Pole-sitter Tony Kanaan of Brazil and Sam Hornish Jr. will have the Borg-Warner Trophy in their sights today in Indianapolis.
MICHAEL CONROY / AP Enlarge
INDIANAPOLIS As Sam Hornish Jr. finishes a light, healthy breakfast, he removes the linen napkin from his lap and folds it neatly along the creases before placing it on the table.
His shirt is pressed, and his asphalt black sideburns are flawlessly symmetrical as they dip just below his ear lobes.
Precision. It is a part of everything that is Sam Hornish Jr.
It is in the way he methodically customizes a 40-year-old pickup truck in his garage back home in northwest Ohio.
It is how he answers questions from a crush of international media who chronicle his every move as Hornish prepares for today's Indianapolis 500.
And it is how he attacks a racetrack. Everything is precise, like Hornish is cutting diamonds at 220 miles per hour.
"I think there's a right way to do everything, whether it is going through a corner as fast as you can, or just mowing the lawn," Hornish said.
"I like to have some kind of plan well-thought out approach, and then follow it.
A race may go for 500 miles and take three hours to complete, but a lot of times it is a split-second decision here and there, or a couple of inches another time that mean the difference between winning and finishing fifth."
Hornish does not know a lot about finishing fifth.
At age 25, he is the winningest driver in Indy Racing League history with 13 victories. He is the only driver to win back-to-back championships in the 10-year history of the IndyCar Series.
Hornish blistered the competition in the Go-kart ranks before spending a few years fine-tuning his skills for the open-wheel big leagues. He ran his first Indy 500 in 2000 at the age of 20, then dominated the IRL Series the next year when he won three times for Panther Racing and completed an almost impossible 99.7 percent of the laps run.
"That kind of consistency is just hard to imagine anyone doing," said four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, now a consultant with Marlboro Team Penske racing. "You don t stay out on the track that long without a little luck, and a whole lot of talent. Sam is an extremely skilled race car driver, with that iron will to win."
In three seasons with Panther, Hornish won two series championships and consistently smoked the big boys teams like Penske with more resources at their disposal. When his contract with Panther was up, Roger Penske aggressively courted Hornish.
"Sam was out there beating us like a drum, so it just made sense to try and bring him over to the team when he became available," said the racing legend Penske, the brains behind a racing/automotive empire that spans the globe and employs some 34,000 people.
"We saw acquiring Sam as critical to the continued success of our Indy racing team. He was the ideal addition on so many levels. He is professional, he is committed, and he has the potential to win every race he enters."
Hornish did not disappoint, winning his first race with Marlboro Team Penske to open the 2004 season. This year he again joins Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 winner, to compose a formidable duo.
The gregarious Brazilian from the cosmopolitan center of Sao Paulo and the quiet, calculating kid from Ohio s farm country are always the team to beat in the eyes of many.
"Helio and I know each other a lot better now and we re just a lot more comfortable as teammates in our second year together," Hornish said. "We work together a lot better this year than we did last year, and that is definitely going to help out a lot. We ve learned how to help each other."
Hornish, who was the youngest driver to win an IndyCar Series race when he took the first race of the season in 2001 at the age of 21, later that year became the youngest to win a major open-wheel championship in North America at age 22.
That might sound like success came early, but Hornish has been ahead of the calendar for most of his life. While his high school classmates were concerning themselves with the prom or the American History quiz, Hornish was racing overseas.
That drive to drive his way to the front of the pack came early.
"I want to win, and that s the way I ve always looked at racing, no matter what event it was," Hornish said. "You do your best, do everything you can to prepare and put yourself in position to win, and then you race as hard as you can. Some times I can be satisfied that we ran a good race and didn t win, but I m never happy if I don t win."
Hornish, whose best finish in five Indy 500 races is 14th, is arguably the most important figure in the sport today a world class driver hatched from the farm belt of the Midwest an American star in a series dominated by foreigners. He does not mind being a crusader or poster boy for open-wheel racing, which covets the passion and loyalty NASCAR fans show towards its stars.
"I would really like to see open-wheel racing move from kind of the background to being the major racing series in the United States again," Hornish said. "Outside of the Indy 500, a lot of the average racing fans don t know where all I ve raced and won races. I hope that by winning some races and being the kind of person they want to cheer for, maybe I can help that along."
Hornish, whose family lived in Stryker at the time, was born in Bryan in 1979. His parents, who owned a trucking business in the area, moved to Defiance in 1987, where Hornish attended Tinora High School before transferring to Archbold and finishing there.
Hornish s mother, Jo Ellen, said that even in his early days of racing, her son has been much like his father in that Sam Jr. doesn t get rattled under pressure. "That s the way he s always been quiet, but focused and determined," Mrs. Hornish said. "Even when he s behind the wheel, it is pretty much just Sam."
His mother had to tend the family business while his father took young Sam around the country and across the ocean to race. They persevered and made countless sacrifices to provide Sam Jr. an avenue to open-wheel racing, with no guarantee there would ever be a return on that significant investment.
That gift still weighs on his mind.
"When 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," Hornish 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. It was kind of a gamble, and just when it looked like it might not work out, it did."
Hornish starts second in today s Indy 500, in the middle of the front row, with a clear, unobstructed view of the Speedway in front of him, and the checkered flag some 200 laps away.
He has won more than $8 million in prize money and 13 IndyCar races before his 26th birthday.
It looks like things have worked out after all.
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.