LONG POND — He had taken over the circuit’s points lead. He was running well. He had, he said, a real chance to win this one.
And then, without warning, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s afternoon was ruined.
Heading into the pits on lap 62 of Sunday’s Pocono IndyCar 400, Hunter-Reay was blindsided by an out-of-control Takuma Sato, smashing his right-front into the barrier near the pit entrance.
It was such a shock that Hunter-Reay didn’t even immediately react over his radio.
“Sato ran into me!” was all he could muster as his car came to a complete stop, helpless and immobile.
“Saw it with my own two eyes,” came the call back from his crew over the radio. “Couldn’t believe it.”
Hunter-Reay went from a top-five position to 20th-place finish out of 24 after missing 20 laps to fix his ride. Instead of taking over the lead in the points standings for the year — he was in first place at the time of the wreck — he finished the day in second place, 23 points behind Helio Castroneves.
It all happened so quickly.
Making his second pit stop of the 160-lap race, Hunter-Reay had plenty of space as he exited the track. But racing on a foreign track — this was the circuit’s first trip to Pocono Raceway since 1989 — has its perils. And Sato’s unfamiliarity proved costly.
Sato entered the pit carrying far too much speed, quickly closing the gap with Hunter-Reay. His attempt to slow down and regain control came too late and he careened right into the back of Hunter-Reay.
“I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a plane crash that hit me,” Hunter-Reay said after the race after getting a chance to collect himself. “I couldn’t expect that with him coming from so far back.
“I was just minding my own business and I get creamed from behind. (Sato) was nowhere even near slowing the car down. He just unplugged his brain entirely.”
For his part, Sato took full responsibility for the accident and delivered an apology during the race.
“I think I misjudged it,” Sato said. “Just going too fast and I slid into Ryan. I’m extremely sorry to Ryan, his crew, my crew and everyone. … It’s all my fault.”
Adding to Hunter-Reay’s frustration was the fact that he was optimistic about the setup he had for Sunday’s race.
“Well, we had a great car to start with,” Hunter-Reay said. “A little too much understeer, but still a great car to (challenge) for the win.”
Sato did not return to the race. Hunter-Reay got back onto the track on lap 83 and ultimately gained one spot because of it.
Every little bit will help Hunter-Reay as he tries to track down Castroneves with eight races left in the season.
That might be a bit tougher than expected, pending a trip to the doctor.
As a result of the crash, Hunter-Reay said he would need an X-ray on his thumb, which he had previously injured during a race back in April.
“I’ve been dealing with it ever since,” Hunter-Reay said. “The worst part of that is (that for the next race), we’re going on a bumpy street circuit like Toronto, and I’ll have to deal with it there.”
Despite the incident, drivers said they didn’t see any fundamental problems with the pit procedure should IndyCar return to the track in the future.
“As long as people are courteous enough and not being idiots out there,” race-winner Scott Dixon said, “it’s safe for everyone.”