ST. PETERSBURG — When Ryan Hunter-Reay first raced in St. Petersburg at the track's debut a decade ago, he was a 22-year-old CART rookie getting his first taste of the series' big cars and powerful engines.
"I had the big job, the new job," Hunter-Reay said. "It was kind of like living in a fairy tale world."
The Fort Lauderdale resident returns to his semi-home race for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after six months living another fairy tale as the IndyCar series champion. His comeback in last season's final two races capped a career full of hurdles for the 32-year-old American.
Hunter-Reay wrecked to a 16th-place finish in that first St. Petersburg race and lost his Champ Car World Series gig late in the 2005 season after four top-10 finishes. He couldn't find a ride in 2006, tested in NASCAR and raced only six IndyCar races in 2007.
"My career wouldn't be where it is now if I didn't feel the bottom and had that hunger, that threat of never racing again," Hunter-Reay said. "That's what really lit the flame for me and got me going back in the right direction, I think."
Hunter-Reay won his first IndyCar race the next year for Rahal Letterman Racing but bounced around in 2009. Even when he landed on one of the sport's power teams, Andretti Autosport, he was overshadowed by teammate Danica Patrick and needed a controversial deal with A.J. Foyt to make the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
He won three races in his first five years in the series and placed second at St. Petersburg in 2009 but never finished in the top six in points.
"Ryan, for me, he's always been a really unbelievable driver," KV Racing Technology driver Simona de Silvestro said. "I felt like sometimes he didn't get the chances he needed."
He finally got his chance last season.
With Patrick gone and Andretti boasting a trio of young, talented drivers, Hunter-Reay finally capitalized on his potential and strong Chevrolet engines. He placed third in the season-opening grand prix and won three straight races in the summer to seize the points lead.
After years of fighting just to find and keep a full-time ride, Hunter-Reay had to survive the pressure cooker of a championship race.
"You never prepare yourself for it until you actually do it," Hunter-Reay said.
And that nearly ended poorly, too.
Engine problems knocked him out at Mid-Ohio. He broke his wing and spun out in the next race at Sonoma, slipping to an 18th-place finish that dropped him 36 points behind Will Power with two races left.
"After Sonoma, I thought we were out of it," Hunter-Reay said.
Instead, he answered another setback with a career-defining finish.
Hunter-Reay charged on a late restart to take the checkered flag at Baltimore. And in the season finale at Fontana, he took advantage of Power's crash to finish fourth — good enough to win the title by three points and become the sport's first American champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
"He was incredible," defending St. Petersburg champion Helio Castroneves said. "Never doubt his talent. He's a guy that's always been proving everybody else wrong and able to show that he deserves to be here."
Hunter-Reay figures to be a contender again this weekend. He qualified third here last year, was the quickest driver in morning practice and second-fastest in the afternoon.
He also enters the season with the confidence only a title can bring. His car is fast. His team is strong and knows how to make it faster. His ride is finally secure.
"That had been long coming," Hunter-Reay said. "It brought me to a level I had never been."
And it brought him a new decal on his car.
No. 1 — the numeral reserved for defending series champions.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]