Sam Hornish Jr. may not be racing anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s retired.
After more than 30 years of being behind the wheel, starting when he first strapped into a go-kart at the age of 11 (he’d go on to win the World Karting Association’s U.S. Grand National championship just four years later), Hornish is definitely enjoying life away from racing back in his hometown of Defiance, Ohio.
But just because he isn’t racing anymore, don’t think he’s sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, watching grass grow or paint dry.
“I’m as busy now, if not busier, than I was when I was driving,” Hornish told NASCAR.com.
Hornish, who turns 42 on July 2, spends his days primarily with his family, his church and as a self-professed do-it-yourself-er, taking on projects that include building and tinkering.
But one thing that is never far away is his phone. Even though it has been more than four years since his last race, if he got “the right call,” Hornish would jump back in a race car once again if the situation was right.
“To spend 30 years or more doing something and then basically hanging up your helmet, it’s kind of a weird thing,” Hornish said. “It’s something that you love to do, it’s that competitive aspect. I can see why a lot of guys that get to the end of the road in their racing career or football career or baseball career, have problems with drugs and alcohol because you’re all of a sudden not really able to do something that you’ve put so much of your life into and who am I apart from that?
“What am I going to do with the rest of my life, it’s that type of thing. I was prepared for not being a race car driver and not feel having that thrill of the chase, you might want to call it, but not everybody is as lucky as I am, I guess.”
When he knew his racing career was slowing down, Hornish began making plans for the next chapters of his life.
He and his wife, Crystal, packed up their three kids – daughters Addison and Eliza, and son Sam III – and moved back to the Defiance area after several years in Charlotte. While racing always has been important to him, faith and family are even more so. Being closer to family and watching their kids grow up in a tight-knit, small-town environment was a lure that Hornish couldn’t ignore.
“I could still do it from back home,” Hornish said of racing.
And while he’s had opportunities to get back behind the wheel, the right situation hasn’t presented itself.
“The tough part is if somebody calls with a good opportunity, I don’t know that I can say no,” Hornish said. “I never felt like I was moving back here to retire and never felt like I was hanging it up.”
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Hornish’s last two NASCAR races came in 2017 during the Xfinity Series playoffs. He showed he still had a lot of gas left in his personal tank, finishing second at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
While he is still physically fit and ready to hop into a race car, Hornish hasn’t put his life away from racing on hold. He’s just shifted priorities – and sometimes with a little help from family and friends.
“To be real honest with you, when you’re 41 years old and people start thinking you’re retired, they start dreaming up a lot of things for you to do,” Hornish said with a laugh. “They think you have all this free time and you need something to do to occupy yourself.
“When I had my 40th (birthday) check-up, my doctor is asking me, ‘Well, what are you doing with all this extra time you have? Do you have things to be able to keep your mind going?’ And I’m going, ‘I’m not 70, you know.’ I have three kids and a wife I’m trying to entertain.”
So, what is Hornish doing to keep himself busy these days? The simple answer is whatever he wants to, but it’s more involved than that. He still works for his family’s trucking company, dabbles in real estate investing, goes on a number of mini-trips with his wife and kids, teaches Bible study and has served as a substitute school teacher.
He also spearheaded the funding and construction of a senior center as well as a heart treatment center in Defiance, has raised over $500,000 for Speedway Children’s Charities, and built a dance studio at his kid’s school, as well as props for various plays at the school.
“I’ve always enjoyed building things with my hands,” Hornish said. “Being able to do that has been a lot of fun. And to be able to build something that’s used in some kind of performance, in a lot of ways it allows me to do something I’m passionate about.”
And when he feels the need for speed, Hornish will go out to his garage and work on or drive some of the cars in his personal collection, including a 1930 Model A Ford, 1951 Mercury, 1955 Chevrolet Del Ray, 1965 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, 1967 Chevrolet pickup truck and the Corvette Z06 Indianapolis 500 pace car he received for winning the 2006 Indy 500.
Before he came to NASCAR, Hornish was one of the most successful drivers on the IndyCar circuit. In eight seasons, from 2000 through 2007, he won 19 races, captured three IndyCar championships (2001, 2002 and 2006), with the highlight of his career being his win in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
“I had people say why did I leave IndyCar?” Hornish said. “They said stuff like I could have been the first five-time winner (of the 500).”
But Hornish is also a realist. As IndyCar speeds continued to climb and a number of drivers suffered career-threatening injuries, he decided it would be best for himself and his family if he moved on from open-wheel racing and into NASCAR.
“Maybe my feet would be crushed up, you’re not able to walk around and do the things you want to do,” Hornish said. “It’s a double-edged sword. There’s a lot of me that’s super-competitive and I really like to be out there. And then there’s a part of me that’s a little more sensible that says, ‘You’re never going to be happy, no matter if you have five Indy 500 wins and six championships and a NASCAR Cup championship.’
“You want to be someone who’s done something that no one else has ever done. That’s how competitive people are. There’s a certain point in me that is thankful for what I’ve already achieved. And while there could be more, you can’t let that be your driving force because more and more is always in somebody’s mind. How much is enough? I’ll let you know when I get enough – and you never get there.”
Having accomplished so much in such a short period of time in the IndyCar Series – just eight seasons – Hornish was ready for a new challenge, and he found it in NASCAR.
He would go on to make 167 starts in Cup, but never claimed a victory. On the other hand, Hornish found a great deal of success in the Xfinity Series, earning five wins, 38 top-five and 64 top-10 finishes in 120 starts, including finishing a career-best second in the championship chase in 2013, losing the title by a mere three points to Austin Dillon.
“To be able to get Roger (Penske) the owner’s championship and to be the driver that brought the car to the championship (in 2013), that was something special for me. Those were neat things. And I kept thinking there would be more opportunities the next year and there just was nothing there (he would move to Joe Gibbs Racing and ran just eight races there in 2014).”
During his NASCAR tenure — starting with two Xfinity races in 2006, his Cup career that stretched from 2007 through 2015, and ending with six Xfinity races in 2017 — Hornish was a man in demand.
He has the distinction of having raced for some of the biggest owners in the sport including NASCAR Hall of Famers Roger Penske, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs and Richard Petty.
“It was very humbling to drive for all of them,” Hornish said. “I didn’t know I was ever going to get an opportunity that I ever was going to drive a race car. … And here I got to race for Penske, Childress, Gibbs and Petty in my career. It was truly an honor.
“Man, for a kid from Defiance, Ohio that hoped that one day he’d go and qualify for the Indy 500, to know I raced it multiple times, won it, won multiple championships, to stand on Cup and Xfinity championship stages at Miami, to go to the White House to be honored. I can sit there and pick apart things that didn’t go right, but I got to do about 8,000 other things that I never thought I’d get to do.”
Even though he’s only made one start in the Camping World Truck Series (in 2008), Hornish would definitely entertain the possibility of driving in that series if an offer presented itself.
Driving a truck is particularly appealing to Hornish because it’s a shorter season, which would allow him not to have to be away from home as much as he would if he drove full-time or even a significant part-time schedule in Cup or Xfinity.
“I love racing,” Hornish said. “I’m passionate about it when I watch it, I’m passionate about it when I’m talking about it. But, the passion to go out and do it every day, it’s just not there. I’d give up too much of something that I can never get back, and that’s time with your kids while they’re growing up and being able to influence them, to mold them and to be a part of their lives when they’re still learning to be in their life.”
For a guy that’s soon to turn 42, some might consider Hornish too old to race again. But he quickly points to his former Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who won a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago at the age of 46.
While he was unable to be at this year’s 500 in-person, Hornish was particularly proud of his former teammate not only for such a lofty accomplishment, but it also showed that drivers can still be competitive at 40 years of age and older.
“He’s 46 – but he doesn’t act like it,” Hornish said with a laugh. “Year after year, he continues to push on, to have that competitive fire. I never would have thought of him being 46. He’s still very youthful.”
Speaking of being youthful, Hornish’s youngest child and namesake, 7-year-old Sam III, may follow in his father’s racing footsteps.
“On Easter Sunday, we dug an old go-kart out of the garage and he ran quite a bit, he spent a few hours out on the track turning laps,” Hornish said. “The track that I had set up, he was running like 12-second laps. But I could tell he wasn’t full throttle all the way down the straightaway but was really being smooth, not getting in the grass and using the whole track.
“I asked him, ‘Is that as fast as you could go?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s about as fast as I could go.’ And then he takes off and I can tell this is going to be way quicker and he runs like a second faster, probably within 2/10ths (of a second) that I thought he could go.”
Then, with a laugh, Hornish added, “I said to him, ‘I thought you said you couldn’t run any faster?’ He said back to me, ‘I was just keeping a little left in my back pocket.’ I had a dream one night recently where I drove the truck and trailer and he drove the race car.”
Even though he’s north of 40 and one of Defiance’s biggest celebrities, the still youngish-looking Hornish recently had a rather humorous engagement with a fan in his hometown.
“I’m loading up some appliances on my trailer and a guy is like, ‘So, hey, I just wanted to tell you, you’re Sam Hornish, right? You’re related to the race car driver, right?’ And I said yeah. Then he said, ‘that’s so cool. I just loved watching your dad race when I was a kid.’
“People tell me that’s just how young I look. Even though they were 30 and you’re 22 and now that they’re 50 and you’re 42, they think you’re 80 or should be older than them. I was trying to figure out how to tell him. How’s a 50-year-old guy trying to tell me how he watched my dad when he was a kid?
“Then he shows me an autographed hero card from when I was driving for Panther (Panther Racing in IndyCar in 2000) and he said, ‘Your dad signed this for me.’ I’m looking at it for where my dad’s signature is, and the only one I see is my signature.”
Yes, it’s been a sometimes crazy ride for Hornish, but he remains the family-oriented, God-fearing guy he’s always been. And while some may think he’s permanently retired, don’t be surprised if someday soon he’s back in a race car. It’s his passion, it’s in his DNA.
“I grew up a real fan of the Indy 500 and loved all forms of motorsports,” Hornish said. “When I was a kid, I watched everything from Formula One to swamp buggy racing. That’s who I am and that’s what I do.
“There was a God-given drive to want to be in a race car and to be competitive and go fast. Even if I was in a go-kart that was only going 35 (mph), I was always wondering how could I be a little bit faster than the next guy.”
The Sam Hornish Jr. file:
– Age: 41 (turns 42 on July 2)
– Hometown: Defiance, Ohio
– NASCAR Cup Series career: 167 races, 0 wins, 3 top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Best career single-race finish: fourth at Pocono in 2009.
– NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 120 races, 5 wins, 38 top-five and 64 top-10 finishes. Also earned nine poles.
– Best Xfinity overall season finish: 2nd in 2013.
– Notable: Won the 2006 Indianapolis 500, three IndyCar championships in six seasons (2001, 2002 and 2006).
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, @TheRacingBeat podcast and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.