IRL: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Hornish

IRL: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Hornish

What do you do when you're a mere 23 years old and you have already reached the top of your profession? Many young go-getters would consider it time to move on in search of bigger fish to fry. If, however, you happen to be Sam Hornish Jr., two...

What do you do when you're a mere 23 years old and you have already reached the top of your profession? Many young go-getters would consider it time to move on in search of bigger fish to fry. If, however, you happen to be Sam Hornish Jr., two time defending champion of the Indy Racing League, you simply stay put and let the bigger fish come to you.

Sam Hornish Jr..
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Hornish and his Panther Racing team dominated the 2001 IRL season, but very few gave them a chance to repeat their success in 2002 after it was announced that the mighty Team Penske battleship would be sailing over from CART looking to drop anchor on the all oval series. Hornish pulled off the nearly impossible, sinking Penske in thrilling fashion and legitimizing himself as a force to be reckoned with.

As the 2003 season opener at Homestead approaches, however, the IRL's unofficial poster-child once again finds himself in the unusual role of both defending champion and decided underdog against an entire fleet of former CART stars who have arrived in the series looking for greener, or at least rounder, pastures.

How does Hornish feel about the glut of newcomers who are looking to horn in on his turf? "The thing about the IRL is it is growing so that is a big positive," he said. "I always look at it from the point of view that I do not want to be a big fish in a small pond. The pond is getting bigger. Even though you won a championship or win some races it does not necessarily mean you are the big fish because there is always somebody new coming in."

What does Hornish think of his perennial role as the league's Rocky Balboa? "It is always better to be the underdog than the guy that everybody is expecting everything from in my opinion. Yes, I am being cast as an underdog, but it is going to be a long season and basically they have put me in that category by the results of our testing. If you consider an average of about seventh or eighth place in the preseason testing as an underdog then I guess that is what we are."

Lackluster preseason testing results from Phoenix, Fontana, and Homestead have most observers believing that Panther Racing is facing a steep uphill climb in their quest for a third consecutive championship title. Hornish is unfazed by the nay-sayers. "Every time we have gone out on the track we have gotten a little better. It has not really shown, but we have been mostly working on long runs and getting our car working good for the overalls, the race portion of everything.

"If we qualify eighth or ninth, that is not the biggest thing. We know that qualifying only pays $10,000 and zero points, so it is good to win the 50 points and the race instead of having to worry about being the fastest all the time. The people that we are really worried about are the people that can go out there and run 40 laps at a high speed and not just run two or three."

Rumor has it that the Pennzoil car's early lack of pace is due to the Chevrolet engine package being severely down on power compared to the Toyota and the Honda. On this issue, Hornish remains staunchly philosophical.

"I can't sit here and say that we are completely comfortable with it right now, but Chevrolet is doing everything in their power to get us a little bit more each time we go out. We see the progress. Every time we go out on the track we go up a little bit higher in the standings. We have just been kind of put behind the eight ball because Toyota and Honda weren't afraid to go ahead with their projects in the middle of the season last year while Chevrolet was still focusing on winning the championship with the IRL."

At the tender age of 23, Sam Hornish Jr. has been through the fire and knows as well as anyone what it will take to emerge as the IRL's big fish in 2003. When asked to elaborate on his strategy for the season, he sounds much more like a grizzled old veteran than a guy who has only been able to buy beer for a year and a half.

"Winning one championship is tough and two is really tough, so we imagine three is going to be really hard. But we know that if we go out there and do the same things that we have done over the past two years and be consistent, we are going to be okay. You do not have to win every race."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske