Sam Hornish Jr. peels out of the pits during a practice session at Michigan International Speedway on Friday.
Morrison / Blade photo Enlarge
BROOKLYN, Mich. Nearly 50 kids in Go-Karts cluttered the street in Barrie, Ont. 10 summers ago, and their anxiousness to race created a cloud of dust and exhaust in the clear Canadian air.
Sam Hornish Jr. was just part of that big pack until the race started.
Hornish had arrived a little late, borrowed a motor from a friend from Ohio, and had time for just one practice lap around the course. He put his kart on the pole, and won all three heats.
It was all new to Sam, but he got set up, and then he dominated it, Gerald Whaling recalled. Whaling, who owns a kart shop in Springboro, had loaned Hornish the motor for the race. Then he did the same thing the next day. He was just 15, but it was clear back then that Sam never settled for second place.
Hornish, the Ohio native who was the 2001 and 2002 IndyCar Series champion, stirred up the dirt tracks and asphalt layouts before moving into the international spotlight at the top level of open-wheel racing. Whaling said the signs were there a decade ago.
In this sport, some people have the ability right there from the start, while others have to really work at it, Whaling said. With a Jeff Gordon, a Tony Stewart or a Sam Hornish Jr., you can just see it in their eyes. There is just something about them. The only thing that can hold them back is if they can t afford to stay in it, and Sam s family found a way to keep him in it long enough to get noticed by the right people. The right people eventually found him.
SAM AND BIG SAM
Hornish, who starts fourth in today s Michigan 400 IndyCar race at Michigan International Speedway, is racing for Marlboro Team Penske, arguably the top team in the sport. He won the first race of the season at Homestead this year, and with 12 wins in his career, Hornish has the most victories of any driver in the brief history of the Indy Racing League.
He knows how far he has come from the dirt track at Cridersville, and the streets of Barrie.
The first time I put the Marlboro suit on and started walking out to the car, I was just smiling, laughing and having a ball, Hornish said.
It was one of the greatest feelings, and I couldn t wipe the smile off my face. I kept saying don t be so happy, because that s not me. I don t get too excited about too many things, but that was pretty special, because it was a long time to get to that point.
When Sam was eight, his family dug a pond near their home and his father, Sam Sr., who everyone calls Big Sam, used the excess earth to construct an oval track in the field next to the house. They bought Sam a small go-kart and turned him loose.
He would spend hours out there, just trying to go faster and beat his best time, Sam s mother, Jo Ellen, said. He seemed to take to it right away.
Sam got his first competition kart a short time later, and ran a few races on the dirt before progressing to the asphalt road course in East Lansing.
"Sam was a little boy when I first saw him, maybe 10 or 11 years old," Kevin Haun, owner of the East Lansing track said. "But even then, he was a very good racer who could really handle the kart. But there were a lot of other kids who were very good kart drivers, and the difference was the commitment the Hornish family made."
As the racing schedule intensified, Big Sam was away from the family's trucking business more and more, leaving Jo Ellen to mind the store.
"It really started as a father-and-son activity," Jo Ellen Hornish said, "and when he had a lot of success early, that just increased the interest and enthusiasm for both Sam and his dad. We figured out how to make it work."
Hornish was born in Bryan, and his family lived in Stryker at the time. They moved to Defiance in 1987, and Hornish attended Tinora High School before transferring to Archbold and finishing there.
Racing forced Hornish to miss some school, but he always kept up with his work, according to Joe Frank, who taught Hornish history in his junior year at Archbold.
"Sam was a good student, and even when he missed school to go to races, he had the work done," Frank said. "He was one of those smart kids you come across in education, where he didn't want you to know it, but he really knew what was going on, all of the time.
"It might not have been the cool thing to do around his peers, but Sam knew what was going on. When he wanted to be, he was very sharp in the classroom. When I pressed him, he would always respond."
Frank said Hornish was traveling all across the U.S. and racing in foreign countries when he was in high school, but never felt that made him any different than his schoolmates.
"A lot of kids in Archbold have never been beyond the tri-state area, but by then, Sam had been to other continents," Frank said. "But you would never know that he was different than anyone else in that room. He was one of the guys, and he made a conscious effort to stay that way."
While he kept a low profile at Archbold High School, and was pretty much known for being quiet and laid back, Frank said Hornish clearly had dedicated himself to being a success in racing.
"It was clear that he was driven," Frank said. "I could see that he was preparing himself for races. He had a passion for it and was very focused. The passion for racing was always burning inside him, and little did we know it would lead to what it did."
While Hornish was distinguishing himself on the kart tracks, what ultimately made his situation different from most was the effort by his family to put him in a position to succeed. As the youngest of five children, Sam got the tools and clearly had the talent.
"This might sound way too simple, but Sam had an ability to just make the kart go fast," said Francis Whaling, who served as a mechanic for Hornish for a couple of years.
"Racing is a funny sport, and there are not nearly as many seats to be filled as there are drivers out there. Sam definitely had the skill and the determination, and he was one of the lucky few who had a family to back him and help him get a foot in the door. He didn't always have the best equipment, but his skill made the difference. The big teams had to take notice."
Hornish, who still makes his home in the Defiance area, does not miss a chance to credit his parents for their role in his long ride.
"There were a lot of people who helped us out with a lot of things along the way, but what I can't emphasize enough is how important my parents were in the whole deal," Hornish said. "There were a lot of guys who helped me out at the track, but my parents are the ones who got me to the track."
Haun said the Hornish family had that unique combination of two parents dedicated to providing the means, and a child who was always focused on the prize.
"A lot of it is bottom line - the amount of financial resources that are available to you to get started in racing," Haun said. "There are a lot of talented drivers out there who never get into the right situation. The Hornish family was able to help Sam a little more than others might have been because they were willing to make any sacrifices necessary to get him there. Some people are perfectly content to race the karts, but Sam clearly was not."
"The Hornish family went on a path, and they didn't look back," John Giacomelli, who runs J&J Karting in Erie, Pa., said. "I met him when Sam was about 14, and it was obvious he had a lot of raw talent. He was extra quick, and even though he did not win every event, he won plenty. He had the ability to go fast, and at that age, you either wreck or you win. And he won.'"
After more than 15 years of intense racing, Jo Ellen Hornish still has a tough time watching Sam go fast in a race car. She said her son displays a lot of the same demeanor that Big Sam has, regardless of how the event progresses.
"Over the years we've had some really good races, and some bad ones, but nevertheless we always thought Sam had the potential to be something special," she said. "I think he's a lot like his dad in that he doesn't get shook under pressure and he handles it very well. That's the way he is - quiet, but focused and determined. Even when he's behind the wheel, it is pretty much just Sam.'"
Jo Ellen Hornish said that it was ultimately Sam's desire to reach the top of the sport that brought him to the Indy Racing League and Team Penske.
"It's very gratifying for us as parents to see him be able to achieve what he always wanted to, and not every kid can do that," she said. "I'm sure there are some kids out there who were maybe better than Sam, but they never got to this point because they don't have the support or the backing, and some of them don't have the stamina. Some of them want to give up. But Sam, he wants to win every time and he does not give up."
Sam's mother was certain she would spend this race morning worrying about the afternoon event in which her son will push his car in excess of 200 miles an hour while running inches away from the wall and the rest of the field.
"I am always a bundle of nerves when he races, but I pray for him a lot, and I know it's not in my hands," she said. "I just have to trust in his ability, and trust in the other drivers' abilities."
Big Sam, who traveled all of those miles to the kart tracks and worked endlessly keeping those rigs in running condition, prefers to stay out of the spotlight now that his son is one of the top drivers in the world. Sam Sr. said he knew his son had made it when he tested with the IRL at Walt Disney World, and then led for 38 laps in the IRL event at Kentucky in his first year in the series.
"Everybody wants to talk about these driver development programs, but they had all of those programs when I was racing, but I was never picked for any of them," Sam said. "My parents did everything to help me get here, and I think I've done pretty well."
Hornish said he was often troubled by how much his parents sacrificed to allow him to race. Even after winning a ton of karting championships, his future in racing was still cloudy.
"It even came down to like the last dollar being spent, and they were willing to go a little bit further, but I didn't want them to spend any more money," he said. "They had worked hard and I would rather see them spend it on themselves, but they were always more interested in me, I guess. Everyday I am thankful that I had parents who cared more about me than they did about themselves. It was kind of a gamble, and just when it looked like it might not work out, it did."
Once Hornish got his break and moved up through the ranks to the IndyCar Series, he won the season championship twice with Panther Racing. He had three IndyCar wins last year, and now that he is with Penske, most insiders expect him to win many more.
"At first, I thought Sammy was just another clumsy kid at 10 or 11-years-old," George "Zoomie" Damanic, an engine builder in the Go-Kart ranks, said. "As time went on, he just got better and better and better. He progressed at a much faster rate than the other kids, and by the time he was 14 or 15, I told Big Sam that he was going to be head and shoulders above everyone else.
"Just like LeBron James in basketball, Sam has got the gift to make himself the best. He has no fear. By the seat of his pants, Sammy is able to go inside, outside or anywhere and find a line. He has the desire. He chased a dream and he caught it, and not many people can ever say that."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.