ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Ryan Hunter-Reay knows his way around the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg racetrack, but he went back to school March 9 for a “Career Day” visit to Lakewood High School.
Hunter-Reay met with around 75 students from the Pinellas County public school to chat about safe driving practices, how to get involved in a career in motorsports and coming to the track for the March 11-13 race weekend, which kicks off the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Joining Hunter-Reay were St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Charles Burns, head of security for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Kriseman’s appointed director of education and community engagement for the city, Leah McRae, is a Lakewood graduate.
“It’s great to get up in front of many kids, especially in the later years of high school when you’re starting to think about where your life is going to take you and where career is going to take you,” Hunter-Reay said. “I love to share my story and share the opportunities that the industry that has given me so much, given my family so much, the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Hunter-Reay spent time at the University of Central Florida chasing an engineering degree when a career in racing seemed unattainable. Burns graduated from Purdue University in Indiana and said his education prepared him for a diverse career in motorsports.
“I came from a diverse background, I didn’t do the typical four years of school and all that,” Burns said. “I think that if you show them everyone’s path is not the same, but with that path, whatever it may be, you can achieve a great goal.”
Hunter-Reay fielded questions from the students, ranging from an offer to drive his car for him during the race to an inquiry on if he had a Snapchat account. One student, however, asked a very poignant question.
“Have you ever had to face adversity in your career?”
The 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner easily recalled a time in 2006 when he was without a ride, without income, and still found his way back to success.
“I thought I was never going to get behind the wheel of a race car again,” Hunter-Reay said. “Every day I was calling about four teams just non-stop, ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ kind of thing. I had weekends where I could do whatever with my friends and hop on their whole thing. Instead I was showing up at racetracks without a ride, just showing my face. It ended up happening that one driver that wasn’t performing quite well enough, the sponsor needed an American driver and that opened the door for me. It jumpstarted my whole career.
“It was that close to being over. And that one opportunity, I really believe it was because I kept showing my face. I wasn’t giving up on it.”
Hunter-Reay will drive the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport this weekend in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, having ended 2015 on a high note. He won two of the last four races en route to a sixth-place finish in the championship. He has finished on the podium three times on the streets of St. Petersburg, placing second in 2009 and ’14 and third in ’12.