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INDIANAPOLIS - When Rick Mears was on the race track, he might not have been in the lead, but he was always up near the front, and won plenty. He was a mild-mannered strategist who spoke with his foot on the gas and his hands on the steering wheel, and was always in the race.
Mears, who retired as a driver in 1992, is now a consultant for Marlboro Team Penske, and one of the drivers he coaches and counsels is Sam Hornish Jr., the Ohio native who many people feel is a lot like Mears, on and off the track.
Hornish, the 24-year-old two-time Indy Racing League Series Champion, joined Team Penske this season and won the first race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway. No one, including Mears, was surprised.
“When I found out Sam was coming over to this team it was exciting, because I know how talented he is,” said Mears, a four-time winner of the Indy 500. “I see how dedicated he is, and I like that - I hope that is how people viewed me.”
Mears said it takes some time to really get to know the quiet and reserved Hornish, but he made it a point early-on to give Hornish a piece of advice.
“The whole thing about bringing Sam here, about bringing someone with his kind of talent to this team, is that you don t want him to come in thinking he has to change,” Mears said. “I told him to not do anything differently - we brought you to this team because we liked what you do - don t change it.”
Hornish qualified 11th - in the middle of Row 4 - for tomorrow s Indianapolis 500. He is both flattered and humbled by the comparisons to Mears, who ran the Indy 500 15 times, and was in the top five nine times.
“I don t know if there s anybody else in the world that I d like to be compared to more than Rick Mears,” Hornish said. “It s a pretty good feeling to even have him say it. It s gotten to the point where enough people have said it, that I hoped it would not upset him. But comparing me to him - that s one of the coolest things anybody could ever say about me. It never gets old.”
Mears said he sees the same contradiction in Hornish that he lived with for many years - the mild-mannered persona off the track, and the ultra-competitive posture on the track.
“He is not reserved in the way he attacks the race track - not at all,” Mears said. “He s very aggressive - the way I was - but in a sensible and calculating kind of way. He sees opportunities and he takes advantage of them. I was pretty mild-mannered off the track, too, but when I got into a car, I would be pretty aggressive. It s legal out there on the track.”
Mears said he has seen a lot of young drivers move into the open-wheel scene, but not many with the kind of overall talent Hornish possesses.
“I think one of the first things that really jumped out at me was that Sam has a good understanding of the big picture,” Mears said. “He realizes the race isn t won on the first lap. You ve got to position yourself to be in the right spot at the right time at the end of the race to lead the last lap, that s the most important one.
“He just has a very good understanding of the big picture when the race is going on, and that is something you can t really teach someone.”
Mears, who won the pole here at Indy a record six times, said Hornish uses a modified aggression for the early part of the race, just as he did.
“After being around him some and getting to know him, there are a lot more similarities than I realized,” Mears said. “Our job is to give him the right horse so he can get the job done. He doesn t have any trouble going fast, if we can give him the right car.”
Mears shares the feeling of many people in the open-wheel ranks - that when Hornish signed with Penske, the best team got the best driver.
“When I was successful, I was with the right team, had the right equipment, had the tools to be able to do the job,” Mears said. “Sam is in a very good position now.”
Mears said the team s relationship with Hornish is still in its developmental stages, but that the mutual admiration and respect has advanced beyond that.
“Oh, it s an honor for me to be compared to him,” Mears said. “He s accomplished quite a bit already in his short career. I didn t really look at it that much when people first started comparing us. But now, being around him some and getting to know him, there are a lot more similarities than I realized. He doesn t talk much, the same way I was, and he lets his right foot do the talking.”
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