that rewarded all that perseverance.

Despite the Hendrick wink, and even through a stint testing the Car of Tomorrow for Robby Gordon, "It was a one-track road," Hunter-Reay said. "There was no other avenue. It was always, 'This is the top: Indy 500.'"

But here's what's sad: It was the same way, in youth, for Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. For both, the Indy 500 was the goal, the passion, at first.

But the CART teams told Gordon, "Show us the money and we'll show you the seat," Gordon said after diverting to NASCAR.

The CART teams wouldn't even take a look at Stewart due to his lack of funding, even while he was the most dazzling talent in America on dirt tracks, in open-wheel sprint cars.

Tony George, whatever you think of him now, meant well, meant to make the Indy Racing League again a haven, a pinnacle, for American youth off the heartland dirt tracks, new generations of Foyts, Unsers and Andrettis.

But "What can you do," George asked me rhetorically in the early 2000s, when the Indy 500 was in the depths of its suffering from the CART-IRL split, "when [IRL team owner ] John Menard is a billionaire and won't pay Tony Stewart a competitive salary?"

So the IRL turned out like CART: a league dominated by drivers from abroad, who (A) were far more skilled and trained at open-wheel racing in rear-engine cars than Americans, and (B) often brought big sponsorship money from corporations or wealthy individuals in their native countries.

When Emerson Fittipaldi won here in 1989, that was cool with the American public -- interesting. You had to go all the way back to Scotland's Jim Clark in 1965 and England's Graham Hill in '66 to find the previous non-American winners.

But through the '90s the makeup of fields were more and more imported. And as this millennium unfolded, American winners became rare. Before Hunter-Reay on Sunday, there were only Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 and Buddy Rice in '04.

This began to get under the skin of the American public. They weren't being xenophobic, it was just that they wanted somebody from home to win this American institution on this American holiday once in a while.

Throughout the 20-plus years of the enormous presence of the drivers affectionately known as the Boys from Brazil here, Brazilians have flocked to Indy waving their national flag, which is great. But Americans claimed the same privilege of pulling for the homeboys.

Call this fantasy, but it's well-founded in fact: Imagine Hunter-Reay winning Sunday by beating Indy 500 veterans Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne -- and the rookie of the year being Kyle Larson.

Every one of them began as a prodigy in open-wheel racing. They all just got distracted, diverted, with the clear exception of Newman, who was bent on NASCAR even during his sprint-car stardom.

And I'll guarantee you that Sunday, they weren't watching this race just to see how colleague Kurt Busch would do in it (he finished sixth) but because, deep inside, every one of them wished he could be here.

And so did Danica Patrick, lured away from here by the sheer economics and limelight.

IndyCar hard-cores, never ones to acknowledge the elephant in the room, are sure to snarl as usual at the very mention of NASCAR. But there it stands -- a vortex that has taken away so much American talent that otherwise would have come here.

Hunter-Reay brought up another good point:

"I think if you look at the NASCAR side of it, it's all Americans. This is a very international sport," Hunter-Reay said. But then he went a little too far in my book.

"It's the best talent from around the world."

Then team owner Andretti: "Going up against the best in the world, and not just the United States, is a big deal. That's why it's even more precious when an American does win this race."

Nice point in one way. But again, over the top. I get so sick of that phrase I've heard spouted in the garage area at Charlotte, the paddock at Monaco and Gasoline Alley here: "Best drivers in the world."

There is no such thing. The disciplines are too different.

Let's all just cut that out, and just be pleased that one American driver, since "I was in diapers on the floor in front of the TV," has spent his 33 years working to get here and win here.

To borrow a NASCAR-style compliment:

Bless his heart.