Whatever Sam Hornish's future plans are once he leaves Pennzoil Panther Racing at the end of the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series campaign, the 24-year-old Indy Racing League IndyCar Series driver from Defiance, OH is keeping them to himself.
Of course this news came just one day after Hornish and the Pennzoil Panther #4 Dallara/Chevrolet team performed the extraordinary feat of winning from pole position at Kentucky Speedway in the Belterra Casino Indy 300, a 200-lap contest around the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
Hornish led 181 of those laps, all but ten of them run under green flag conditions, thereby posting the fastest race in League history at 198.897mph, handily beating Alex Barron's mark set July 27th at Michigan International Speedway of 180.917mph, when Barron bested Hornish in one of the IRL's closest margins of victory, .0121 seconds.
Ah, the irony. One of the reasons Sam was able to challenge Alex in that 400-miler was the introduction of the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8, the power mill that Hornish and the Panther team had developed for Chevrolet and its partner Cosworth Racing. "The biggest benefits of the Gen IV are not just the additional horsepower, although it's a big part," Hornish acknowledged. "There is more torque to the engine and better mileage so we've got all three aspects covered.
"With the Gen III, I could pass on the short tracks, but then I'd have to pit earlier and often a yellow would come out right after that, so we were always playing catch-up. With the Gen IV, we've got all three things: we've got more horsepower, more torque and we can go farther without stopping" for methanol.
At Kentucky, where he didn't have a testing opportunity in the Gen IV, "the track changes every time. We had a good setup from 2001 that gave us a baseline. We put that on and worked mostly on our race setup. Remember," Hornish said, "We made two green flag stops and extended our lead each time."
While still 77 points behind Tony Kanaan in the chase for this year's IndyCar Series title, Hornish isn't giving up, even though he realizes that "I think we'd have to win three of the last four races to do it. We're just going to go out to win. It's all we care about right now. I'm proud to have won two championships for Pennzoil, for Panther Racing and for GM Racing [and Chevrolet]. There's the possibility we could win a third one."
Hornish beat the best home grown teams in the Indy Racing League when he joined Panther Racing in 2001; he conquered the most successful American open wheel outfit [Team Penske] last year. And now, at the close of competition at Texas Motor Speedway on October 12th, Sam Hornish Jr. is looking toward the next challenge.
Will he stay in the Indy Racing League or will he go to NASCAR's Nextel Cup next season? He's not telling but, for sure, if Hornish didn't have a plan mostly in place, it's unlikely he would have told the folks at Panther of his imminent departure.
"I've just come to the point where it was time to try something new. There are a lot of opportunities out there. Even though things are going great with Panther Racing, I need to try something different. And I want to give someone else a chance even though it's hard to leave. I've been sick about it the past week and even today. It was a tough decision," Hornish revealed, "but I have to go for it."
Hornish is 100% sure he's made the right decision, "but you don't know until you've done it." And wherever he ends up in 2004, Hornish "will make sure I have the opportunity to run the Indianapolis 500. I'm hoping to run the Indy 500 until the time I retire from racing. It's something special to have on your resume, when you consider the guys who have won this race, the Unsers, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and the rest. To put your name there is a great feeling. In fact," Hornish laughed, "my Mom was pregnant with me when she went to the 1979 Indianapolis 500 race, so it's in my genes."
There is still the likelihood Hornish might be in an IRL car next year, but he is drawn to the NASCAR stock cars. "Every form of racing has its appeal, from Formula One, Indy cars, stock cars and even drag racing. You just don't know until you try whether you'll be successful with it. I just want to go out there and see what I can do at different tracks, different things.
"It's not inevitable that I'll go to NASCAR," he said. "But there is lots of opportunity over there and there's not many racers in NASCAR who are not American. I really think that great drivers can do a good job in any series, but I think there might be more opportunity over there. For any driver," Hornish alluded, "no matter where you start, it's getting harder and harder to find good rides, even in NASCAR.
"About 50% of my fans want me to go over there and 50% want me to stay. I've talked to quite a few Cup teams and I appreciate all those people talking to me about future jobs. It's good for my self esteem," he confessed.
So now it's on to Nazareth Speedway, another one-mile oval known as a handling track. "I really feel positive about this weekend because we've been so good at the short tracks without the horsepower we have now. We had a pretty good setup last year and this is a three-day meet so that helps us out a lot. We'll see if we can get close and work from that point."
We'll learn what Sam Hornish Jr. has planned for the next few years by the end of August. "I don't know how to react to all the talk and I try to keep as many people as happy as I can. I have to keep myself happy too so I just do my best at whatever I do. I know somebody won't be happy no matter what I do, but I've got to be in a position to win the most races and titles" over the balance of his career which, he estimates, could go another 20 years.