INDIANAPOLIS, March 2, 2004 So often we are told this or that driver is the "real deal" that it becomes more and more difficult to discern who actually is an outstanding shoe.
After spending the past year following the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series, I've come to the conclusion that Sam Hornish Jr. could be the best open-wheel oval racer I've ever seen. He reinforced that belief again last Sunday by winning the Toyota Indy 300 in his first drive of Marlboro Team Penske's #6 Dallara/Toyota.
Just about the only things familiar to the 24-year-old Ohioan when he arrived at Team Penske were the chassis and Firestone Firehawk tires. He was new to the large Penske operation, to Toyota's engines, and to having a teammate.
Hornish had worked solo over his past three-plus seasons of IndyCar Series competition, beginning with PDM Racing and moving along to double-dip championships at Pennzoil Panther Racing. Now Sam is living his childhood dream of competing with the winningest Indy car team owner, the incomparable Roger Penske and his Reading, PA-based team.
Sam's looked a bit perky of late, which could be traced to his new and good fortune. And then there's his partnership with Helio Castroneves, who pretty much personifies the word perky, doesn't he?
But Castroneves appeared a bit peeved after Sunday's race and his second-place finish to Hornish, the tenth-closest margin of victory in League history at .0698 seconds. To this duo, though, that's fairly normal stuff as Hornish and Castroneves have been part of the closest battles in the IRL's short history.
But suddenly Sam is on top of the game. He's said all along the primary reason he joined Marlboro Team Penske is to achieve the victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that's eluded him thus far in a stellar career.
Hornish needs an Indianapolis 500 Mile Race win on his resume like most of us need coffee in the morning. This is the end-all; this is the be-all for Sam Hornish Jr., and another championship earned with Team Penske, while it would be a nice asset, isn't the carrot he's chasing right now.
The focus is on the month of May and, when Sam Hornish Jr. is that focused, it's bad news for anyone else in the IRL's premier series.
Another real deal IRL driver is Dan Wheldon, the Briton starting his second full season of IndyCar Series competition this year. After taking the IRL's Bombardier Rookie of the Year award for his ever-improving year behind the wheel of Andretti Green Racing's #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda, Wheldon opened his sophomore campaign with that team by taking the final step on Sunday's podium.
If anyone thought this 25-year-old Briton was the caboose on a four-car Super Team that also boasts Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta in the driver's seats, Wheldon broke out at Homestead-Miami after performing well in both open test tune-ups.
Wheldon now has experience at every single track the Indy Racing League visits over a 16-race season, and continuity on his side of the Andretti Green Racing garage. That's more than you can say for Franchitti, who missed most of last year with a back injury. And Wheldon, who looked pretty impulsive at Indy last May could be among those on a short list to take victory at the Brickyard this year.
Maturity becomes this British transplant who has been getting teased mercilessly by his teammates at AGR, due to a propensity for neatness, a love of fine clothing and other foppish tendencies, they all say of him. Even team owner Michael Andretti gets into the "bash Danny" act.
Wheldon is now strong enough to take their barbs and to perform on-circuit in a manner that could elevate him to the top of the heap at AGR.
If you're wondering about a new Menards Infiniti Pro Series driver named Phil Giebler who visited Victory Lane in his first race on an oval track, sit up and take notice of this guy, who returned to the United States after several years trying to break into European style motorsports.
Giebler's last stand overseas was in the FIA Formula 3000 series, an acknowledged step on the way to Formula One. He drove there for David Sears, an accomplished team owner/manager who has launched many a fine career.
But Phil Giebler, a native Californian who showed well over in the European arena finally figured it would be wise to return to the USA and see if he could make his way to the top here.
During the Menards Infiniti Pro Series open test at Phoenix International Raceway, one of the fastest and trickiest mile ovals in the world, Giebler kept his nose clean while testing for Keith Duesenberg's Western Union Speed Team and got the call to race about a week before the season opened last weekend.
He'd never seen an oval before, certainly never raced on one, but despite having to get a bump start to begin the 67-lap, 100-mile Sunday morning race, Phil never lost his cool. When he asked his team the right time to make a move on leader Thiago Medeiros (who finished second at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year), the crew advised him to just do it.
Which of course Giebler did.
Then Phil watched the Toyota Indy 300 IndyCar Series race. He learned a lot about patience, persistence and having a cool head. He learned from Dan Wheldon and he learned from Sam Hornish Jr., Phil Giebler clarified. And that explains a lot about drivers who are the "real deal".