Sam Hornish stays in the open-wheel circuit but moves to the Team Penske garage.
By BRUCE LOWITT
Published February 13, 2004
ABOVE: Sam Hornish hopes Marlboro red is his color at the Indianapolis 500. He has never finished better than 14th.
[Photo: Getty Images - Jonathan Ferrey]
RIGHT: Sam Hornish
Sam Hornish floored it, roared past NASCAR and wound up right where he hoped he'd be - alongside Helio Castroneves.
The speculation was that Hornish, winner of the 2001-02 Indy Racing League championships and at 24 one of open-wheel racing's hottest young drivers, would take the off-ramp to Daytona Beach and slip behind the wheel of a stock car this year.
Instead, Hornish, the youngest and winningest champion in the IRL since its inaugural 1996 season, stayed on the open-wheel track. He just shifted garages, pulling out of Panther Racing, for whom he won his two IndyCar titles, and joining Team Penske, open-wheel racing's most dominant owner - 119 wins with CART and the IRL combined. Hornish's new teammate is Castroneves, winner of the 2001-02 Indianapolis 500s and runnerup last year to Penske teammate Gil de Ferran, who retired at the end of the 2003 season.
Hornish said money was not a factor in his decision to leave, that he had gone as far as Panther could take him. "You start off as an amateur," he said at a news conference, "you move to a race winner, you move to a champion and someday you hope to become a legend."
When the move was announced in August, Hornish expressed a desire to race in NASCAR's Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Team Penske also runs NASCAR's top circuit; Ryan Newman finished sixth and Rusty Wallace 14th in last year's points standings.
Roger Penske told the Augusta Chronicle his team "had a little bit of discussion about (Hornish running NASCAR races), but there is no plan - short term or long term. Our real plan is to see him compete and win another (IRL) championship and of course put an Indy 500 win in his career package."
In Hornish's mind the transition to Team Penske won't be complete until the season opens Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "You haven't done the first race, you haven't done the first couple of races, the first 500," he said.
Added to that, his teammates and crew members are relative strangers at the outset. "It's almost kind of like you're still an outsider," Hornish said.
The plan to move began with preliminary discussions in 2002, the year Penske jumped from CART to IRL.
"There was no opportunity to really do anything," Hornish said, because he was under contract to Panther and Penske wasn't interested in adding a third car to its team.
"We mutually let each other know that we were interested in, some time, pursuing a program," Hornish said. "We just kind of put everything on hold" until de Ferran said in July that the 2003 season would be his last.
Penske called Hornish, who jumped at the chance. "The good rides and good drivers get taken at that point," Hornish said. "It was a tough decision to make ... but (you have to) keep all your options open and have your mind made up by the end of August."
Hornish's 2003 season started poorly; Panther's cars were underpowered. He finished no better than sixth in his first five races and didn't make the podium until coming in second at Michigan on July 27.
Then Hornish won Aug. 17 at Kentucky and followed that with a second and two wins. He finished fifth in the standings (de Ferran and Castroneves were second and third, respectively). Penske was second behind Chip Ganassi Racing in team standings. "Obviously, my goal is to win the Indianapolis 500," said Hornish, who has come in 24th, 14th, 25th and 15th. "With the success that Team Penske has (13 Indy 500 wins, starting in 1972) and just their love for winning that race, I think that this is definitely my best opportunity to do it. I just want to be able to say that I won that race, whether it happens this year or 10 years from now."