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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

Hornish yet to find success at the Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS - Sam Hornish Jr. likes to joke that he made his first trip to the Indianapolis 500 before he was even born.

His mother, Jo Ellen, was eight months pregnant when she and husband Sam Sr. attended the race in 1979.

Little Sam entered the world 37 days later, after Rick Mears won his first of four Indy titles.

When he was almost 6, Hornish vaguely remembers sitting in the turn 1 grandstand at the speedway and witnessing Danny Sullivan's famous "spin-and-win."

As a 20-year-old rookie in 2000, Hornish qualified for his first Indy 500.

Since then, the Archbold High School graduate hasn't had much to celebrate at the world's most famous 2 1/2-mile oval.

Despite his dominance in the Indy Racing League - where Hornish has won two championships, a record 13 races, posted 38 top-five finishes in 72 starts and earned in excess of $8 million - the Indy 500 has been his albatross.

He has had nothing but bad luck at the Brickyard.

In five Indy starts, Hornish has finished 24th, 14th, 25th, 15th and 26th.

He blames inexperience and inferior equipment for some of his problems.

"In 2000, my first year, I didn't expect a whole lot," Hornish said.

"I wasn't with a team that was capable of winning the race. I wasn't capable of winning the race as a driver at that point. It was only my fourth IndyCar start. It wasn't really a realistic goal.

"In 2001 and 2002, those were my mistakes. I pushed the car too hard early in the race. And then in 2003, I had the engine blow up with three laps to go. It was kind of heartbreaking. I was running up front in fifth or sixth place."

Hornish signed on with Marlboro Team Penske before last season. He was hoping to become the 10th different driver to capture the sterling silver Borg-Warner Trophy for owner Roger Penske.

Hornish actually led for nine laps a year ago - the first time he has ever been in front at the Indy 500 - and he expected to fight for first to the finish.

A pit stop miscue sent him to the back of the pack, and then Greg Ray and rookie Darren Manning got together coming out of turn 4 on lap 105. Their cars collided with Hornish's, leading to another early exit.

"It's a tough race to win," Hornish said. "I mean, you look at the polls people do for the greatest race car drivers in the world. Mario Andretti is in the top three. He ran here 20-plus years, and he won it only once.

"I've won at Phoenix twice, but nobody really remembers that. The Indy 500 is the race everyone looks at. This is the one that really counts."

Hornish survived a spectacular crash here two weeks ago during a practice run, escaping with only a bruised, cut right knee after his car ran over debris from rookie Paul Dana's car, and flipped end-over-end.

Hornish will line up second today on the front row, his best Indy starting position ever.

"This year, I expect to win," he said.

Hornish, who married Crystal Liechty not far from the track six days after last year's race, isn't the first American driver to struggle on Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard.

Only four Yanks have reached victory lane since 1989, including Buddy Rice (2004), Buddy Lazier (1996), Al Unser Jr. (1994 and 1992) and Mears (1991).

The 25-year-old Hornish is well aware of what a win in the Indy 500 would mean.

It would put him among the elite.

It would help define his career.

"I'd like to win 10 of them, but you always know there's the possibility you may never win one," Hornish said.

Hornish has the charm and good looks to be America's next great hope in open-wheel racing.

He has the car to win the Indy 500.

With a little luck, this could finally be his day.



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