IRL: Hornish ready to pounce

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, July 22, 2003 - If there is anything Sam Hornish Jr. doesn't need, it would be luck because the 24-year-old IndyCar Series driver from Defiance, OH seems to make his own. Saddled with a boat anchor of a Chevrolet engine at the...

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, July 22, 2003 - If there is anything Sam Hornish Jr. doesn't need, it would be luck because the 24-year-old IndyCar Series driver from Defiance, OH seems to make his own.

Saddled with a boat anchor of a Chevrolet engine at the start of the 2003 Indy Racing League season that was at least 50 horsepower down from newcomers Toyota and Honda, Hornish had made the best of what he had, patiently waiting for GM Racing to come up with something better to help him gain his third consecutive IndyCar Series title.

The "something" that Hornish and the other four Chevrolet drivers have been hoping for is now on the doorstep at Panther Racing. Following three good tests of the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8, Hornish will give that new powerplant its competition debut this weekend at Michigan International Speedway (M IS), site of the final engine test last week.

It's been a long time since Sam's won an IndyCar Series race, dating back to the close of his second championship year in 2002 at Texas, and it won't come a moment too soon. Leading his - and Chevrolet's - first laps of the 2003 campaign at the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway last Saturday night, Hornish and Panther Racing showed there's more to their titles than mere speed.

All along, "We knew how important race setup has to be and we worked on that, not outright qualifying speed last week," Hornish said. "We saved our best for the race and picked our way through to the lead. Strategy put us back a bit and we didn't have another opportunity to get to the front," as he finished 11th in that race.

That's been the tale of the tape for Hornish and the balance of Chevrolet teams in 2003. After Nashville, race #9 in the 16-event hegira, Hornish holds 8th place points, 117 behind leader Tony Kanaan. "Michigan is a good place to race the Gen IV," Hornish noted. "There's not a huge amount of banking and you need a good handling car there. But to pass someone, you've got to have horsepower and the new engine has that."

Hornish is proud of the way Chevrolet has handled its motive difficulties this year. "They went out and did the best they could. They didn't take the easy way out to give us more power and I'm proud we've been there to help develop the Gen IV with Chevy [and Cosworth]."

When he first ran the engine prior to Richmond, Hornish said, "Let's put it in now; it's so much better." But reliability testing was necessary so that the quick fix would not be quickly there and quickly gone. Testing the day after the Kansas City race, "We had more wind but still ran faster." After testing at MIS, "we don't know what the pace will be, but the way it's gone so far, we have indications we can run with the leaders."

Sam Hornish hasn't lost heart during this difficult period in his IRL career. He's worked to stay focused and get points "until we had a chance to win races. We knew we could compete at some tracks more than others" in the first half of the season. "I've just plugged away this season with the equipment I've had. Griping doesn't help matters," according to Sam.

What are his expectations at Michigan? "Well, I'd like to lap the field but, being realistic, I'm hoping for a top three or maybe even a win." He doesn't know much about the engine that replaces the Gen III he's been using to date. "I knew it was pretty close to being ready when we got it but not 100%. We've just worked away at it."

Testing at MIS from eight in the morning until eight at night - a 400-mile jaunt five laps at a time - "you've got to make sure the reliability is there. You can't do a 400-mile test all at once because you have to keep checking things. The last thing we want is breakage" with a new component like this. "So we kept checking for engine shavings, looked at the oil pressure and made sure nothing went wrong." He compared it to "stop-and-go traffic, where you get hot, then cool down, then get hot again."

Others might be frustrated by changes in their professional lives such as this, but Sam Hornish says, "I only get frustrated about playing golf. I'm terrible at it. In racing I do what I need to do to keep an advantage. I can't let it get to me. I'll go bowling to let off some steam."

He's been proud to put a race car that didn't quite belong there "up front. I'm focused on the big picture. I've got a good working relationship with this team and we know how to put a car together so I can race well." The last couple of years, when he took the IndyCar Series title twice in a row, other teams thought Pennzoil Panther "had more horsepower than other Chevrolet runners. This year we've shown how good our team really is."

The dearth of power has made Hornish "a lot more patient. I can't afford mistakes. I've become a more calculated driver and that's worked for us. We'll show how good we are when the equipment comes in.. It would be nice to be winning again."

The new Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 that Hornish will use this weekend is heavier than the Gen III he's had behind him all season. "You never want weight, but the engine feels more stout. We've had a flex-y car all year and with the Gen IV, it doesn't flex as much as before. We hate being heavier but we think this will help our handling and we don't have to worry as much about ballast," he chuckled. Hornish will have three engines at his disposal: for qualifying, racing and a spare.

At age 24, Hornish has a long racing career ahead of him, and has stated he will make his decision about where to race next year - and perhaps through the balance of this decade - by the end of August. "That's not too far away." He has plenty of offers on the table and there are rumors he could be headed to stock car land with a Busch ride prior to entering the NASCAR Nextel Cup down the road.

It all depends on the opportunities presented. "I've heard them and now I have to figure out wheat I want to do. I'm looking at each opportunity and its pros and cons. I'll be looking for the best opportunity to win races. There are significant steps I can make to put myself in a good place.

"I have to look ten years down the road and think about what will make me happy then. I would prefer to stay a long time with one team, as long as it all works out for the team and sponsors, as well as for me." He's had a great relationship with Pennzoil Panther over the past three years. "The good relationships make it tough to look at other options," Hornish admits.

It's been a strange year for the Indy Racing League champion, a man who admittedly always wants to qualify and race up front. "It's been strange being at the back of the pack." Maybe, after the Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Raceway this Sunday, the 2003 IndyCar Series season won't feel so strange for Sam Hornish Jr. anymore.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Kanaan , Sam Hornish Jr. , Sam Hornis
Teams Panther Racing