By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS, May 25 (Reuters) - Run on the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend in the country's heartland, the Indianapolis 500 is an iconic American event but for the last two decades has rarely produced a homegrown winner.
But the American flag was being waved loud and proud on Sunday as Ryan Hunter-Reay ended the American drought at the Brickyard by outduelling Helio Castroneves over the final lap to become the first U.S. winner since Sam Hornish in 2006.
"I'm just so proud of this race, for more than one reason," Hunter-Reay, who finished third here last year, told reporters. "I grew up as a fan of this sport first and foremost. My dad took me as a kid to some IndyCar races.
"This is the biggest one; this is the granddaddy of them all. This is where drivers were made and history is made."
While the Indy 500 is an American sporting institution the race had taken on an international flair with just two U.S. drivers reaching Victory Lane since 1998 heading into Sunday.
During that span British and Brazilian drivers had claimed the Borg Warner Trophy five times along with a Swede, Colombian and New Zealander.
But there was no mistaking who was chugging from the traditional quart of cold milk that goes to the winner on Sunday as chants of "USA USA" rang across the sprawling 2.5 oval speedway.
"Being an American boy. I think when you look at maybe the NASCAR side of it, it's all Americans. This is an international sport, open-wheel," said Hunter-Reay.
"We do battle on every different type of discipline, short ovals, street courses, the only series in the world like that."
For U.S. sport fans, Hunter-Reay's victory was more than simply a long overdue win.
It was also the type of "boy makes good" tale of perseverance, determination and hard work that Americans embrace.
Despite showing immense promise, Hunter-Reay bounced around the Indy car scene.
He began his career with Stefan Johansson Racing in 2003, the following season he raced for Keith Wiggins and then Paul Gentilozzi in 2005 before not having a seat in 2006.
After sitting out that season, Hunter-Reay found part-time employment with Rahal/Letterman Racing in 2007 and 2008 then was on the move again in 2009 driving for both A.J. Foyt and Tony George Vision Racing.
Almost out of the sport, Hunter-Reay signed a one-race deal with Andretti in 2010 and finished second in the series opener in Sao Paulo.
Three races later, still on a race-to-race arrangement, Hunter-Reay was a winner in Long Beach and landed a permanent home with the powerhouse Andretti operation.
"It's crazy. It's so long ago now," said Andretti. "When we looked at Ryan, one of the reasons we wanted to have him in our family was the series, you have to be a diverse driver, be able to race on all different types of racetracks, including here at Indianapolis.
"We knew he would fit in here. He's been everything we had ever hoped for."
Hunter-Reay rewarded Andretti's faith in him by winning the IndyCar series title in 2012 and an Indy 500 win on Sunday.
"I remember going back to 2010, having a shot at Andretti Autosports. It was a one-off deal," recalled Hunter-Reay. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I was bouncing from team to team to team. I had to make it happen in a short amount of time, pressure-packed circumstances.
"It's just a fantastic story. You can't do it alone.
"You also need people that believe in you when the days don't go right.
"That's this guy (pointing at Andretti) over here. I have him to thank for making my IndyCar career." (Editing by Frank Pingue)
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