In a sport overrun with sons and brothers of past champions, Greg Ray, a 33-year-old former businessman born of a protective, well-to-do Texas boat dealer, is far from your typical driver. "Most guys I race against have been driving since they were six, while the only racing I saw until I was into my 20s was on TV," says Ray, who on Sunday, in his third year with the IRL, won the points race on the strength of his third-place finish in the season-ending Mall.com 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. "I grew up begging for go-karts, Jet Skis, sports cars—anything fast—but my father was afraid I'd get hurt."
Like his choice of vehicles, Ray's rise to the top of the IRL was fast. After getting a degree in business finance from Texas in 1986, Ray says he spent the next nine years starting and selling "nine or 10 companies, including a remote-control miniblind business and a worldwide boat rental agency," before his mutant racer gene became dominant in 1991. "I had a midlife crisis when I was 25," says Ray, who at the time would wake up at 2 a.m. to watch ESPN's motor sports coverage or take one of his two Porsches out for a spin. With the blessing of his wife, Angela, he enrolled in a race-driving school that year. On the first day, when students were called upon to state their name and racing experience, "I stood up and said, 'My name is Greg. I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm here to get my Formula license so that I can win the Indy 500,' " he says. "All the guys just howled." Less than seven years later, during which time he climbed from the Formula Ford beginners circuit to the IRL, Ray stunned the motor-sports world by qualifying second for the 1998 Indianapolis 500. He led for 18 laps before a broken gearbox relegated him to an 18th-place finish.
As confident as Ray is in his driving ability, he has been haunted by mechanical failures. He led this year's Indy 500 with 80 laps to go, but his two-way radio went out while he was in the pits. Unable to get instructions from his crew, he left pit row a moment too soon, driving into the path of Mark Dismore, who couldn't avoid hitting Ray's car. Ray finished 21st.
Until he earns the right to swig milk in Indy's victory lane, not even his IRL championship will be enough to satisfy Ray. Although he ignores thoughts that his dangerous career might deprive his sons, Winston, 6, and Simon, 22 months, of the "perfect daddy" that he aspires to be, Ray says that "without racing, I'd be a miserable person to be around." So, adhering to a weekly training regimen that includes 50 to 70 miles of running, 70 to 150 miles of cycling and five to six hours of weight training, Ray continues to push, full throttle, toward making his Indy dream a reality. "As anyone in business will tell you," he says, "the harder you work, the luckier you get."