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Published: 5/29/2004

Area man enjoys changing Hornish s tires

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose. His glasses kept steaming up. His knee pads needed continual adjustments, and he winced from time to time, some body parts not always ready to meet unconventional demands.

But Gary Prall, performing maybe the most demanding of tasks, loved every minute of it.

“The Captain” stood on top of the team s scoring stand on the other side of the pit wall, presiding over his troops with no trace of remorse, no intention of terminating the proceedings under the hot sun and high humidity Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Gary Prall couldn t have cared less about the weather.

Toiling for “The Captain,” more conventionally known as Roger Penske, is the dream of most young auto racing enthusiasts with mechanical abilities. Prall, a northwest Ohio native, feels he s in the wonderland of wrenching as the right-rear wheel-changer for driver Sam Hornish, who lives in Defiance. They ll be together tomorrow for the Indianapolis 500, for which Hornish qualified 11th.

The pit-stop practice was the crew s 50th of the afternoon, according to Prall, a 6-3, 220-pounder. They were the only team on pit road being put through the paces, which included the changing of nose cones and rear spoilers.

“I love everything about this,” said the 29-year-old Prall, wiping away the sweat. “We re the only ones out here and we feel that gives us an edge over everyone else. It s great coming to the track with everyone knowing we re the team to beat.

“You ve got to be prepared. We broke a wing at Phoenix [in March] when Sam was involved in a crash and we didn t get it fixed properly. If it happens now, we ll be ready and we can fix it and stay on the lead lap.

Prall, who once dated Indy-car driver Sarah Fisher, is from Swanton, but moved with his family to Whitehouse, then to New Hampshire before his family returned to Whitehouse about 10 years ago. He now lives in Reading, Pa., where Penske s race shop is located.

“Gary told us when he started that this is all he wanted to do, said his mother, Sue, outside the Penske garages in Gasoline Alley. “He played basketball, baseball and hockey, but all he could think about was auto racing.”

Prall started his auto racing career working in Bob Cicora s garage in Swanton at the age of 9, but it was really Byron Reed, a sprint car driver from Monclova, who taught Prall what going fast was all about.

Prall worked for Indy Lights driver Jonny Kane in 2000, then joined the Penske team in 2001, working on the car of Gil de Ferran, who won last year s Indy 500 and then retired. That was also the year that Prall tore cartilage and ligaments in his right knee, so his duties as a wheel-changer were on hold while he did less strenuous tasks during his rehabilitation.

“Gary has really stepped up,” Penske said. “He s doing a heck of a job for us.”

Although Prall and Hornish are both northwest Ohio natives, they had not come in contact with each other until each joined the Marlboro Penske team. Hornish is in his first year with Penske.

“I knew of Sam and we watched him a lot last year because he was always passing us,” Prall said.

“He was always the main guy to beat. There s nothing not to like about him. He wants to win as badly as everyone on the team.

Prall said that in talking with Hornish, they often discover that they know some of the same people from northwest Ohio.

Prall and Hornish have also bowled together, along with some other teammates. Hornish said he carries a 170 average. That average speed tomorrow would probably put Hornish in the Indy 500 winner s circle, assuming Prall and his pals make everything roll in pit lane.



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