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The competition had to be trembling when the news hit the racetrack last August. The best driver was joining the best team, and that likely added up to a whole lot of trouble for everyone else.
When Sam Hornish Jr. became part of Penske Racing, the strong got stronger.
Hornish is the Northwest Ohio native who won the Indy Racing League series championship in 2001 and 2002, the only driver to win the crown twice. Born in Bryan, and a graduate of Archbold High School, Hornish still makes his home in Defiance, despite his status as one of the top open-wheel drivers in the world. The 24-year-old has the smarts and track savvy, and now Penske has made him part of the premier racing team on the circuit.
Fearless and fast have joined forces.
“I d be lying if I said it wasn t a thrill to have the opportunity to join Marlboro Team Penske, and just to be a part of the most successful open-wheel team in history,” Hornish was saying over breakfast in Toledo this week. “When you look at the accomplishments this team has had, and all of the great drivers who have worked for Penske, it has to be an honor to be included as part of the team.”
Penske Racing is owned and operated by Roger Penske, another Ohio native. It is the most decorated team in Indy-style racing history with 119 race wins. Team Penske has a record 13 wins in the Indianapolis 500, 11 season championships and 142 pole positions to its credit.
“It is a first-class operation all of the way,” Hornish said, “so it s really no surprise they have that kind of record. As far as the on-track stuff goes, things are not all that different. But Marlboro has more of a machine behind it. One of the great things about being with Penske and being with Marlboro is that everything you do is worthwhile. They make sure that things are always done properly.”
The stars appear to be aligning for Hornish on the eve of his first Indy 500 run for Penske. The normally stoic Hornish even allowed himself an emotional fist pump into the sky after he won the season-opening Toyota Indy 300.
“That was a great way to get started,” Hornish said.
In almost four decades of racing, no other Team Penske driver had been victorious in his first event with the team - and that club includes some pretty accomplished drivers - Rick Mears, Al Unser, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Hornish s current teammate, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
“It s kind of humbling to think about being part of that group - those guys are drivers I always admired,” Hornish said. “With the performances the Penske team has been able to put together in the past, and with what I ve been able to accomplish, I don t see anything but good things coming out of this.”
Penske expects the same.
“We are very pleased that Sam has chosen to become a part of Marlboro Team Penske, and I think he s a great fit for the team both on and off the track,” Penske said. “We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to hire someone with his ability, and we are confident we will achieve great success together.”
Hornish, who ran 15th at Phoenix and dropped to 19th at Motegi in Japan after an accident knocked him out of the race, said he goes into the month-long Indy 500 preparation period feeling like he will be in the best position possible to win open-wheel racing s crown jewel.
“I felt comfortable right away and everyone at Team Penske went out of their way to make that possible, and we got off to a good start,” said Hornish, who was the fastest driver on the track in the first round of open testing at Indy recently, with a top speed of 220.113 mph. “I ve learned new things and I think things are starting to mesh for us. You have got to have the right chemistry, and I just hope that we ll be able to put it all together.”
If they do put it all together, that could make things tough on the rest of the IRL. Hornish joining forces with Penske looks a lot like LeBron James signing on with the NBA champion, or Alex Rodriguez joining the Yankees - in every case, the mighty get a lot stronger.
“I guess if there is an analogy in other sports, that would be it,” Hornish said.
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