They weresmall-town boys when the dream began. As a nine-year-old in Defiance, Ohio, SamHornish Jr. blasted a go-kart around the miniature dirt track in his backyardand pretended he was outracing Indy 500 giants A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and JohnnyRutherford. Growing up in Nazareth, Pa., the grandson of racing legend MarioAndretti and the son of Indy Car champion Michael, Marco Andretti was evenyounger when the reverie first took hold. At the age of four he was playingwith Matchbox cars and already imagining himself charging to the lead at theBrickyard. "When my dad came to race [at Indy], I'd be hanging out in myroom at the hotel at the track," the 19-year-old Marco recalled lastThursday. "I could hear the cars outside while I played with my carsinside." ¬∂ On Sunday, heading into the final turn of the final lap of the90th running of the 500, Andretti and Hornish were living out their childhoodfantasies. With the sun-drenched crowd of 250,000 on its feet, Andretti--themost promising Indy driver of his generation--roared out of Turn 4 with a leadof two car lengths over Hornish. The 26-year-old Hornish, a two-time IndyRacing League champion, pushed his car to 219 mph and thought, I'm either goingto pass him or crash trying. Racing down the frontstretch in a Marlboro TeamPenske car that possessed superior aerodynamics, Hornish dove to the inside andedged past Andretti 250 yards before the finish line, winning by .0635 of asecond--the second-closest finish in Indy history.
"Oh, mygoodness! Oh, my goodness!" exclaimed Hornish's normally reserved teamowner, Roger Penske, in Victory Lane. "It's finishes like this that make mebelieve that open-wheel racing can make a comeback. What a race!"
Indeed, 10 yearsafter U.S. open-wheel racing bitterly split into two competing series--the IRLand CART (now known as Champ Car)--Sunday's electrifying finish providedanother boost to a sport that is still riding the wave of media attentionfocused on Danica Patrick since she nearly won last year's Indy 500. (Patrickran well all day Sunday and finished eighth.) The next step in winning backfans would be a merger between IRL and Champ Car. In fact, IRL chief TonyGeorge, who also owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Champ Car co-owner KevinKalkhoven have been communicating daily by telephone and e-mail since December,trying to reach a deal that would bring U.S. open-wheel racing back under oneumbrella, perhaps as soon as 2007. On Sunday the two men watched the Indy 500from George's suite above the start-finish line. "Done the right way,unification could be just what open-wheel racing needs," George said onFriday. "We could eliminate confusion among fans and have stronger cars,stronger owners and stronger drivers."
In a field thatfeatured six former winners, Hornish, who started from the pole, proved to bethe strongest driver at Indy--quite a turnaround from his previous six startsin the race.
Growing up inDefiance, 165 miles from the Brickyard, Hornish had posters of Penske, whosecars have won a record 14 Indy 500s, and driver Rick Mears, a four-time Indywinner, on his bedroom walls. But once Hornish became an IRL racer, hisfortunes at his home track did not approach his heroes'. In one start for PDMRacing and three for Panther Racing, Hornish placed no better than 14th in four500s from 2000 through '03. He signed with Penske in '04 and crashed in hisnext two trips to Indy.
This year itappeared Hornish might be snakebitten again, when, during a pit stop while therace was under caution on Lap 150, the fuel hose got stuck in his car. Therewas no damage to the vehicle, but because Hornish left his pit stall withequipment still attached to his racer, he was penalized by officials: He wouldhave to make another run down pit road once green-flag racing resumed, a 60-mphdetour that would cost him a lap. Before the drive-through, however, with thecaution still in effect, Hornish ducked back into the pits to top off with fuelwhile the rest of the field stayed out on the track. This meant that Hornish,unlike most of the lead cars, would not have to make a late-race stop for fueland would cycle back into contention.
As the final lapsunfolded, there was the familiar sight of an Andretti in the lead at Indy. Inhis 14 previous starts in the 500, Michael, who came out of a two-yearretirement for this year's race, had led a total of 426 laps and cometantalizingly close to winning a half-dozen times. On Sunday he seized the leadwith four laps to go but was quickly passed by Marco on the frontstretch. Theyoungest driver in the field, Marco brazenly blocked a surging Hornish on thepenultimate lap, nearly causing a wreck in Turn 3. But Marco simply didn't haveenough speed to prevent Hornish from passing him. "I have a lot of shotsleft," Marco said afterward, "but [I learned] from my dad's career thatyou have to take advantage of every one of them."
Two hours afterthe race Hornish rode through the infield in a golf cart on his way to areception at the Penske hospitality tent. He jumped off when he spotted Mears,and the two met in a tight embrace. "You made me really proud today,"said Mears. "That last move was as good as it gets."
"Thanks,"Hornish said, grinning at his racing idol. "I've been waiting for this fora long time."
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