Thrilling Indy 500 finish might raise IndyCar’s profile

It was a good combination for the IndyCar series last weekend.

It produced the second-closest Indianapolis 500 finish and got an American into Victory Lane.

For a racing league looking for visibility and identity, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win by six-hundredths of a second in a race featuring daring passes between him and three-time champ Helio Castroneves was a gift.

It highlighted the closeness of the competition, the international array of competitors and the history of the world’s most famous race.

But as the series gets ready to come to Fort Worth on June 7 for the Firestone 600, it’s still possible that the league has more work to do to promote itself and what it wants to stand for — an American series with top drivers from around the world competing on all types of tracks.

“It’s still the biggest race,” Hunter-Reay said of the Indy 500, which the 33-year-old Dallas-born driver won last week for the first time. “But from a driving perspective, there’s a certain feeling you get from winning the series championship because you know you’ve won the only series in the world that races on road circuits, street circuits, ovals, superspeedways, short ovals — it’s the only series that does every discipline like that, on pavement.

“Among your peers, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes with that.”

Hunter-Reay did his part to be the ambassador of the series last week. The series sent him to the Late Show with David Letterman and other stops in New York and then Fort Worth, where he had lunch with fans at Joe T. Garcia’s.

It was a chance to put a face with a name, because the name isn’t household.

“I think he’s a great guy. I think he’s a great ambassador for the series,” former Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya said. “I’m happy for him. He’s going to carry that IndyCar flag pretty high, and that’s what we need.”

American open-wheel racing is still recovering from the split that sent some of its best drivers overseas to Formula One and left others to compete in the IndyCar series. The sport has come back together, with traditional names such as Andretti, Castroneves and Rahal. Montoya is back from seven years in NASCAR. Even Jacques Villeneuve returned to compete in the 500 this year.

But the reputation the race used to have as drawing the world’s best for a month in Indianapolis every year slipped. And lost with it perhaps was the chance to see how competitive IndyCar races can be, particularly at Texas Motor Speedway.

Perhaps until last Sunday, when Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged their shootout, with Marco Andretti close behind in striking distance, and NASCAR’s Kurt Busch staging a widely admired sixth-place finish.

“You look at the numbers this year. Every race has been up,” said Montoya, the Indy champion in 2000 who finished fifth. “We’re definitely on the rise. There’s a lot of really good news coming out of the series. I think next year with the new aero package, the cars are going to be a lot sexier. They’re going to be way faster.”

By then, maybe Hunter-Reay will be on his second series championship. He won the title in 2012, but did anyone know?

“You hope that an American driver does kind of capture that interest,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said of Hunter-Reay’s victory. “The entire race, I thought, was excellent. The finish was just superb. You talk about the second closest in the 100-year history of the race. That’s pretty high marks. So, yeah, you hope that it shows that this is great racing, as good as it gets; maybe the best in the country. So why wouldn’t it excite people?”

It was Hunter-Reay’s job last week to get that word out, that IndyCar racing is good racing.

“It’s great to have an American in Victory Lane, but it’s about the whole package,” Hunter-Reay said. “The thing that really gets me about IndyCar racing is, it’s the best racing in the world. Everybody says it. The other sports say it. I mean, I got a text from Jimmie Johnson saying that race was absolutely insane, that he was on the edge of his seat. And I’ve heard F1 guys say that the IndyCar racing is definitely the best. Some media outlets call it the best-kept secret in motorsports, and that’s a shame.”

“I think it’s on the right direction right now. Great time to be an IndyCar driver. We’re all flying the flag.”

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