Does Hornish have 'right stuff'

Sam Hornish Jr., 25, graduated from Archbold High School and lives in Napoleon.
Sam Hornish Jr., 25, graduated from Archbold High School and lives in Napoleon.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Sam Hornish Jr. winced as he contemplated the next race on the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series schedule.

For the first time since he raced in the Toyota Atlantic Series in 1999, the two-time IRL champion will be facing right-hand turns in a race. What has been an all-oval series for its first nine years takes on the temporary 1.8-mile, 14-turn road course at the inaugural Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend.

"Well, I feel that it's been a long time since I've been on a road course competitively," Hornish said. "I'm just going to try to keep a cool head about me, no matter what happens.

"I know if you're running at the end of the race, if you're halfway competitive you're going to be in the top 10."

Hornish is off to his best start since he won the first two races of 2001 on the way to the first of two consecutive series championships.

The 25-year-old Ohioan - he graduated from Archbold High School and lives in Napoleon - struggled in 2004, his first season with Marlboro Team Penske after three years with Panther Racing. But he finished second in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, then won two weeks ago at Phoenix International Raceway, taking the points lead away from Homestead winner and championship favorite Dan Wheldon.

Now he faces a different test, but Hornish is determined not to let the first of three road circuits on the 2005 schedule slow him down.

"I've been saying that my goal for this season is to finish every lap," he said. "You don't have to win every one of these races to win the championship. But I'm just going to go out there and try to do the best I can.

"I feel very optimistic about it. I've worked very hard in the offseason, trying to get myself in better shape, to knock all the rust off."

Tony Kanaan, who did complete every lap last year on the way to winning the IRL title for Andretti Green Racing, had plenty of experience on road courses, racing in the rival CART series - now Champ Car - for five years before moving to the IRL with AGR in 2003.

The Brazilian driver warns that people should not expect the same kind of wheel-to-wheel racing that the IRL has become know for on ovals on the road courses at St. Petersburg, Infiniti Raceway and Watkins Glen.

"I mean, you see everywhere you go, from NASCAR to CART to F1, you don't see a lot of passes these days," Kanaan said. "We have a very exciting series on ovals, but on road courses .●.●. there's going to be some passes, but not on every lap.

"It's all going to be a matter of how you want to judge the excitement because road courses are definitely way different than ovals. But I think the cars will have no problems."

Helio Castroneves, Hornish's Penske teammate, is also off to a strong start with finishes of fifth and second. He goes into Sunday's race trailing only Hornish and runner-up Wheldon and tied for third with Kanaan.

Castroneves, another Brazilian, said the purpose-built IndyCars have adapted nicely to the road courses in testing.

"I think it's going to be a good show," Castroneves added.

Some of the questions will be answered today when practice begins.

"Actually, I can hardly wait," Hornish said. "It's going to be a great challenge."