The Indy 500 champion has had plenty of success on the track, but now he and wife Beccy are translating their passion for racing into promoting cancer prevention and awareness.
Racing hasn’t always been simple for IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. Though it’s easy to look at the defending Indy 500 champion now and say he makes it look simple, there was a time when he was struggling just to find a team and keep racing. But a strong will and perseverance guided him to the peak of his profession. That drive was a major factor in helping him and his wife Beccy—a former off-road racing driver, Champ Car World Series pit reporter and sister of legendary racer Robby Gordon—face a personal tragedy when Ryan’s mother, Lydia, lost her year-long battle with colon cancer in 2009.
At the time of the stage IV diagnosis, both Ryan and Beccy were overwhelmed with emotion. “I remember feeling completely helpless and a loss of control,” says Ryan, 33. “I can’t imagine what she was feeling.” But one thought plagued Ryan, who wondered if there was anything his mother could have done earlier to address one of the main symptoms she had been experiencing that might have saved her life. “
I couldn’t help but immediately think of the months of back pain she endured, and if she would have just gone to a doctor at the first signs that something wasn’t quite right,” he says. “I later asked the doctors who operated on her about this timeline, and if she could have caught it in time to beat it completely. Unfortunately, the answer was yes. If only.”
The Passion to Fight
The news, of course, was devastating to Ryan and Beccy. But losing
Lydia did sow the seeds of something important in Ryan. “Her passing was the first major motivation for me to use motorsports as a platform to promote cancer prevention, which would have saved my mother’s life,” he says.
This motivation would manifest itself in the form of Racing for Cancer, Ryan and Beccy’s charitable organization which they founded in 2010 and has since worked towards uniting motorsports fans, teams, drivers, and sponsors together to join in the fight to beat the disease. Though the charity’s stated mission is simply to “beat cancer,” Beccy says it’s a bit more personal than that. “
One of our main points of emphasis is promoting the importance seeing a doctor and getting screened early on for cancer,” says Beccy. “After what we went through with Ryan’s mother, this is very near and dear to our hearts.”
Beccy has been heavily involved with Racing for Cancer since its earliest days, when the couple first began trying to raise awareness. She distinctly remembers how difficult it was to see not only adults battling cancer, but in particular the young children with the disease. “
I remember an 8-year-old girl named Tiana who used to come to races with me and her family,” Beccy says. “Of course, cancer is awful in all forms, but seeing it in a child really hits home.”
Growing the Cause
Fortunately, as Ryan’s professional success has grown through the years, so has Racing for Cancer. The charity now hosts five “Yellow Parties” each year that coincide with IndyCar races, and the parties are geared toward raising money for the cause. They sponsor many events locally in South Florida, including an annual golf tournament and fundraisers at Miami Marlins games. The rising success of Racing for Cancer would eventually draw the interest of locally based corporate partner AutoNation, the largest automotive retailer in the United States.
As a result, the impact of Racing for Cancer has morphed from a moderate, grassroots effort to one that now has a major impact nationwide in the fight against the disease. Beccy reports that Racing for Cancer has so far raised over $1 million this year, and that doesn’t even include the matching funds pledged by AutoNation and other sponsors.
Between IndyCar races, charity events, and raising their now almost two-year-old son, Ryden, Ryan and Beccy don’t exactly have a lot of free time on their hands these days. And as Ryan’s career has taken off over the last three years, things have become continually more hectic. He is the defending Indy 500 champion, and he won the entire IndyCar Series championship in 2012.
While the sudden rise to fame has presented some unexpected life changes, the couple says they owe the family’s strength and ability to adapt to Beccy being so accustomed to the lifestyle of a racing family. Her grandfather and fathers were both racers, and her brother Robby Gordon is a celebrated former driver himself. Not to mention, “In 2006, my sister and I started our own racing team,” she says. “We’re the only women to ever finish the Baja 1000 race in Mexico.”
Aside from racing, Beccy is a former model and IndyCar pit reporter, a position that helped to bring her and Ryan together in the first place. Beccy was working as a reporter at a race in 2004 when she met the love of her life. Ten years later, their racing family is one member larger and stronger than ever before.
Fun & Fitness in Florida
While Beccy was born in California and Ryan in Texas, they now call Fort Lauderdale their home.And despite their busy schedules, the Hunter-Reays still find time to enjoy the fun and fitness opportunities that South Florida has to offer. “We are big water people,” Beccy says. “We spend a lot of our free time on our boat, and we enjoy swimming, free diving, surfing and fishing. Pretty much anything that has to do with the water!”
And if anyone doubts that racecar drivers are “real” athletes, one only has to look at Ryan’s fitness regimen and physical preparation for his races to know this is not true.
Ryan has studied the physical demands of racing an IndyCar in-depth. He’s worn a heart rate monitor during a race and found that he reached a sustained heart rate of 175 beats per minute. He says that during hotter races, he can lose up to 8 pounds of water weight since IndyCars have no power steering and generate a sustained force of 4G (g-forces) while rounding a corner—leaving drivers unable to breathe while making a turn. “There are times in a race where you almost can’t breathe for an entire lap, so good cardiovascular health is so important. I don’t think most people realize this about racecar drivers,” says Beccy.
To prepare for the season, Ryan focuses his cardio workouts on lots of running and swimming, and a strong core is crucial in helping him deal with g-forces. Also essential is building up strength in his neck and shoulders. “One of the toughest parts of competing in an IndyCar race can be keeping your head upright while battling the cornering forces,” he says.
The Hunter-Reays are big fans of other sports, as well. When they’re not working or enjoying time out on the water, you might catch them at a local Dolphins or Heat game. They also enjoy playing at home with their two golden retrievers, Captain and Charlie.
As for son Ryden, Beccy and Ryan also get plenty of exercise from chasing the adorable toddler around. Though born prematurely at Broward Health Medical Center’s Maternity Place in 2012, Ryden now has enough energy to wear out the whole family all by himself.
Considering his lineage, you might expect that Ryden is in line to become the next great racing member of the family. Not if Beccy can help it: “I hope he’s a golfer,” she laughs. “That’s a much safer profession to go into!”
Signs and Symptoms: Colon Cancer
Ryan Hunter-Reay’s mother, Lydia, suffered severe back pain leading up to her diagnosis. While frequent screenings and early detection are crucial, these common symptoms may be reason to call your Doctor, especially if you are over 50 or have a personal or family history of the disease:
- Changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation,
- or narrowing of the stool that lasts more than a few days
- Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool
- Cramping or gnawing stomach pain
- Decreased appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement
- that is not relieved by doing so
-Courtesy of BrowardHealth.org