LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Ryan Hunter-Reay used to play with his toy cars watching Michael Andretti win races at Long Beach. He ran his first big Atlantic Series race at the track, first memorable CART race there, too.
Long Beach was one of his late mother's favorite tracks, where he met his fiance, a place he thinks of as home.
So to win at Long Beach, to take a big step toward landing a full-time ride on the streets that mean so much to him, well, it doesn't get much better than this.
Taking advantage of a brief mechanical problem by Will Power early, Hunter-Reay cruised to his second career Indy Racing League title Sunday at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
"It was like a home race for us," said Hunter-Reay, who grew up in Florida but moved to Southern California six years ago. "To win here is extra special to me."
For Andretti, too.
The storied racing family has deep roots and plenty of memories at Long Beach, from patriarch Mario's win in the early days, to Michael winning his first and last races there.
Hunter-Reay's win gives Andretti his first win as sole owner of Andretti Autosport and his team its first win since Tony Kanaan in 2008, a span of 28 races.
"Long Beach just continues to be really special to me, my family," Andretti said.
Hunter-Reay's opportunity came early and he pounced on it.
Starting second, RHR took the lead on the 18th lap when Power, the pole sitter, had to pull to the outside after his car got stuck in first gear coming out of a turn. Power also was passed by Justin Wilson, who went on to finish second despite a collision with Alex Lloyd on Lap 53.
"I don't know how it happened," said Power, a two-time winner this season who holds the points lead headed into the oval segment of the IRL season. "It didn't happen before and it didn't happen again, so I'm not sure what happened."
The small window was all Hunter-Reay needed.
The part-time driver for Andretti Autosport lost the lead after his two pit stops, but quickly regained it both times on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street course through downtown Long Beach. He patiently waited to lap Lloyd midway through the race and quickly increased his lead after the race's only caution — on a collision between Mario Romancini and Graham Rahal on Lap 60 — bunched the cars up.
Hunter-Reay led 64 of 85 laps and won the race by cruise-across-the-line 5.6 seconds to become the first American driver to win an IndyCar race since his first win, at Watkin's Glen in 2007.
It was also his first win since his mother, Lydia, died of colon cancer last November.
"I was with her every step of the fight and the No. 1 thing she loved was to see me racing, so that's what gave me and her the strength to push forward in that fight," said Hunter-Reay, who was congratulated by new teammate Tony Kanaan with a climb-in-the-cockpit hug. "She passed away, she was definitely there with me this weekend. This race was for her."
Team Penske won the season's first three races — the first two by Power — but Hunter-Reay ended the run with an easy-looking win over a difficult course that left drivers breathless during qualifying sessions.
It's been a vagabond journey to the podium.
The 29-year-old from Boca Raton, Fla., got his start in the Champ Car Series and won a race in 2003 with American Spirit Team Johansson. Next year, his ride was gone because of funding.
RHR then moved to HVM Racing, a team that had been in open-wheel racing for years. He won another race, but that ride fizzled due to infighting within the family that owned the team.
Rocketsports Racing was the next stop in 2005. The team was run on a shoestring budget, leading to another ride-one-year, gone-the-next stop.
After that, Hunter-Reay's career went piecemeal: Grand Am, Rolex Sports Car Series, NASCAR and Daytona Prototype testing, among others.
Hunter-Reay joined Rahal Letterman Racing in 2007, winning at Watkins Glen for his first IRL victory, only to lose that ride to ... yep, another sponsorship issue. Last season was another jump-around, starting with Vision Racing, ending with A.J. Foyt Racing.
But just when Hunter-Reay was wondering if he'd ever be able to set his feet, in stepped IndyCar giant Andretti Autosport.
The team had been eyeing for Hunter-Reay for several years and offered him a part-time ride this season with plans to go full-time if a sponsor could be found. He still doesn't have a sponsor, but likely upped his chances with Sunday's win and a second-place finish in the season opener in Brazil.
"We just can't let his car stop running," Michael Andretti said. "We're doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen."