News & Media

Caraviello: Hornish lost Cup ride, but not sense of perspective

February 26, 2011, David Caraviello,

These days Sam Hornish Jr. has idle time, but not idle hands. With no testing to divert his attention, he spent two weeks in December restoring an old bicycle that belonged to his father. He's been able to stay home and help his wife, Crystal, with their new baby, born just before the new year. He's been able to spend more time with family members and friends who maybe didn't see as much of him when he was traveling the country piloting race cars. In some ways, running only a limited schedule has its benefits.

"My first child, when she was born, I was home for about a day and a half and I was gone for about five weeks straight, running all over the nation," Hornish said prior to the season opener. "Having the opportunity to be home for this one, and spend a lot of time at home, it's been good. If I didn't have so many other things going on in my life, like two little kids, I'd probably be pulling my hair out. But there are a lot of things that can remind me what the real positives are in my life, and what's really important."

"The only reason I need to race right now is because I want to race. I'm not in it to go out and collect a paycheck. I just want to race."


That kind of outlook is key for a driver who is beginning perhaps his most frustratingly uncertain season since he hit it big in major auto racing a decade ago. A three-time champion on the IndyCar circuit who moved to NASCAR in 2008, Hornish lost his Sprint Cup ride when car sponsor Mobil 1 left Penske Racing. The points he accrued in the No. 77 car last season were sold to the team of Steve Wallace, who used them to gain a berth in last week's Daytona 500 -- an event Hornish watched. His 2011 plans consist of about a dozen starts in the Nationwide Series for Penske Racing, and a scattered schedule that began at Daytona but won't pick up again until Texas in April.

That means he isn't racing this weekend at Phoenix, the first NASCAR event weekend he's sat out since failing to qualify at Homestead in the final race of his first full-time season in 2008. It would be a humbling transition for any driver, but Hornish isn't just any driver -- he's a former Indianapolis 500 champion whom boss Roger Penske still refers to as "one of the best oval-series drivers I've ever seen." Now he's running a limited Nationwide schedule, hoping to add a few more races along the way, hoping to sow the seeds for a potential return to the Sprint Cup level in 2012.

Fortunately, despite a rocky stint in NASCAR that's led to what some might view as a demotion, Hornish has never lost his sense of perspective. He's still an unassuming guy who lives in out-of-the-way Defiance, Ohio, who's saved much of what he's made, who remains grounded, loyal to Penske, and optimistic about his fortune turning around. He's seen it happen before -- in 2000 he was a struggling IndyCar driver who had just missed his second consecutive race because of a lack of sponsorship when a phone call came asking him to jump in a car at Kentucky. He led 30 laps, finished ninth, and by the following Tuesday had signed a contract with Pennzoil-backed Panther Racing, the team that would launch his career.

"I've been racing professionally for 11 years. I didn't get paid a lot in the beginning, I'm not getting paid a lot right now, but there were times. And I tried to save everything I could. I had a couple of toys here or here, but I didn't have a Ferrari, I didn't have a bunch of expenses. I was engaged or married for most of it, so it wasn't like I was out doing all these different things. The only reason I need to race right now is because I want to race. I'm not in it to go out and collect a paycheck. I just want to race," said Hornish, who was involved in an early crash last week in the Nationwide race at Daytona and finished 36th.

"I just want to give myself an opportunity to go out there and do the best that I can do. It is tough in some shapes and forms that we'll only be able to run at minimum 11 races [in Nationwide], but I also know that 11 or 12 years ago I was sitting there wishing I had something to do, and from Wednesday to the next Tuesday everything changed. And I know I'm a heck of a lot further down the road than I was at that point. I was figuring out whether I was going to work on trucks, drive trucks, what I was going to do. I still have something to do. I'm still a lot better off than I was there."

His experience in NASCAR has been a trying one. Attending a party for former open-wheel sponsor Marlboro, he watched footage of himself winning the Indianapolis 500, and got a little emotional. "It was nice to remember you once did something after getting dirt kicked in your face the last three years. I kind of needed that," Hornish said. The reaction is understandable considering his exploits in stock cars have produced eight top-10 finishes in 108 Cup starts, the few hopeful moments buried beneath wrecked race cars and disappointment.

"I know there have been days that I could have won Cup races if the right things happened, but we never got to the point where we could do it consistently enough to where we could be there all the time. There's been days when I've done everything right, and we've gone out there and finished well, and there have been days when I've screwed up quite a bit," Hornish said.

"Some days it was there, and some days it wasn't. If I could tell you why it wasn't .... Sometimes that chemistry doesn't work out the way you need it to. It was mentally tough. But ... I always felt there was a ray of hope -- all right, I learned this. How come every time we go to Pocono we can lead 10, 15 laps of the race but can't win? We run good there, and if can do it there, you should be able to do it at another place. It's one of those things where, I don't think people understand how closely competitive it is, and how just little things being off can affect a team."

Penske granted Hornish permission to solicit offers from other Cup teams, as long as the driver didn't commit to a vehicle that planned only to start and park. Some organizations showed interest, Hornish said, but those overtures were thwarted by the same sponsorship difficulties that forced him to give up the No. 77 car. The end result is a lot of free time during a very long racing season, some of which Hornish hopes to fill by testing for teammates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, and by attending the races close to home. He seems a little curious about the idea of competing in the 100th Indy 500, but as of last month Penske had no plans to field Hornish in one of his cars.

"As I've said to him, we've got to be honest about this and where we're going," Penske said. "What I said to him was, look, let's step back here. It's like being put back a grade in school. I know a lot of guys who were put back a grade in school who turned out to be pretty good guys."

Time will tell whether being held back to a limited Nationwide schedule will further Hornish's NASCAR education. In the meantime, there are those two little girls -- 3-year-old Addison and infant Eliza -- who are going to get plenty of time with their dad. "I know in my opinion," Hornish said, "this is probably going to be the most fun I'm ever going to have."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.