The genuine excitement and gratitude for earning a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame was evident last week as Ron Hornaday Jr. spoke to reporters about the upcoming milestone in his life.
The always colorful, ever humble four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion was upbeat recalling important moments in his career and telling classic stories about those who helped him make the big time.
And while the 59-year old Californian may not have ever predicted he would be a NASCAR Hall of Famer one day, he definitely knew the sport’s Truck Series was destined for greatness. And both of their paths have led to similarly significant achievements.
“They [NASCAR] had a five-year plan for the trucks and I think the first year, we exceeded that five-year plan of what we thought it was going to do,” said Hornaday, who also exceeded his own expectations, winning 51 races in a four-championship 17-year career competing in the truck series. Three of his four titles came after the age of 40. He won the 2009 championship at the age of 51.
Hornaday also won four times in the XFINITY Series and finished a career-best third place in the 2004 championship. He finished top-five in the championship in three of the four full-time seasons he ran in that series.
Hornaday won two NASCAR Southwest Series titles in what was the preamble to his Hall of Fame tenure in NASCAR’s trucks.
“I was pretty humbled,” Hornaday said of getting the news last May that he was NASCAR Hall of Fame bound. “I thought it was pretty cool to be the first one [truck champion] in there.
“I hope I can represent the truck series since they put my career on the map, what they’ve done for my whole family. Definitely I owe everything to NASCAR and the France family for starting the truck series and the phone call from [the late Dale] Earnhardt of giving me an opportunity to make it big time.’’
In a certain sense, Hornaday was able to pay it forward as well. Often, NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series drivers have referred to “Hornaday’s Couch” – the furniture they slept on while temporarily staying with the veteran and his wife at their home as the young racers found their path in the sport too.
“When I met Jimmie Johnson at a Chevrolet function, he was coming from off-road [racing] and he told me he was moving down, doing this and that,’’ Hornaday recalled of his fellow Californian. “I told him, ‘don’t go rent a place, that’s a waste of money. Save some money, buy your own house then.’
“He might have stayed three to six months, maybe a year. It’s something where when you have a big enough place, they’re all hanging out on the couch.’’
“And,” he added, “We still have that couch by the way.”
The couch, part of “Camp Hornaday,” certainly boasts a pedigree, having hosted a couple young, budding champions. Not only did the seven-time champion Johnson spend time bunking with Hornaday and his wife, Lindy, but so did fellow Californian, 2014 Monster Energy Series champ Kevin Harvick.
It all speaks to Hornaday’s laidback, welcoming nature. He is friendly and fun, but behind the wheel of a race car, he made magic – often beating drivers half his age.
In preparing for the upcoming Hall of Fame induction, Hornaday conceded it’s still pretty incredible to realize how far his career went, and how successful NASCAR’s trucks — the youngest of the three major series — would be. Hornaday said he never imagined having such a historic role in the series.
“I was just glad to be a part of it, get an opportunity to do it,” Hornaday said of the mid-1990s when the series originated and began to flourish.
“I was racing for Wayne [Spears] at the time and asked him if he was going to run the whole Truck Series. I told him what I had the opportunity to do and he told me, I should take it. It was probably the best choice I ever made in my career.
“When you have two successful businesses out of California — my wife and I did — to get up and move [to North Carolina], it was kind of a gamble. It worked out for us though. Very fortunate for that.
“We had to do it, we had to go win, we had to put food on the table.”
And he did more than that. Now he will bring home a Hall of Fame ring and abounding, well-deserved recognition for his contributions to the sport. Already highly regarded, Hornaday is one of the most popular selections to the Hall.
As he closed out his telephone press conference with the national media last week, Hornaday quickly offered a personal and wonderful summation.
“Just a heads up,’’ he said, with a slight laugh. “I can drive a race car. I’m not good at standing in front of my peers with a monkey suit, telling them how good I am.
“It’s all about everybody that ever helped me out. Hopefully I can do well and not get tongue-tied.
“Thank you guys, for everything, all the years.”