HORNISH: A HERO ON FOUR WHEELS
INDIANAPOLIS, August 19, 2003
It's just two days later and I am still awestruck by the display of teamwork and driving ability put on exhibit at Kentucky Speedway Sunday, when 2001-2002 Indy Racing League champions Sam Hornish Jr. and Pennzoil Panther Racing led 181 laps, putting all but two competitors down by at least one tour of the 1.5-mile tri-oval en route to their first victory of the 2003 season in the Belterra Casino Indy 300.
This was the fastest race in Indy Racing League history and nearly bettered Jimmy Vasser's mark from Fontana last year in the CART 500-miler.
Was I surprised? Heck no. This team may have been out of the hunt for wins during the first three quarters of the IndyCar Series 16-race season, but they've been preparing for this day since Test in the West last February, when Panther Racing discovered, like every other Chevy IRL team, they had a boat anchor for an engine. Since they found out their engine maker was unprepared for competition against archrivals Toyota and Honda.
Toyota, of course, has nearly [officially] clinched the Indy Racing League's engine title, but the honors for chassis makers, entrants and drivers are still up for grabs. Both Panther Racing and Sam Hornish Jr. are fifth in their respective categories with another four races yet to run, and this group has not given up hope.
In fact they never gave up even as Honda and Toyota teams dominated the first part of the year. This group kept working on their chassis, figuring they'd have to beat 'em with finesse if their motive energy was down 50-60 horsepower to the competition. And it was.
Gathering points as they went, Hornish and the Panther crew pounced on their opportunities and clawed up the standings. It hasn't been easy, but it's been rewarding, as Hornish held the best Chevrolet record coming into the Michigan Firestone Indy 400 round and were first to compete with the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8, built by Cosworth Racing for its [aborted] entry into IRL racing.
Hornish and Panther put more than 1000 miles on the Gen IV before racing it; they were intimately familiar with the feel of the engine, its position in the Dallara chassis, the pick-up points and the harmonics. They'd developed their Dallara to its optimum during the process and, with sufficient ponies at their disposal, showed the world that they could nearly win on the first go-round for the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 at Michigan.
On their second try at Kentucky, they succeeded in such a way as to induce venom from some of their competitors who thought it was just the engine that got Panther and Hornish up front. Not so. It's been teamwork through and through and this group's great engineer Andy Brown has helped to keep the group always looking forward.
And now, forward is someplace Panther Racing is forced to look, since Sam announced on Monday, August 18th that he was moving along to "new pastures", as team co-owner Mike Griffin put it. Where he's going, Hornish won't say, but it sure looks like the open wheel world might be losing another full-time runner to NASCAR's Nextel Cup racing next season.
Enjoy him while you can. "We're going out to win them all," Hornish said of the coming four races, figuring he's got to win three simply to make up his 77-point deficit to Tony Kanaan (385-308).
While Sam doesn't have the best record at this weekend's Nazareth Speedway venue, he owns victories at Chicagoland, California Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway from the 2002 season, when he and Panther Racing vanquished the most successful team in American open wheel racing, Marlboro Team Penske.
Sam Hornish is a rare breed in the business arena in that he promised Panther Racing he'd let them know his plans by mid-August and did just that. He didn't want to leave his team of the past three seasons hanging and didn't want to "burn bridges". His words say a lot about this guy, a 24-year-old from Defiance, OH who intends to be winning races and titles for, oh, the next 20 years.
In order to appreciate this soft-spoken young man whose favorite activities outside racing are bowling and racing radio controlled cars, it's necessary to see him in action. And if your interest tends to fast, close and fair competition, please bear in mind that none other than Eddie Cheever Jr. has praised the ability of Sam Hornish Jr. to compete in the close confines of IRL battle.
Sam is one of a kind and it's my hope that we'll see his name on the Borg Warner Trophy sometime soon. Hornish has made clear that the plans he has for his future include a regular diet of Indianapolis 500 Mile races. "I don't think there's any one thing that makes me want to win at Indy, but I want to put my name there with those of Unser, Foyt, Andretti and the like. That would be a great feeling."
The final four IRL IndyCar races are set for Nazareth this weekend, Chicagoland a couple of weeks hence on September 7th, a trip to California Speedway on September 21st and the Texas Motor Speedway finale on October 12th. For poetry in motion, get an up-front look at Sam Hornish Jr. before the year is up. A "natural" like Sam doesn't come along very often.