INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Hunter-Reay is relieved to be back in the Indianapolis 500 but believes that the forces of social media have conspired to paint him as the bad guy of this year’s race.
Hunter-Reay was devastated to miss out on qualifying last Sunday but was handed a reprieve when his team owner Michael Andretti paid for him to take the place of Bruno Junqueira, who had achieved a qualifying position in the No.41 car of A.J. Foyt’s team.
That move has incited the fury of Indy fans so much that the popular 30-year-old driver from Dallas, Texas, now expects to be booed when he takes his place at the back of the starting grid on Sunday.
Drivers buying their way into the Indy 500 is nothing new. It's happened several times in the 100-year history of the great race, including once before to Junqueira.
But Hunter-Reay is adamant that the proliferation of websites such as Twitter and Facebook has given fans an increased platform to vent their anger.
“This is the age of social media,” he told Yahoo! Sports. “This has happened before and there was not the same kind of reaction to it. It is actually very interesting how it has all developed. I guess that kind of stuff is a total democracy; people are just going to say what they think.
“When this happened before it did not blow up like this. Now it gets everywhere and is discussed everywhere and unfortunately in this situation I am [the bad guy]. The fans are passionate about this and if we didn’t have reactions to things that are passionate and sometimes angry then I would be worried about our sport.”
Hunter-Reay was in the 33rd and last spot on the grid with just seconds to go in Sunday's qualifying when teammate Marco Andretti bumped him out of the field. It was a huge shock for Hunter-Reay, who finished sixth in his first Indy 500 in 2008 and 18th last year.
The fall guy is Junquiera, who missed out in similar circumstances in 2009 when Conquest Racing teammate Alex Tagliani took his place following a technical failure. However, this instance was even more unusual in that it involved the rival teams of IndyCar legends Andretti and Foyt.
“It is an unfortunate set of circumstances and I didn’t want it to happen this way,” Hunter-Reay said. “I don’t think anyone did. But this is a big-picture thing. Any time you get a chance you are appreciative and we are all professionals.
“This is big-time sports and I have a lot of respect for it. I feel terrible for Bruno and as drivers we have all been through highs and lows. I know how it works and so does he. It is tough to know how people feel towards me about it. My reputation is all I have. I have been racing professionally at the top level for seven years. I spent a long time trying to build integrity and humility and for people to see me in a certain way.”
Hunter-Reay even said he would support moves to eliminate the car-swap rule for future Indianapolis 500s, a proposition backed by several leading drivers including Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Paul Tracy.
“That would be totally fine by me,” Hunter-Reay said. “The rules are what they are, tell us what they are and everyone will stick by them. We are not doing anything that is outside the rules, but it is a way which of course we wish we could have avoided.”