Ryan Hunter-Reay's 200th career Indy car start couldn't come at a more fitting place than Watkins Glen International.
Whether it's a career-changing victory, a ground-breaking sponsorship or more personal circumstances, the 11-turn, 3.37-mile circuit is irrevocably intertwined with the Andretti Autosport driver’s life and career.
That fact was no more apparent than in 2008, when the picturesque circuit served as the stage for one of the most emotional weekends of Hunter-Reay's life.
“It was my first race after my mom gave us the news that she was diagnosed with cancer and we won (the race),” said Hunter-Reay, who is slated to become the 20th driver in Indy car history to make 200 starts in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“Obviously, it was a big weekend.”
Almost two years to the day of his 2008 win, The Glen was the venue Hunter-Reay chose to launch his Racing For Cancer charity, dedicated to building awareness about the colon cancer that took his mother, Lydia, in late 2009. The $4 million raised so far has helped fund research and patient care. (Read about Hunter-Reay’s commitment to the charity here.)
While the 2008 race at The Glen was personally emotional, it was also a turning point in his Indy car career. It marked the first weekend when IZOD joined Hunter-Reay – then driving for Rahal Letterman Racing – as a partner, something that led to a primary sponsorship on his car and later saw the clothing retailer become a title sponsor of the series.
Incredibly, Hunter-Reay's connection to the track doesn't stop there. It traces its way to 1996 when the then-15-year-old aspiring racer moved from karts to formula cars at a Skip Barber Racing School in Florida. One of the instructors — and soon to be Hunter-Reay’s mentor — was Pete Argetsinger. Pete is the son of Cameron Argetsinger, the man who convinced the community of Watkins Glen to run the first organized road race on a 6.6-mile course around the New York State village in 1948.
Later, the elder Argetsinger designed the Watkins Glen International track and became executive director of the facility. He played the lead role in bringing Formula One there in 1961, a move that made The Glen the country's home of road racing for decades.
Although Pete Argetsinger has worked with other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers, including James Hinchcliffe and Gabby Chaves, and helped others such as Juan Pablo Montoya, he quickly admitted that a special bond developed with Hunter-Reay.
Seeing him drive to the 2008 Watkins Glen victory at the track his father built is a day Pete Argetsinger won’t soon forget.
“It was wonderful to have Ryan win at Watkins Glen because it sort of brought everything full circle,” he said. “My dad was still alive then and he was pleased because he knew Ryan and I are still close.
“It's very neat that he will start his 200th race there. How cool is it that it will happen at Watkins Glen?”
Interestingly, Hunter-Reay and his wife, Beccy, went to Pete Argetsinger's house for dinner the night before the 2008 race.
“It was just beautiful to hear the all the family history there and what the town means to him and his family and then the next day we went out and won,” Hunter-Reay said.
“Winning the Cameron Argetsinger Trophy (presented to the race winner at Watkins Glen) was really special because it had that link to Pete.”
While he's pleased to be celebrating his milestone start on the weekend, getting to No. 200 wasn't always easy. Like many drivers, Hunter-Reay went through some rough periods, including spending a year in sports car racing after not being able to secure an Indy car ride in 2006.
“I remember staring at the ceiling in my mom's house with about $150 to my name and not knowing what the next turn was going to be, where I'd go and what I would do with my life, let alone my racing career,” he said.
“At the time it didn't seem that there were any doors opening despite being in Champ Car for a few years. It's been a tough road getting on to a regular Indy car career.”
The low point ended with a call from team owner Bobby Rahal, who needed a driver for the final six races of the 2007 season. Hunter-Reay stayed with the team and took rookie of the year honors at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 (when he finished sixth) before scoring the team’s first victory in four years when he took the checkers in the Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix.
Eight years later, Hunter-Reay is about to join an elite group of Indy car drivers who have started 200 races that’s headed by legends Mario Andretti (407), A.J. Foyt (369) and Al Unser Jr. (329). Fourth on the list is Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves, who is the top active driver at 325 heading into this weekend and one start ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. The only other active driver on the list is Ganassi’s Scott Dixon (268).
While Hunter-Reay, 35, still has many years ahead in the Verizon IndyCar Series, reaching the 200-start milestone is a good time to pause and look back, if only for a minute.
“Certainly when I look back at my career, I see the 2014 Indy 500 win and the come-from-behind 2012 championship run that we had winning four races,” he said. “But really, I also think about how lucky I have been to win with so may different teams along the way.
“That's made me the driver I am today. I wouldn't do it any differently if I had to do it all over again.”
Hunter-Reay will be in the No. 28 DHL Honda when practice begins today for Sunday's race. Both of today's practice sessions (11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. ET) can be seen live on NBCSN. Qualifying is Saturday (streamed live at 3 p.m. on RaceControl.IndyCar.com; delayed NBCSN telecast at 6 p.m.) and the 60-lap race is set for Sunday.