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500 to One
With every click of the odometer, the cornfields flow by, one after the next, until the motor home rolls into Napoleon, Ohio (pop. 9,318), on a sparkling spring evening. Over the past two days this 45-foot-long, 13-foot-high mansion on wheels has been ferrying the most important American open-wheel driver of the past decade across the Ohio countryside, making pit stops every few hours so that he can meet with reporters and TV crews. But now Sam Hornish Jr. has returned to the place he calls home, and he's heading to Spengler's, a burger joint where everybody knows his name.
Walking past a photograph of himself on the wall, Hornish sits down at the table where his parents and fianc�e have been patiently waiting for him. A waitress wearing a T-shirt that reads TALK NERDY TO ME approaches. "I just have to say that I'm a huge fan," she gushes. "I just know you're going to win the big race," and in an instant every patron is bug-eyed and staring at the 24-year-old driver. Hornish, a two-time Indy Racing League season champion, won't turn many heads in New York City or Los Angeles, but he radiates star power in the heart of open-wheel country. To hear the locals tell it—many of whom will be among the half-million people in the Brickyard on Sunday for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500—Hornish isn't merely a small-town icon, he's a savior, the one man who can revitalize open-wheel racing. "It's so important for us to have homegrown talents," says IRL president Tony George. "Foreign players in baseball have been accepted, and I'd like to think that foreign drivers would also be accepted. But clearly Sam is someone our fans really identify with."
Last summer Hornish, whose 12 victories are the most by any driver since the IRL was formed in 1996, was one of the most coveted men in motor sports. After winning the Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 17, he announced that he wouldn't be returning to Panther Racing once his contract expired at the end of the 2003 season. Over the next few weeks he received more than a dozen offers to drive for teams in the IRL, CART and NASCAR. One of the most intriguing overtures came from NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Ty Norris, at the time the executive vice president of DEI, invited Hornish to become the third driver for DEI, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
To understand why Hornish turned down DEI, you need to travel to his family home in Defiance, Ohio. The Hornish clan first planted roots in the area in 1836, and for the past six years Sam, even though he's become a millionaire, has paid his parents $400 a month in rent to live in a two-bedroom apartment above their garage. (A week after the 500 he plans to marry Crystal Liechty, and the two will move into a house they are building in nearby Napoleon.) Like everyone in his family, Hornish is as small-town as a Norman Rockwell print, and he's loath to cut his tether to home. "This is who I am," says Hornish, standing on his parents' 40-acre property just outside of Defiance. "Everything I want is right here."
Had Hornish accepted DEI's offer, he'd have been dragged from Defiance, because almost every NASCAR driver lives within 30 miles of Charlotte, the hub of the sport. Also, NASCAR doesn't offer what Hornish craves most: the Borg-Warner trophy that goes to the Indy 500 winner. So when Roger Penske told Hornish last summer that he could take the seat of the retiring Gil de Ferran at Marlboro Team Penske for the 2004 season, Hornish seized the opportunity. "I've wanted to drive for Roger Penske ever since I was little," says Hornish, who signed a multiyear contract with Penske, whose cars have won 13 Indy 500s and 120 races overall in 33 seasons. "Maybe someday I'll look into NASCAR, but now I want to make the IRL more popular."
That won't be easy. Ever since open-wheel racing split into two feuding bodies in 1996-CART and the IRL—the sport has sputtered and, subsequently, hemorrhaged fans. But the battle between CART and IRL is finally over. In January, CART, which filed for bankruptcy last December, was purchased by the Open Wheel Racing Series, yet few observers expect OWRS to survive, and most believe the sport will soon be under one umbrella. "That's the first step in growing our series," says Penske. "Now we need our drivers to become well-known personalities. That's where Sam comes in."
Of the IRL's top drivers—Hornish; his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves of Brazil, winner of the 500 in 2001 and 2002; reigning IRL champ Scott Dixon of New Zealand; Tony Kanaan of Brazil; and Tomas Scheckter of South Africa—Hornish is the only American, and the IRL is promoting him as their star-spangled poster boy. "Sam is the one driver in our series fans can really latch on to," says Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "He's an ail-American type of guy."
Hornish has been attending races at the Brickyard for longer than he can remember. Jo Ellen Hornish was eight months pregnant with Sam when she sat in the stands for the 1980 500. Midway through the race her unborn son started kicking ferociously. "I thought his foot was going to come through my stomach," says Jo Ellen. "I didn't know if he liked racing or if it made him agitated. But it didn't take long to find out"
When Sam was eight years old, he persuaded his father to build a small oval dirt track with banked turns near their house. Over the next three summers little Sam could usually be found kicking up dust as he zoomed around the oval at 35 mph in a go-kart his dad bought for him.