Hunter-Reay a study in perseverance

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You're young, talented and on the fast track to fame.

And then someone turns out the lights.

Welcome to the world of Ryan Hunter-Reay. If you're looking for a story of belief, self-reliance and the refusal to give up on one's dreams, the man starting 17th for this Sunday's Indy 500 might be worth following.

Born in Dallas but raised in Florida, Hunter-Reay shot to the top of the American open-wheel racing ladder to earn his place amongst the pros in 2003, winning a race in his rookie season -- the first American rookie to do so in 20 years.

"I've always been one to fly the Stars and Stripes throughout my career," he says. "I think people are slowly starting to realize that the IZOD IndyCar Series has some of the best American drivers in the country competing here."

Hunter-Reay, or "RHR" as he's known, would win another race in his sophomore season, but by 2005, and with corporate support for American drivers on the decline, he'd conduct only a partial season of IndyCar racing. By 2006, his dreams appeared to be dashed. As a 25-year-old, RHR was yesterday's news and unemployed. Out of necessity, he switched to sports car racing to earn a living and fell off the open-wheel map.

But perseverance -- a common theme in Hunter-Reay's life -- paid off in 2007 when Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing along with late night talk show host David Letterman, found himself in need of a young American driver at midseason, someone who could turn his team's fortunes around.

In an instant, RHR went from forgotten star to a young man with a prime opportunity to rekindle his career. The Floridian would win another race in 2008, providing a major boost for his Rahal Letterman team.

But despite the feel good fairy tale story, RHR's rags-to-riches Hollywood script followed an all-too-predictable plot twist when Rahal Letterman's sponsor withdrew at the end of 2008, leaving the team and its driver in limbo.

Rather than give up, Hunter-Reay figured that if he was able to make one career comeback, making a second wouldn't be impossible.

Thrown a lifeline by personal sponsor IZOD, Hunter-Reay landed a ride just days before the 2009 IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he defied the odds and finished in second-place in an unfamiliar car and with an unfamiliar team.

With a limited budget, RHR's sponsorship lasted only six races, but when legendary IndyCar driver/owner A.J. Foyt needed to replace his injured driver for the remainder of the season, Hunter-Reay packed his bags and went to drive for his third team in less than a year.

You can probably see this next bit coming by now. With Foyt's driver fully healed for 2010, RHR found himself on the outside looking in for the umpteenth time. His offseason was made even more challenging when his mother, his most ardent supporter, lost her battle with cancer.

After watching her endure painful chemothreapy while fighting the disease only to lose that struggle, RHR wasn't about to give up on his dreams. That fight -- the perseverance that has marked his IndyCar career -- runs in the family. Like mother, like son.

But then a funny thing happened. While unemployed and mourning the loss of his mother, a groundswell of interest and support for Hunter-Reay began to develop. With the IndyCar Series working hard to promote its brand of racing throughout America, the cries for Hunter-Reay to be placed in a top-tier team reached fever pitch.

Signed with the Andretti Autosport team, owned by former IndyCar champion Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay now had the best opportunity of his career, but one problem still persisted: IZOD's sponsorship was only enough to run RHR in four races.

Rather than complain about the hand he was dealt, Hunter-Reay put his head down and got to work. After finishing a fighting second at the season opener in Brazil, RHR overcame issues at the next two rounds before arriving in California for the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Earning a popular, dominant win in front of the Southern California crowd, Hunter-Reay's Hollywood-ending seemed complete. A finish of fifth at the next race propelled RHR into the Indianapolis 500 sitting fourth in the championship.

Surrounded by high-profile teammates like Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, Hunter-Reay is the only Andretti Autosport driver to have won a race this year. In the driver's championship, RHR is miles ahead of his teammates, with Kanaan in eighth, Andretti in 13th and Patrick in 16th.

And with everything going perfectly for Hunter-Reay, with the chance of a lifetime to prove he belongs amongst the elite in the IZOD IndyCar Series, the plot has yet another twist awaiting him.

Team owner Michael Andretti has worked miracles to stretch IZOD's funding for four races into what will ultimately be seven races for RHR - through the Texas race held the week after the Indy 500.

"This is by far the best team I've driven for, and IZOD has basically rescued me and made me their poster boy to help get my career on track," he says. "I hope people can recognize how unique that is for an American company to come out of their pocket to help one of their own."

But once the No. 37 IZOD car goes into the trailer at the conclusion of that race, Hunter-Reay will do what he's done so many times before.

He'll pack up his helmet, his driving suit, and clear out his personal belongings from Andretti's transporter. He'll catch a flight home as the most recently unemployed IndyCar driver.

There is hope for Hunter-Reay. His story, his talent and his amazing performances on behalf of IZOD and Andretti Autosport haven't gone unnoticed. Unfortunately, no one has stepped up with the funding to keep RHR on the race track.

He's become a team leader in just five races, stood and watched as his team has struggled to find the speed he needs to be a contender this Sunday at Indy, but he never complains about his struggles. That's not his style.

"Do I think my story might resonate with people?" he says. "I hope so. But most people don't think of their lives in the context of a story. Good people get up and go to work every day and they don't think of it as a story. But to me, they are heroes just like anyone else who strives to make their lives better. If what I've gone through helps anyone else to dig down a little bit deeper, that would be an honor."

Where Ryan Hunter-Reay will finish in the Indy 500 will be known in just a matter of days, but where he'll land after Texas remains a mystery.

As one of few Americans in the series, he's needed to help promote the sport to a country that is crazy for NASCAR. As one of the best drivers, he's needed to keep the Andretti Autosport team at the sharp end of the field. As a person, he's a role model for every parent to point to as someone for their children to emulate. As a son, he'll keep fighting and persevering until he's given his all.

That's the Hunter-Reay way.