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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Dialing for dollars: Phone 1st fuel for Hornish

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Sam Hornish Jr. has the check for winning the pole position for the Firestone Indy 400 at MIS yesterday, but the name on the check belongs to his teammate, Helio Castroneves, right. Hornish will start in the No. 2 position. Sam Hornish Jr. has the check for winning the pole position for the Firestone Indy 400 at MIS yesterday, but the name on the check belongs to his teammate, Helio Castroneves, right. Hornish will start in the No. 2 position.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - When they put Sam Hornish Jr.'s face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, that 110-pound sterling silver monolith that displays the images of the Indianapolis 500 champions, phones should start ringing in celebration throughout the Midwest.

A lot of people helped Hornish get to Indy - a network of passionate supporters, a circle of friends and family.

Not wealthy people or deep-pocketed investors. Little people, regular folk, who just wanted to give him the opportunity to race with the big boys.

When the sponsorship money withered away, and it looked like Hornish's dream would stall out, he phoned home for help. And the people of northwest Ohio who had watched Hornish grow from that skinny little 6-year-old kid running a go-kart around the back yard into a world-class open-wheel racer answered the call.

They sold phones, and they bought phones, just to keep Sam in the racing game. It was a grass-roots fund-raising effort in the heart of middle America, with teachers and truck drivers and waitresses and fire fighters all on the Hornish team.

It was 2000, and Hornish had made his first start in an Indy Racing League event, using an older generation chassis sponsored in part by his father's trucking company. In just his third race, Hornish took a low-budget ride fielded by PDM Racing to a third-place finish in Las Vegas.

But after he crashed out of his first Indy 500 that year, Hornish missed several races when he could not find the sponsorship money to stay on the track. A high-tech bake sale of sorts was hatched after telecommunications manufacturer Uniden gave Hornish 2,500 phones to sell, in exchange for putting the company name on the side of his car.

"All along the way, my mom and dad helped me out a lot and did as much as they could," Hornish said. "And we had some other small sponsors, but we used the phone sale to try and make up some of the difference. It was really something to see, all those people jumping in to try and sell them."

Hornish, whose parents own a trucking company in his hometown of Defiance, said he is still moved by the effort people made to support his racing. A lot of them will be in the stands at Michigan International Speedway this afternoon when Hornish runs in the Firestone Indy 400.

"My mom, the people that worked for my mom and dad, just people we knew around home - they were all selling these phones, peddling them any way they could," Hornish said. "The truck drivers were taking them to the different plants we deliver to, putting them in their offices or wherever they could, trying to get people to buy them."

Hornish set up a stand at the local Menards store and offered a phone and an autograph for $100. He had a lot of takers.

"It was really moving, that people were willing to do that, just trying to help Sam get the opportunity to race," Jo Ellen Hornish, Sam's mother, said. "It's a small town and we're a small company, but our drivers, our customers, the people at the plants we deliver to - they were all super about it. It was really a community effort."

Additional phones were sold in an auction. After all 2,500 phones were gone, the $250,000 or so that raised, plus the money Hornish earned that year at Indy, enabled him to run in eight events that season and gain a reputation as a very talented oval racer. That eventually led to a full-time secure ride with Panther Racing.

"It's funny how things worked out," Hornish said. "You think 2,500 phones isn't that much, but then you count that high - geez. That's a lot to do with people in Defiance and also the surrounding areas of northwest Ohio. I had a lot of people pulling for me."

While Hornish was hawking phones and scrounging for the money to continue racing, he got an invite to test for Panther Racing, a team looking for a driver to replace the retiring Scott Goodyear.

Hornish left that session unsure about where he stood, but later that summer got a call to join Panther.

Hornish dominated the Indy Racing League in 2001, winning the series championship for Panther while completing 99.7 percent of the laps in the 13 races. He won a second straight IndyCar Series title in 2002 with a record five victories, and currently leads the series in this, his third season with Marlboro Team Penske.

"It's just a great story of hard work, talent, and a lot of people just doing what they could for him," four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears said. "Once Sam got himself in a good situation, he showed everyone just how skilled a race car driver he is, and what an iron will he has out on the race track."

Hornish, who cited the phone sale in his emotion-filled post-race comments after winning at Indianapolis this May, said the support of his family and his community has been a source of strength for a long time.

"Even when it came down to the last dollar being spent, my parents were always willing to go a little bit further, even when I told them I didn't want them to spend any more money on my racing," Hornish said.

"And the other people who supported me - they were all willing to take kind of a gamble, I guess. It makes you feel good that so many people cared that much. I'm just glad it all worked out."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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