IRL: Hornish reigns supreme in superb season

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001 - Sam Hornish Jr. was "The Kid" when the 2001 Indy Racing Northern Light Series season started in March. Unbelievably, he was "The Man" when it ended in October. Hornish, driving for Pennzoil Panther Racing,...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001 - Sam Hornish Jr. was "The Kid" when the 2001 Indy Racing Northern Light Series season started in March. Unbelievably, he was "The Man" when it ended in October.

Hornish, driving for Pennzoil Panther Racing, turned in one of the most remarkable seasons in auto racing history to become at 22 the youngest Indy-style champion in history. He captured the Indy Racing Northern Light Series title by an overwhelming 105-point margin over defending champion Buddy Lazier.

And Lazier didn't yield his crown easily, winning a record four races in midseason.

Hornish was chosen to drive for Panther Racing by co-owner and team manager John Barnes - after conferring with the other owners, Gary Pedigo, Jim Harbaugh, Doug Boles, Mike Griffin and David Jemmett, crew chief Kevin Blanch and engineer Andy Brown - after a tryout of drivers in August 2000.

It would have been easy to dismiss Hornish as too young, too inexperienced. Last fall, he was only 21 and had finished 21st in the standings during his rookie season of 2000 driving for PDM Racing.

One year later, Hornish punctuated his championship season with a spectacular move coming out of the fourth turn to the checkered flag to squeeze between Robbie Buhl and Scott Sharp, winning by .0188 of a second in the Chevy 500 at Texas in the closest finish in Indy Racing League history.

In one season, Hornish blasted from the cellar to the penthouse of open-wheel racing.

Even Barnes, a 30-year veteran of the sport, was virtually at a loss of words when Hornish clinched the championship with a second-place finish Sept. 2 at the new Chicagoland Speedway. Barnes said he couldn't watch the final few laps and then was almost in a daze as his crew celebrated around him.

"Just pure elation," Barnes said in describing his feelings as he followed his team toward the award ceremony at the center of the pits.

A month later at the Indy Racing League Championship Banquet at Texas Motor Speedway, Barnes said he could only compare Hornish's success to that of Al Unser in 1970.

"We finished all but seven laps in competition," he said. "We led the most laps by probably two or three-hundred. To take Sam in only his second year, actually year-and-a-half of IRL racing, it's just been tremendous to watch him."

Barnes said Hornish was selected in the tryouts because of his demeanor and driving skills, including some of the quickest hands he's even seen by a driver.

Co-owner Pedigo added: "We knew Sam was a very talented young man, and we quite honestly thought this would be a development year for Sam to get used to us, for us to get used to him. I'll be honest and tell you, I didn't really think we would win a race."

Hornish won three, including the first two of the season at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In his rookie season of 2000, Hornish drove in eight races. He finished third at Las Vegas, a lap down, but scored only 110 points for the season. He led three times at Kentucky Speedway for 38 laps.

This season, Hornish scored a league-record 503 points in 13 races. His other numbers this year were just as staggering:

*He completed 2,643 of a possible 2,650 laps.

*He led in 11 of 13 races, best in the series. Lazier and Greg Ray were tied for second at six races each.

*He led a series-topping 765 laps. Lazier was second in that category, 328 laps behind.

*He recorded 11 top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 13 starts, both best in the series.

*He was the only driver running at the finish in all 13 events this season.

*He pocketed a series-leading $2,477,025 in total earnings.

Hornish finished sixth or better in 12 races. His only slip came in the Indianapolis 500 when he spun in Turn 4 during a restart on Lap 18. He saved the car and pitted but fell four laps behind to 29th place before resuming the race. Still, he charged back to 14th at the checkered flag,

"It's been a great season," said the always low-key Hornish, who praised his team for giving him such a phenomenal car at every race.

Hornish played a huge part in the success of the 2001 Indy Racing season. But there were others that made it a truly breakthrough year for President and CEO Tony George's league. *Buddy Lazier became the first driver to score four victories - Pikes Peak, Richmond, Nashville and Kentucky - in a season to become Indy Racing's all-time leading winner with eight. *The league raced for the first time at Homestead-Miami, Richmond, Va., Kansas City, Kan., Nashville, Tenn., St. Louis and Chicago. *Hornish, Helio Castroneves ($1,305,075), Scott Sharp ($1,234,425) and Lazier ($1,196,525) all topped the $1 million mark in winnings. *Brazilian Felipe Giaffone was the runaway Chevy Rookie of the Year Award winner as he finished sixth in points. *Eddie Cheever Jr. provided the updated Infiniti 35A engine with its first victory at Kansas Speedway. *Jaques Lazier, Buddy's younger brother, joined his Colorado-born sibling as a winner, capturing the MBNA Pole and race at Chicagoland Speedway as a late-season replacement driver for Team Menard. *Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran provided team owner Roger Penske, returning to the Indianapolis 500 field for the first time since 1994, a one-two finish at Indy. It was Penske's record 11th victory at the storied Brickyard as a car owner. *Eight different drivers won races in 2001. *On Oct. 5 at Texas, Chevrolet unveiled its 3.5-liter Chevy Indy V8 engine that will replace the Oldsmobile in 2002. During its 51-race run since the debut of the non-turbocharged engines Jan. 25, 1997, at Walt Disney World Speedway, the Oldsmobile captured every pole and 49 of the races and all five manufacturers' championships. *Indy Racing League President and CEO George and Vice President of Operations Brian Barnhart unveiled the creation of the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series as the support series for the Indy Racing League in 2002. *Toyota announced it would build a 3.5-liter engine for the 2003 season. *The 2002 schedule was increased to 15 races with the addition of Michigan Speedway, Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway and California Speedway in Fontana. *ABC and ESPN signed to continue televising races through 2007. *Firestone announced it would continue as the tire supplier through 2005.

A synopsis of the 2001 season's 13 races:

PENNZOIL COPPER WORLD INDY 200 (March 18 at Phoenix International Raceway): The season kicked off in the desert with 27 entrants, including four rookies, and car owner Rick Galles fielding three drivers, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. and newcomers Didier Andre and Casey Mears. Also, Roger Penske entered Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in preparation for Indy. Veteran Greg Ray captured the MBNA Pole with a speed of 177.663 mph, and Sam Hornish Jr. made his first appearance on the front row in second. Hornish led the first 67 laps, then slipped back only to charge by Stephan Gregoire on Lap 128 to assume the lead to the finish. Jeret Schroeder, de Ferran and Mark Dismore were involved in one accident, and Gregoire and Stan Wattles in later ones. Hornish won by 1.3786 seconds over Eliseo Salazar and averaged 125.072 mph.

INFINITI GRAND PRIX OF MIAMI presented by 123.com Americatel (April 8 at Homestead-Miami Speedway): Competing in South Florida for the first time, the Indy Racing Northern Light Series provided fans with the youngest one-two finish in the history of major-league open-wheel racing. Hornish, 21, outran Sarah Fisher, 20, to the finish by 1.8701 seconds. Fisher's second was the highest ever by a woman. Jeff Ward surprised Ray and won the MBNA Pole with a fast lap of 201.551 mph, the only qualifier to top 200. Ward led the first 13 laps, but then Hornish took over. He set the pace five times on the way to his second straight victory. He averaged 148.508 mph.

zMAX 500 (April 28 at Atlanta Motor Speedway): Ray was happy to visit Atlanta for the season's first night race. He dominated the event for the second straight year, leading 184 laps and winning by an imposing 19.857 seconds over Scott Sharp. But this race was marred by an 11-car accident on Lap 52. No driver was seriously injured. Only one caution followed that accident, and Ray assumed the lead for good on Lap 152. He averaged 133.647 mph.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 (May 27 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway): The Speedway returned to the format of two weekends of qualifying, but three days of time trials instead of the previous four. This was a homecoming event for many teams, Roger Penske brought Castroneves and de Ferran, Chip Ganassi returned with Jimmy Vasser and Tony Stewart, doing his Indy-Charlotte double-header again. Ganassi added rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian at the last moment, Michael Andretti, who had led the most laps without winning, ended his Indy hiatus with Barry Green, and Robby Gordon drove once more for A.J. Foyt. However, on qualifying day it was Sharp who blasted to the MBNA Pole with a four-lap average of 226.037 mph. Ray and Gordon joined him on the front row. Billy Boat waited through the 13 attempts before his 221.528-mph run qualified him as slowest speed in the field. Cory Witherill became the first Native American to make the race. At the start of the race, Sharp spun out in the first turn, and Gordon jumped in front. Fisher and Scott Goodyear crashed on Lap 8, Unser was caught in Hornish's spin on Lap 18 as Ray, Stewart, two-time winner Arie Luyendyk, Andretti and Mark Dismore took turns leading. Rain slowed the race on Laps 107-118, and Witherill's crash brought out the yellow on Lap 134. Castroneves moved to the front on Lap 149, sat through a red-flag race stop on Lap 155 due to rain and held off his teammate the rest of the way to win by 1.7373 seconds, averaging 141.574 mph. He then stopped his car on the main straight and scaled the fence in front of the fans, a first at Indy. Later, Castroneves drank the traditional milk in Victory Circle.

CASINO MAGIC 500 (June 9 at Texas Motor Speedway): Sharp came to Texas determined to redeem himself for his embarrassing first-lap spin at Indy. And he certainly did by winning the night race under caution. His speed average was 150.873 mph. Rookie Felipe Giaffone finished second. Sharp never led a lap until the race was more than three-quarters complete, and he was running behind Ray and Cheever as the raced moved into its final four laps. Then the flying Ray and Cheever tried to pass on either side of the slower Robby McGehee entering Turn 3. Ray's car hooked McGehee's, and they spun into Cheever. Sharp, lurking a second behind, slipped through without being tapped, and dashed on to victory.

RADISSON INDY 200 (June 17 at Pikes Peak International Raceway): Buddy Lazier, down in seventh in the standings and trailing Hornish by 67 points, knew it was time to turn up the wick at his "home" track south of Colorado Springs. Ray added another MBNA Pole to his ledger with a lap of 176.585 mph. This became a three-driver race between Ray, Lazier and Hornish. Lazier chased Hornish for 151 laps before he finally zipped past him in Turn 3 on Lap 157. Over the final 43 laps of the 1-mile oval, Lazier pulled away to a 10.1080-second advantage at the checkered flag. Hornish finished second.

SUNTRUST INDY CHALLENGE (June 30 at Richmond International Raceway): The series next moved the shortest track, ¾-mile, ever competed on by rear-engine open-wheel cars. It was a hot, muggy night in Virginia, and it was Buddy Lazier's brother, Jaques, who captured the MBNA Pole, driving for former racer Sam Schmidt, with a speed of 160.417 mph. This was a 250-lap race, and Buddy exploded into the lead on the first circuit and stayed there for the first 187 laps. Then he missed his pit on a stop and fell back as Salazar took over, with Cheever on his tail. On Lap 214, front-running Salazar and Cheever tangled between Turns 3 and 4, and Buddy Lazier shot through a hole to regain the lead for good. Lazier won by 4.8828 seconds, but he only picked up 12 points because Hornish was there again in second. Lazier averaged 97.435 mph.

AMERISTAR CASINO INDY 200 (July 8 at Kansas Speedway): Eddie Cheever Jr. and Robbie Buhl threatened to win with the new 35A Infiniti engine earlier in the season, but it didn't happen until the inaugural race at the new Kansas Speedway. Cheever ended the dry spell with a hard battle that saw eight different drivers lead the race. Sharp won the MBNA Pole with a speed of 216.175 mph and shared the front row with Cheever. Cheever led 104 laps, but this one went down to the wire. Hornish dove under Cheever in Turn 3 on Lap 191, but Cheever wasn't to be denied. He regained his momentum and spurted under Hornish in the same turn to regain the front spot on Lap 198 and hung on for the win. Hornish finished second for the third straight race. Cheever averaged 148.914 mph.

HARRAH'S INDY 200 (July 21 at Nashville Superspeedway): It was now on to Music City, and Buddy Lazier trailed Hornish by 60 points with five races to go. At another of the new facilities on the circuit, Ray quickly set the qualifying standard at 199.922 mph for his record 13th career MBNA Pole. But Ray couldn't benefit from his start, becoming part of a six-car accident on Lap 103. There were seven leaders in the race, but the battle mostly was between Hornish, Buddy Lazier and Boat. Lazier snatched the lead for good on Lap 177. Boat was second and Jaques Lazier third. Hornish placed only sixth this time and saw his lead sliced to 40 points. Buddy Lazier averaged 144.809 mph.

BELTERRA CASINO INDY 300 (Aug. 12 at Kentucky Speedway): Buddy Lazier remained the only Indy Racing League winner at this track nestled 3 miles from the Ohio River as he won the race for the second straight year. Seven and 11 are lucky numbers not only at the casino but also at the track because Lazier won from the seventh starting position in 2000 and 11th place in 2001. Sharp snatched the MBNA Pole away from Cheever with a fast lap of 214.598 mph and then Dismore made it an all-Kelley Racing front row with a 213.646 clocking. The two teammates battled nose-to-tail for 29 laps before Dismore crashed. Sharp stayed in front for the first 105 laps but then never led again on his way to a second-place finish. Lazier took the front spot for the first time on Lap 112, and then in the closing laps it turned into a dual between Lazier and Buhl before Buhl suffered mechanical failure with 2 ½ laps to go. The ever consistent and persistent Hornish motored home third and lost only eight points to Lazier, who sliced Hornish's lead to 374-349.

GATEWAY INDY 250 (Aug. 26 at Gateway International Raceway): Unser was one of the few drivers in the field with open-wheel experience at the Gateway track, located within sight of the famed Gateway Arch on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. It may have been a factor, because two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Unser ended a 16-race losing streak and scored his second Indy Racing victory. Qualifying was rained out, and Hornish started from the front due to entrant points. Hornish lapped his closest challenger in the championship, Buddy Lazier, on Lap 25 as Lazier's engine turned sour. Unser, who started eighth, challenged early and took his first lead on Lap 59. But Hornish held a 10-second lead on Unser when Donnie Beechler hit the outside wall on Lap 188. The leaders pitted, and Unser's Galles Racing crew got him out first. Dismore, who started 19th, used fuel conservation to get up to second and trailed Unser across the line by 1.834 seconds for his best finish of the season. He averaged 136.379 mph. Hornish came home third and hiked his lead over Lazier to 45 points.

DELPHI INDY 300 (Sept. 2 at Chicagoland Speedway) - Jaques Lazier didn't waste time paying dividends to car owner John Menard, who hired him to replace Ray at the previous race in St. Louis. Lazier had one of those perfect racing weekends that drivers dream about, capturing the MBNA Pole at 221.740 mph and the race before a sellout crowd at the track's inaugural Indy Racing Northern Light Series event. But Lazier shared the glory on race day because Hornish chased him across the finish line, finishing second by 1.4609 seconds and clinching the Northern Light Cup and a $1-million championship bonus. Jaques Lazier led 116 laps but still was stiffly challenged by rookie Felipe Giaffone until Giaffone's engine expired with two laps remaining. Jaques and Buddy Lazier became the first brothers to win an Indy Racing League race. At this event, Buddy finished two laps down in 11th and yielded his title to Hornish, who left for the final race with an unbeatable 66-point edge.

CHEVY 500 (Oct. 6 at Texas Motor Speedway) - The terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11 forced the delay of this season-ending race from Sept. 16 to Oct. 6. Rain forced the cancellation of MBNA Pole qualifications, placing Hornish and Buddy Lazier on the front row due to entrant points. Ray, now driving for A.J. Foyt, crashed during a race-morning practice. Foyt and his crew converted an Oldsmobile-powered car into and an Infiniti-powered car in just 3 ½ hours and had it ready for the race. A crowd of 65,000 was rewarded with one of the most fantastic finishes in American racing history. There were only two accidents and a league-record 32 lead changes between six drivers. Fans were on their feet the final 20 laps as Hornish, Sharp and Buhl battled inches apart for the lead. The trio raced out of the fourth turn with Sharp a car-length in front. He went low, Hornish downshifted to fourth gear and took the middle line, and Buhl moved high. Hornish picked up just enough horsepower to shoot the nose of his car in front of Sharp's and a car-length in front of Buhl to end an incredible season with an unbelievable victory. His margin over Sharp was .0188 of a second. Buhl was third, .0468 of a second behind Hornish in the closest finish in Indy Racing history. He averaged 168.523 mph.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Robby Gordon , Robby McGehee , Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Felipe Giaffone , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Casey Mears , Robbie Buhl , Eliseo Salazar , Buddy Lazier , Stephan Gregoire , Jeff Ward , Didier André , Scott Sharp , Arie Luyendyk , Billy Boat , Mark Dismore , Cory Witherill , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Jeret Schroeder , Jaques Lazier  , Nicolas Minassian , Donnie Beechler , Sam Schmidt , Barry Green , Tony George , Roger Penske , John Barnes , A.J. Foyt , Brian Barnhart , Sam Hornish Jr. , Al Unser
Teams Panther Racing