INDIANAPOLIS – When Ryan Hunter-Reay stood in Victory Lane after a thrilling last-lap duel with Helio Castroneves, he had a hard time describing just what winning the Indianapolis 500 meant to him.
"I'm a proud American boy," Hunter-Reay said with a smile, "that's for sure."
No American had won the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
Hunter-Reay made the usual media rounds afterward. He was lauded on TV and radio, newspapers and magazines. Photos of the traditional milk dripping off his chin popped up everywhere.
Then a curious thing happened: Nothing.
The victory never seemed to capture the public's imagination the way a victory by an Andretti or Rahal would give the ailing sport a boost.
"Ryan Hunter-Reay, to me, is one of the best drivers out here, you know? But unfortunately, it hasn't really moved the needle," said Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal. "And to me, that's a problem."
Rahal has nothing against Hunter-Reay. In fact, the low-key Texan is considered one of the "good guys" in the sport, not only for what he does on the track but away from it. Ever since his mother died of cancer in 2009, he has spent much of his free time working with organizations that raise money and awareness for the global fight against the disease.
Yet as he prepares to defend his title on Sunday, he is the forgotten man. He qualified just 16th for the Indy 500, then struggled in Friday's final practice.
He did 36 laps on Carb Day and his best was 223.972 mph, better only than two of the 33 drivers who got in laps in the hour that the track was open.
"Everyone was shaking out some stuff they haven't tried," he said after his poor qualifying effort, "but I'm just worried about the race. We wanted to stay inside the top 20. We started 19th last year and that turned out OK."