Ryan Hunter-Reay is an unlikely race car driver. The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion is unusually tall; a slow, steady speaker; and mellow in a way that makes him seem less like he's saving up energy and more like he's about to make a pitch for transcendental meditation. He's not. He has just trained himself to be self-possessed. The driver for Andretti Autosport has an almost intellectual approach to his chosen profession; he's reined in his brain's neurotic streak by free diving to the bottom of the ocean.
Hunter-Reay, who grew up scuba diving with his father off the coast of his native Texas, has always been comfortable in the water, but only got serious about breath-hold diving when he began training off Florida with spearfisher Cameron Kirkconnell. The underwater hunter and merchant ship captain taught him to stay down longer and become more conscious of his body. And the lessons paid off. During a physical at the Indianapolis 500 this year, a doctor recorded Hunter-Reay's resting heart rate: 41 beats a minute.
"Guess I was calm that day," says Hunter-Reay, who recently won the ESPY Award for Best Driver at the 2013 ESPY Awards, is currently favored to finish near or at the top of the Indy field this season, and is bound for the Honda Indy 400 at Mid-Ohio on August 4. He says this with a bit of a smile, presumably because the only way a driver with an infant son would be calm on race day is if he knows he has an edge over his opponents.
Here's how Hunter-Reay found that edge on the seafloor.
Free diving is similar to racing in that there is a lot of equipment involved, and everything has to be used in precisely the right way. When he's diving, Hunter-Reay rocks Riffe blades, elongated fins that are at their most effective when kicked slowly and steadily. At first, Hunter-Reay tried hard to get down too fast, but he realized he was paying a price.
"Free diving is all about efficiency, which makes it just like racing," says Hunter-Reay. "If you get tense or anxious, you pay for it with oxygen, so you have to be mindful of that." The driver says it took him a while to learn how to move underwater and to arrive at thinking of air as fuel that he needed to keep in the tank. Now he does everything smoothly in order to wring the maximum mileage out of each dive.
Credit: Courtesy Ryan Hunter-Reay