2014 Indianapolis 500 weekend recap: Red, white and blue victory for Ryan Hunter-Reay

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, something that has become a rarity for American drivers in recent years.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Both overwhelming and compelling, the evidence is everywhere.

Within the vast infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway an abundance of American flags are displayed proudly. The majority of those in attendance are adorned in red, white and blue paraphernalia of some sort. And most obvious, is that the weekend is designated to honor those who have served complete with the traditional pre-race rendition of Taps.

"My dream has come true today and I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure. I'm thrilled. This is an American tradition."-Ryan Hunter-Reay

Everything combined gives the impression that the Indianapolis 500 is the very essence of Americana. Just maybe the most patriotic event there is.

But while the Indy 500 may be an American institution, what it is not is an exclusive domain to those born within its borders. American drivers haven't fared well in the race, having won just four of the 19 Indy 500s prior to this year's edition.

Which is why Ryan Hunter-Reay's win was so significant Sunday.

"My dream has come true today and I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure," Hunter-Reay said." "I'm thrilled. This is an American tradition."

Though born in Texas, Hunter-Reay considers himself a native Floridian, and is the embodiment of the kind of driver who used to regularly find success on the hallowed track with a lineage dating back to 1909.

However, this was before a devastating civil war fractured open-wheel racing in the United States, creating a mass exodus of drivers who sought refuge in NASCAR, which offered security, opportunity and the potential of great wealth (The American Dream in driver's parlance).

First Jeff Gordon, next Tony Stewart. Then the floodgates really opened with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson among the many veering from the path that used to lead to Indianapolis and instead finding a safe haven in tin-top, full-fendered stock cars.

Even as the Indy car world united under the Verizon IndyCar Series banner it didn't prevent a deluge of talent from fleeing. The most recent escapees: Danica Patrick, who once galvanized open-wheel racing, and 21-year-old Kyle Larson, who has all the makings of NASCAR's next great superstar.

Accordingly, television ratings, attendance and overall interest in Indy car-style racing waned substantially.

Through it all Hunter-Reay resisted overtures to jump ship. He was an open-wheel driver at his core who wanted nothing more than to win the Indy 500.

Yet competitive IndyCar rides are lacking, with the best seats often going to those who could cut the biggest check. And that wasn't necessarily Hunter-Reay.

Eventually, demonstrating much the same resiliency and moxie he used in winning Sunday, Hunter-Reay landed a spot at Andretti Autosport -- the powerhouse team owned by Michael Andretti, perhaps the last great open-wheel driver who resonated with the American public.

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Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mario Andretti celebrate (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

An IndyCar championship soon followed in 2012, but that Indy 500 victory proved elusive.

Until Sunday, when in a spectacular back-and-forth engagement with three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves, Hunter-Reay prevailed.

"I'm just so proud of this race," Hunter-Reay said. "I grew up as a fan of this sport first and foremost. My dad took me as a kid to some IndyCar races. I was just fascinated, especially with this race. This is the biggest one. This is the granddaddy of them all. This is where drivers were made and history is made."

The reaction was as expected. With Hunter-Reay sitting in an enclosed room in the midst of his post-race winners press conference a contingent of fans gathered outside chanting "USA!, USA!, USA!"

The meaning of an American driver winning wasn't lost on Castroneves.

"It's great because for several years the series was a foreigner up front," said the Brazilian. "It's great to see American drivers succeed. IndyCar Series is showing it's the right way to go, as well."

Castroneves wasn't paying lip service. He recognizes that the Indy 500 -- and by association IndyCar as a whole -- is at its pinnacle when it blends together a diverse group of drivers from around the globe, specifically American. Just as it did in the 1980s and early 1990s when open-wheel was -- gasp -- more popular than NASCAR.

"Being an American boy, I think when you look at maybe the NASCAR side of it, it's all Americans," Hunter-Reay said. "This is an international sport, open-wheel. We do battle on every different type of discipline, short ovals and street courses. The only series in the world like that. The Verizon IndyCar Series is a true driver's championship."

That pendulum had swung too far in one direction. On Sunday Hunter-Reay pushed it back towards its proper place: the middle.

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