small-town boys when the dream began. As a nine-year-old in Defiance, Ohio, Sam
Hornish Jr. blasted a go-kart around the miniature dirt track in his backyard
and pretended he was outracing Indy 500 giants A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Johnny
Rutherford. Growing up in Nazareth, Pa., the grandson of racing legend Mario
Andretti and the son of Indy Car champion Michael, Marco Andretti was even
younger when the reverie first took hold. At the age of four he was playing
with Matchbox cars and already imagining himself charging to the lead at the
Brickyard. "When my dad came to race [at Indy], I'd be hanging out in my
room at the hotel at the track," the 19-year-old Marco recalled last
Thursday. "I could hear the cars outside while I played with my cars
inside." � On Sunday, heading into the final turn of the final lap of the
90th running of the 500, Andretti and Hornish were living out their childhood
fantasies. With the sun-drenched crowd of 250,000 on its feet, Andretti--the
most promising Indy driver of his generation--roared out of Turn 4 with a lead
of two car lengths over Hornish. The 26-year-old Hornish, a two-time Indy
Racing League champion, pushed his car to 219 mph and thought, I'm either going
to pass him or crash trying. Racing down the frontstretch in a Marlboro Team
Penske car that possessed superior aerodynamics, Hornish dove to the inside and
edged past Andretti 250 yards before the finish line, winning by .0635 of a
second--the second-closest finish in Indy history.
goodness! Oh, my goodness!" exclaimed Hornish's normally reserved team
owner, Roger Penske, in Victory Lane. "It's finishes like this that make me
believe that open-wheel racing can make a comeback. What a race!"
Indeed, 10 years
after U.S. open-wheel racing bitterly split into two competing series--the IRL
and CART (now known as Champ Car)--Sunday's electrifying finish provided
another boost to a sport that is still riding the wave of media attention
focused on Danica Patrick since she nearly won last year's Indy 500. ( Patrick
ran well all day Sunday and finished eighth.) The next step in winning back
fans would be a merger between IRL and Champ Car. In fact, IRL chief Tony
George, who also owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Champ Car co-owner Kevin
Kalkhoven have been communicating daily by telephone and e-mail since December,
trying to reach a deal that would bring U.S. open-wheel racing back under one
umbrella, perhaps as soon as 2007. On Sunday the two men watched the Indy 500
from George's suite above the start-finish line. "Done the right way,
unification could be just what open-wheel racing needs," George said on
Friday. "We could eliminate confusion among fans and have stronger cars,
stronger owners and stronger drivers."
In a field that
featured six former winners, Hornish, who started from the pole, proved to be
the strongest driver at Indy--quite a turnaround from his previous six starts
in the race.
Growing up in
Defiance, 165 miles from the Brickyard, Hornish had posters of Penske, whose
cars have won a record 14 Indy 500s, and driver Rick Mears, a four-time Indy
winner, on his bedroom walls. But once Hornish became an IRL racer, his
fortunes at his home track did not approach his heroes'. In one start for PDM
Racing and three for Panther Racing, Hornish placed no better than 14th in four
500s from 2000 through '03. He signed with Penske in '04 and crashed in his
next two trips to Indy.
This year it
appeared Hornish might be snakebitten again, when, during a pit stop while the
race was under caution on Lap 150, the fuel hose got stuck in his car. There
was no damage to the vehicle, but because Hornish left his pit stall with
equipment still attached to his racer, he was penalized by officials: He would
have to make another run down pit road once green-flag racing resumed, a 60-mph
detour that would cost him a lap. Before the drive-through, however, with the
caution still in effect, Hornish ducked back into the pits to top off with fuel
while the rest of the field stayed out on the track. This meant that Hornish,
unlike most of the lead cars, would not have to make a late-race stop for fuel
and would cycle back into contention.
As the final laps
unfolded, there was the familiar sight of an Andretti in the lead at Indy. In
his 14 previous starts in the 500, Michael, who came out of a two-year
retirement for this year's race, had led a total of 426 laps and come
tantalizingly close to winning a half-dozen times. On Sunday he seized the lead
with four laps to go but was quickly passed by Marco on the frontstretch. The
youngest driver in the field, Marco brazenly blocked a surging Hornish on the
penultimate lap, nearly causing a wreck in Turn 3. But Marco simply didn't have
enough speed to prevent Hornish from passing him. "I have a lot of shots
left," Marco said afterward, "but [I learned] from my dad's career that
you have to take advantage of every one of them."
Two hours after
the race Hornish rode through the infield in a golf cart on his way to a
reception at the Penske hospitality tent. He jumped off when he spotted Mears,
and the two met in a tight embrace. "You made me really proud today,"
said Mears. "That last move was as good as it gets."
Hornish said, grinning at his racing idol. "I've been waiting for this for
a long time."
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Anderson's Power Rankings every Tuesday at SI.com/racing.