A year ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay left Watkins Glen International brimming with confidence after a surprising IndyCar victory.
He returns to defend his title Sunday in the Camping World Grand Prix, sometimes having to glance down at his racing suit just to make sure he knows who he's driving for.
And it's not Rahal Letterman Racing, the team he was with in his first and only IndyCar victory.
"We had a great thing going there at Rahal Letterman," Hunter-Reay said. "Definitely, momentum was building through the season and the end of the season with a third place at Surfers Paradise. We had every sign that things would continue."
Every sign vanished after the season. RLR lost its primary sponsor when an American ethanol company decided to pull out of the open-wheel series. The team had to search for sponsorship in one of the nation's deepest recessions ever, and when the money didn't come through Hunter-Reay was out of a ride.
"To have everything going for you and then have it all fall out from under you, yeah, that's pretty hard," the Texas-born Hunter-Reay said. "But there are two sides to every coin. I'm very persistent, and no matter where I end up going I end up, hopefully, making the best of it."
A ride with Vision Racing surfaced right before the season opener in April.
"I didn't sign my deal until Friday practice at St. Petersburg," he said. "We had a great week at St. Pete, finished second. But the team's been in a bad financial situation to run two cars."
So bad that Hunter-Reay is driving the No. 14 for A.J. Foyt for the remainder of the season in place of Vitor Meira, who's recovering from a back injury sustained in the Indianapolis 500.
"I've been wearing three different race suits, so it's definitely been all over the place," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm still working with everybody at Vision trying to get the chemistry going together there and now I'm starting from scratch again. It's definitely going to take some time. That said. That doesn't mean it will stand in the way of good race results."
It hasn't before. Racing for several Champ Car teams, he won a race in Australia as a rookie in 2003 and added an impressive wire-to-wire victory for another team the next year at Milwaukee. However, by the middle of 2005 _ with yet another team _ he again was looking for work.
Hunter-Reay's best finish in his short IndyCar career came at the 3.4-mile track in upstate New York's Finger Lakes wine country. He passed Darren Manning, now his teammate, with less than 10 laps remaining after Scott Dixon made an uncharacteristic mistake while running second on a restart late in the race that cost him in his bid for a fourth straight victory at the historic road course.
"I've been looking forward to Watkins Glen since I left Watkins Glen last year," said Hunter-Reay, who began racing go-karts in the 1990s and also has driven in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and Toyota Atlantic Series.
"It's such a tough race track. Unfortunately, quite a few of the teams have come to test, the big teams, so it's going to be tough to go there with no testing and to be on par with those guys. But hey, we did it last year."
After a stretch of six consecutive oval races, the IndyCar Series transitions to Watkins Glen, the first of three consecutive road and street course events.
Dixon, the defending IRL champion, has been the master of the high-speed turns at The Glen and is fresh from a win at Richmond, his series-best third of the season. He trails Target Chip Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti by one point in the standings and is itching to make up for last year's blunder.
"It was definitely one we threw away," Dixon said Friday before taking off on a different kind of ride aboard Fat Alpert Airlines, the four-engine, propeller-driven C-130T cargo plane the Blue Angels use in their air shows.
"To be going for a record of four in a row (at Watkins Glen), it was extremely frustrating to let it slip by. It ranks right up there along with the constant reminder from (team owner) Chip (Ganassi)."
Mainly because of Dixon's dominance, AGR hasn't had that breakthrough victory at Watkins Glen. So it was no surprise when Marco Andretti and teammates Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan tested at the track three weeks ago.
"It just seems like it's one of the tracks where we've been very competitive but have never won here," said Kanaan, who was third a year ago and fourth in 2007. "It's something in our setup and the way we run our cars. We can't figure it out."