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.
Learning to Breathe
Hunter-Reay takes breaths seriously. Free diving has taught him how to fill not only his lungs, but also his throat and mouth with oxygen in order to maximize his time underwater. He has learned to expand his inhalations by trying to let air into his gut in the manner of an opera singer. And, yes, he's quick to point out, this makes a difference on the track. "In racing, you end up feeling up to 4 g's in the corners," he explains. "When your chest is under that pressure, you can't breathe. Not a big deal at Indy, but it can become an issue when you have a road course with a bunch of corners in succession." Hunter-Reay is known for winning on street courses.
Credit: Jeffrey L. Rotman / Getty Images