So good they may need to say "So Long"
Hornish and Bourdais think it might be time for a change.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 5, 2007
Sam Hornish is a steering, shifting, self-effacing chapter of Indy Racing League history. He's the 12-year-old circuit's all-time leader with 19 wins and three championships, including last season - he's the only driver with more than one title. He grew up with a Rick Mears poster in the garage of his Ohio home and dreamed of winning the Indianapolis 500, which he did for the first time in May 2006. About a month from now, Hornish, 28, might walk away from his childhood dream.
Sebastien Bourdais has won 27 of his past 48 races and three consecutive titles in the Champ Car series and leads the points standings this season. No driver has ever won four straight championships in a major North American series. If he ties Juan Manuel Fangio's mark of four straight titles - in Formula One - there would be every expectation the 28-year-old could return for Newman/Haas/Lanigan in 2008 to threaten retired F1 driver Michael Schumacher's mark of five in a row.
But increasingly he feels like this season will be his last in Champ Car, even if he can't land a ride for the Toro Rosso F1 team. He feels his constant success is an annoyance to Champ Car.
In racing, as in life, things run their course. And Hornish and Bourdais are both reconciling if they've played out their current, wondrously fruitful, situations.
"I definitely like the challenge of the stock cars. It's something new," said Hornish, who has made seven Busch Series starts the past two seasons as he ponders a move to NASCAR. "It's similar to me to the newness I had when I first came into the Indy Racing League."
Hornish claims he wn't decide about whether he will remain with Penske's IRL team or join its Nextel Cup wing until after the IndyCar season finale Sept. 9 in Chicago. Numerous media outlets have reported the decision made but Hornish said a June 30 interview at Richmond that fueled much of the speculation was not reflective of his feelings.
Hornish was quoted as saying, "You feel like they don't need you sometimes. They've got their stars. That's another reason why you might want to do something else," when asked if he had been lobbied to stay.
"There was a lot made of what I told (PA SportsTicker) after the Richmond race, but it wasn't necessarily the way that it was said," Hornish recalled. "He asked me if anybody talked to me about it, and I said, 'Nobody has.' And he said, 'Well, why's that? Why do you think they haven't talked to you?' And my answer, to the most of my ability was, 'Maybe they're not worried about it. Maybe they feel they already have their stars and it's not something to be worried about.' That was all taken as 'Sam's going to run NASCAR.' And that's not it. I don't want them to feel like they've got to do anything. ... It's between my boss and myself."
IRL president Brian Barnhart spoke with Hornish the next race weekend, reiterating, he said, that the league very much wants him to stay.
"He shouldn't have any doubts this series wants him here. He is by far the epitome of what the series was founded for," Barnhart said. "But it's not my call or (IRL chairman) Tony (George)'s call. It's not the league's call."
Barnhart came away from his conversation, he said, with a sense of how conflicted Hornish is in terms of feelings and obligations to his owner, sponsors and family. But Barnhart said the IRL is much better prepared for a post-Hornish world now than in 2003, when NASCAR rumors preceded his switch from the IRL's Panther Racing to Penske. St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon - the 2005 series and Indianapolis 500 champion - Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick were either not in the league or yet to establish themselves.
"Those guys are now all marquee drivers, in addition to the (Tony) Kanaans and (Helio) Castroneves and (Dario) Franchittis," Barnhart said, "so we're clearly in a stronger position from a league standpoint of absorbing the loss of Sam if he goes."
But will he?
"This is going to sound so political," Barnhart said, "but I got the distinct impression on a personal level, that in his gut he wants to stay. I think he always wants to be an open-wheel racer, and I think on the other side of the coin, those challenges of something new, what his owner and sponsor wants ... I think he's torn right down the middle."