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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2008

Dad's by his side: Hornish Sr. keys success

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Despite competing in the top racing circuits in the world, Sam Hornish Jr. still relies on his father for advice. Hornish is competing in his first Sprint Cup Series season. Despite competing in the top racing circuits in the world, Sam Hornish Jr. still relies on his father for advice. Hornish is competing in his first Sprint Cup Series season.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Four months ago in Florida, the garage area at Daytona International Speedway was a blur of activity with engines screaming under the heavy thumb of demonstrative tuners, crew members shuffling and banging around parts and fuel cans, and fans hanging over the railing pleading for autographs.

Twenty feet above the din, a solitary figure stood on the viewing deck atop one of the large trucks that transports the race cars and equipment, and he was looking out across the track and waiting for the qualifying runs to begin.

Fifteen years ago, Sam Hornish Sr. would have been down on the deck, with a tool in each hand and his ears focused on the whine of the engine. He would have spent a couple of hours coaching his driver, gone over race strategy, filled the fuel tank, and then pounded down the pavement to push-start the go-kart as his son jumped in to drive.

That was then, when father and son comprised the Hornish racing team.

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At Daytona in February, and again today as the Sprint Cup Series spends Father's Day at Michigan International Speedway, Big Sam will only watch, and worry, as any parent would do. As his son's talent blossomed and young Sam developed into the best open-wheel oval racer of his generation, the active role his dad played in the racing diminished.

"He used to do everything. Ever since I started racing, running in go-karts, dad was my mechanic and we went all over the place to race," the younger Hornish said. "When you start out, your parents have to pay all of the bills and there's a lot of expenses. They spend the time and the money to give you a chance in racing. My mom stayed home and kept the business going, and my dad took me racing."

Big Sam had been a fan of racing, but not a racer himself. When his son showed an interest in the sport and also exhibited an intense competitive fire, the Hornish family decided to make the sacrifices necessary to nurture that talent.

Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis takes us on a 125-mph tour of the track in Brooklyn, Michigan.

"That competitive spirit - that came from both sides, from me and his mom," Big Sam said. "I've never seen Sam happy with finishing second."

The father and son racing relationship started very early, with trips to watch the Indianapolis 500. They would park in a residential area a few blocks from the track, outside turn two, then walk down the railroad tracks and past the oil tanks to get inside the gates.

Not all that many years later, after thousands of hours spent watching, talking, and living racing together, Sam Jr. would win the Indy 500 with Big Sam taking it all in as a spectator.

Northwest Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. is close with his family: daughter Addison and wife Crystal. Northwest Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. is close with his family: daughter Addison and wife Crystal.
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"That was a really big moment," Big Sam said, "and so was his win at Texas a few years earlier when he beat the red Penske car and won the championship. He won it on the last corner of the last lap, and we weren't supposed to be able to beat the Penske cars back then."

Hornish had started racing in the IndyCar Series with the shoestring PDM Racing operation, then had moved to Panther Racing when he beat Team Penske's Helio Castroneves in that dramatic 2002 finale for the second of his record three season championships.

But Big Sam knew he had a racer on his hands long before that.

"When he tested an Indy car for the first time, I was watching the folks from the IndyCar Series as they watched Sam drive. Up to that point, I always felt he might have a chance to be pretty good, but when I saw their reaction, I thought he just might be able to do this with the best in the world."

Penske went after Hornish as soon as his Panther contract was up, and racing legend Roger Penske made no bones about his motivation, saying he was tired of Sam "beating their brains out." He also liked the strong family foundation and the work ethic he saw in the Hornish garage.

"When we consider a driver to join Penske Racing, we not only look at on-track accomplishments, but also at family and background," Penske said. "Hornish Sr. has supported Sam since his early days in racing, and it's obvious that the bond between Sam and his father is very special. That strong support has contributed to Sam's success on the track."

Penske supported Hornish's move to stock car racing this season. The drastically different driving discipline has challenged Hornish, who is 35th in points coming into today's race.

"I knew it would be difficult, but not this difficult. But I think he's getting it," Big Sam said. "But I am a terrible critic. I stick my nose in there and ask questions about everything."

The younger Hornish is surrounded by crew members and engineers and the whole stable of Penske Racing experts, but the counsel of his father has not lost its significance.

"I wish there was more for him to do now, on the racing side, but I'm still interested in his opinion on things," Sam Jr. said. "His words still have high value. His opinion has never steered me in the wrong direction, so sometimes it makes me mad if he feels like he should stay in the background and won't give me his opinion."

Big Sam and his wife, Jo Ellen, don't attend all the races on the Cup schedule, but they will be here today when their son goes to work just over an hour from their northwest Ohio home. The elder Hornish said his son is excessively generous with his family and his community, but as a father he doesn't need much more than a good seat and a chance to watch young Sam race.

"A lot of times, people ask me if Sam has paid me back yet for all the money we spent early in his racing career, and I tell them he doesn't owe me a cent," Big Sam said. "I was doing what I wanted to do, and sometimes I think I wanted to do it a little more than he did back then. Now, it's all about what he wants to do, and I support him."

Big Sam teetered on the edge of emotional overdrive when reflecting on those years working on the go-kart with his son and dragging it around to races all over the map. Now he has an Indy 500 champion with the same name as his and one who has brought the family notoriety around the world of racing.

"It's hard to put it into words how I feel, but I do know one thing," Big Sam said. "I know his grandma and grandpa would sure be proud."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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