Sam Hornish Jr. is looking forward to this weekend's AMBER Alert Portal Indy 300 on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval. The Ohioan led his first Indy Racing League IndyCar Series laps on that track in 2000 and won there in 2003 in an attempt to...
Sam Hornish Jr. is looking forward to this weekend's AMBER Alert Portal Indy 300 on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval. The Ohioan led his first Indy Racing League IndyCar Series laps on that track in 2000 and won there in 2003 in an attempt to take a third straight IRL title.
This year Hornish is hounding points leader Dan Wheldon, lying in second place 78 points behind the Briton. After beginning the 17-race 2005 campaign with second and first-place results, Hornish succumbed to the St. Petersburg walls following a steady run from sixth on the grid. It was his first street race in over six years.
There have been some bumps through this season with three accidents in the 11 races held to date, but Hornish followed a second place run at Nashville SuperSpeedway with a win on the historic Milwaukee Mile, giving credence to his title run. He finished fifth at Michigan International Speedway the final day of July, Sam's sixth top-five result.
Hornish has always been intrigued by technical tracks like Kentucky Speedway because "it's more challenging. It's all about how well your car handles in traffic, particularly toward the end of the race.
"Kentucky is one of my favorite tracks because anything can happen there," he acknowledged. "We've had to do different things to our downforce package but the track feels pretty similar to 2004, pretty close to how it was then. It's definitely more difficult to keep your car in one place in order to make a pass with all of the bumps," but it's the same for every one of the 23 drivers entered.
If Hornish Jr. leads a lap during the Sunday 200-lap contest, it will be his 50th IRL race as a lap leader, setting yet another benchmark to go with his 14 victories and consecutive titles in 2001-2, among other stellar statistics.
Cognizant of the difficulty in making up points to Wheldon, Hornish understands there is "still a lot of racing to go. Anything can happen but you have to be very careful, particularly at the end of the races," where accidents may happen.
Because he is a technical driver on a technical track, Hornish hopes to have an advantage over his competitors. "There are some tracks toward the end of this year like that and I figure those are where I can maximize my points. We've been unable to compete on some of the bigger tracks but I hope to be there at the end of the year," his voice trails.
Many drivers testing in Kentucky last week felt the inherent bumps on the track are worse than they had been in the past year or so. Hornish, on the other hand likes the bumps at this speedway. "You have to have more control over the car; my favorite tracks are the tough ones. You have to be on top of how your car handles all race long during that event" because of the bumps.
Hornish has to contend with more of the Andretti Green Racing team than Wheldon, as both Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti are in the top five, points-wise and breathing down his neck. "One good thing is that they're willing to race each other, but on the big tracks they can gang up on me," Hornish said.
Sam and his Marlboro Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves - who had a celebrated run-in at Milwaukee where Hornish won and Castroneves retired - have "come to the point where we know we need to work together as well as race each other. I am sure he can help me with the road courses later in the year."
Hornish is pleased to see increased interest in the IndyCar Series and feels, "The more fans that are watching the better it is for all of us. That means we're going in the right direction and growing our sport."
While some of his peers might feel a bit jealous about the attention paid to rookie Danica Patrick, it's okay with Hornish. "I don't need all the attention on me and if people tune in to see how she goes in a race, it helps us all a lot."
Although his engine maker Toyota won the championship its first time out in 2003, it's widely believed to be #3 on the list of who's got the power in today's IRL competition, as both Honda and Chevrolet have eclipsed Japan's number one auto maker in terms of sheer supremacy. "Are we chasing the power curve?" he asks. "I think the strength of our team is in its ability to deliver wins this year.
"We still have work to be done and it's tough to come back from any kind of deficit" in this game, Hornish realizes. "The difference between the three engines is pretty slight. We just try and make up the deficit and keep working on the car."
The rumor mill states the League may not return to Phoenix International Raceway, the Arizona mile oval where Hornish took his first 2005 victory and that would be a big disappointment to Hornish Jr., who obviously likes small tracks. "If we can't draw people we've got to go somewhere else. It would be a decision for the sponsors, not the drivers because I think nearly all of us love the PIR track."
Hornish Jr. is looking forward to the packed house this weekend in Sparta, Kentucky. "This track always puts on a good show and people come because it's relatively close. Kentucky Speedway is pretty much two hours from everywhere."
The AMBER Alert Portal Indy 300 takes the green flags on Sunday afternoon at 3:30PM EDT and airs live on ABC-TV. It is the 12th event of 17 on the 2005 race schedule in the Indy Racing League's tenth anniversary season.