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500 to One Heartland hero Sam Hornish is the odds-on favorite at the Brickyard

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

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May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs

500 to One Heartland hero Sam Hornish is the odds-on favorite at the Brickyard

With every click of the odometer, the cornfields flow by, one
after the next, until the motor home rolls into Napoleon, Ohio
(pop. 9,318), on a sparkling spring evening. Over the past two
days this 45-foot-long, 13-foot-high mansion on wheels has been
ferrying the most important American open-wheel driver of the
past decade across the Ohio countryside, making pit stops every
few hours so that he can meet with reporters and TV crews. But
now Sam Hornish Jr. has returned to the place he calls home, and
he's heading to Spengler's, a burger joint where everybody knows
his name.

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

Walking past a photograph of himself on the wall, Hornish sits
down at the table where his parents and fiancee have been
patiently waiting for him. A waitress wearing a T-shirt that
reads talk nerdy to me approaches. "I just have to say that I'm a
huge fan," she gushes. "I just know you're going to win the big
race," and in an instant every patron is bug-eyed and staring at
the 24-year-old driver. Hornish, a two-time Indy Racing League
season champion, won't turn many heads in New York City or Los
Angeles, but he radiates star power in the heart of open-wheel
country. To hear the locals tell it--many of whom will be among
the half-million people in the Brickyard on Sunday for the 88th
running of the Indianapolis 500--Hornish isn't merely a
small-town icon, he's a savior, the one man who can revitalize
open-wheel racing. "It's so important for us to have homegrown
talents," says IRL president Tony George. "Foreign players in
baseball have been accepted, and I'd like to think that foreign
drivers would also be accepted. But clearly Sam is someone our
fans really identify with."

Last summer Hornish, whose 12 victories are the most by any
driver since the IRL was formed in 1996, was one of the most
coveted men in motor sports. After winning the Belterra Casino
Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 17, he announced that he
wouldn't be returning to Panther Racing once his contract expired
at the end of the 2003 season. Over the next few weeks he
received more than a dozen offers to drive for teams in the IRL,
CART and NASCAR. One of the most intriguing overtures came from
NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Ty Norris, at the time the
executive vice president of DEI, invited Hornish to become the
third driver for DEI, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael
Waltrip.

To understand why Hornish turned down DEI, you need to travel to
his family home in Defiance, Ohio. The Hornish clan first planted
roots in the area in 1836, and for the past six years Sam, even
though he's become a millionaire, has paid his parents $400 a
month in rent to live in a two-bedroom apartment above their
garage. (A week after the 500 he plans to marry Crystal Liechty,
and the two will move into a house they are building in nearby
Napoleon.) Like everyone in his family, Hornish is as small-town
as a Norman Rockwell print, and he's loath to cut his tether to
home. "This is who I am," says Hornish, standing on his parents'
40-acre property just outside of Defiance. "Everything I want is
right here."

Had Hornish accepted DEI's offer, he'd have been dragged from
Defiance, because almost every NASCAR driver lives within 30
miles of Charlotte, the hub of the sport. Also, NASCAR doesn't
offer what Hornish craves most: the Borg-Warner trophy that goes
to the Indy 500 winner. So when Roger Penske told Hornish last
summer that he could take the seat of the retiring Gil de Ferran
at Marlboro Team Penske for the 2004 season, Hornish seized the
opportunity. "I've wanted to drive for Roger Penske ever since I
was little," says Hornish, who signed a multiyear contract with
Penske, whose cars have won 13 Indy 500s and 120 races overall in
33 seasons. "Maybe someday I'll look into NASCAR, but now I want
to make the IRL more popular."

That won't be easy. Ever since open-wheel racing split into two
feuding bodies in 1996--CART and the IRL--the sport has sputtered
and, subsequently, hemorrhaged fans. But the battle between CART
and IRL is finally over. In January, CART, which filed for
bankruptcy last December, was purchased by the Open Wheel Racing
Series, yet few observers expect OWRS to survive, and most
believe the sport will soon be under one umbrella. "That's the
first step in growing our series," says Penske. "Now we need our
drivers to become well-known personalities. That's where Sam
comes in."

Of the IRL's top drivers--Hornish; his Penske teammate Helio
Castroneves of Brazil, winner of the 500 in 2001 and 2002;
reigning IRL champ Scott Dixon of New Zealand; Tony Kanaan of
Brazil; and Tomas Scheckter of South Africa--Hornish is the only
American, and the IRL is promoting him as their star-spangled
poster boy. "Sam is the one driver in our series fans can really
latch on to," says Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "He's
an all-American type of guy."

Hornish has been attending races at the Brickyard for longer than
he can remember. Jo Ellen Hornish was eight months pregnant with
Sam when she sat in the stands for the 1980 500. Midway through
the race her unborn son started kicking ferociously. "I thought
his foot was going to come through my stomach," says Jo Ellen. "I
didn't know if he liked racing or if it made him agitated. But it
didn't take long to find out."

When Sam was eight years old, he persuaded his father to build a
small oval dirt track with banked turns near their house. Over
the next three summers little Sam could usually be found kicking
up dust as he zoomed around the oval at 35 mph in a go-kart his
dad bought for him.

By age 12 Hornish was racing go-karts all around the Midwest and
Southeast. At the World Karting Association Nationals in
Charlotte in 1992, Hornish and then-12-year-old Sarah Fisher were
dueling for the win on the last lap. When Fisher--who is starting
in row 7 in Sunday's 500--went for the pass, Hornish bumped her
off the track and won the race. Afterward Fisher, who at the time
was bigger than Hornish, threatened to beat him up. "I got in the
little jerk's face," recalls Fisher, "and we haven't really
talked since. I'll say this: Sam will do whatever it takes to
win."

"Sam is a lot like me," says retired four-time Indy 500 champ
Rick Mears. "Some guys go as fast as they can all the time. Sam
has discipline. He understands that the most important lap is the
last one."

In his free time Hornish, like any good ol' American race driver,
likes to hunt--for morel mushrooms, a rare delicacy that grows in
the area. On a recent evening in Napoleon, just as the last blush
of sunlight faded from the Ohio sky, Hornish tramped the woods
searching for morels. "I can't be any further away from racing
than I am right now," said Hornish, "but the Indy 500 is always
on my mind. I've raced in the 500 four times, and my best finish
is 14th. I've struggled. But I've imagined winning there all my
life. It would be so ... so ...."

Hornish couldn't say what it would be like to stand in Victory
Lane. On Sunday, though, he just might find out.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hornish was wooed hard by NASCAR last year but signed with Penske's Marlboro team.COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES (CAR) Hornish was wooed hard by NASCAR last year but signed with Penske's Marlboro team.COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SPURLOCK/WIREIMAGE.COM (KANAAN) Kanaan is hot this season, and it's not just because of his fire suit.

A CHECKERED PAST ... AND FUTURE

SI predicts that when the checkered flag waves on the 88th Indy
500, an American will be in front for the first time since Eddie
Cheever Jr. won the race in 1998. Here's how they'll finish on
Sunday at the Brickyard:

1. SAM HORNISH JR., Marlboro Team Penske A Roger Penske car has
won the last three Indy 500s.

2. TONY KANAAN, Team 7-Eleven In three races this season Kanaan,
a Brazil native, has a win and a second-place finish.

3. HELIO CASTRONEVES, Marlboro Team Penske The fence-climbing
Brazilian won the 500 in 2001 and '02; if he takes the checkered
flag this year, he would become the sixth driver to win three
Indys.

4. SCOTT DIXON, Target Chip Ganassi Racing The 2003 IRL season
champ will be looking for a bit of redemption this year after he
was knocked out of last year's race by an embarrassing crash
during a caution.

5. DAN WHELDON, Andretti Green Racing The current IRL
season-points leader could become the first Englishman to win the
500 since Graham Hill won it in 1966. --L.A.