Iracingone Review:/I Hornish No 1
November 30, 2001 | 6:00 P.M. EST
There’s many ways to describe Sam Hornish Jr.’s title-winning season in the Indy Racing League, but consistency and historic sum it up best.
Hornish, 22, became the youngest open-wheel champion ever and youngest IRL race winner ever this past season while driving the No. 4 Dallara-Aurora for Panther Racing. He won three races, finished second four times, third three times and fourth once in 13 races.
His worst finishes? Sixth at Nashville and 14th at Indianapolis. Nothing to cry about, for sure.
Hornish also was running at the finish of every race and completed 2,643 of a possible 2,650 laps of competition. No wonder it’s hard to come up with adequate adjectives to attach to Hornish’s accomplishments.
“I think we're going to have an even better year next year,” he said.
That’s a tall order, but there’s reason to believe he could improve. After all, at 22 Hornish surely hasn’t learned all the tricks of the racing trade. This past season also was his first at Panther Racing. With a full year under their collective belts, the Panther Racing team just might be better now than ever.
“I sure wouldn't have thought it would be this way this season,” said Hornish, who replaced Scott Goodyear at Panther. “I figured it would take a little more time to mesh with the team to get the results we have.”
The results began immediately this season. Hornish won the first two races of the season and established a points lead he would never relinquish.
His only misstep came in the fabled Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hornish spun his car coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 18. Al Unser Jr. crashed trying to avoid the spinning youngster, but Hornish got his car heading in the right direction and went on to finish the race 14th, four laps off the pace.
Even at that low point, team co-owner John Barnes saw something special.
“I don't think there isn't any races that wasn't fun, even Indianapolis when he spun early,” Barnes said. “It was just tremendous to watch him and the crew battle back. I think we gained three laps on the leader during the race.”
Maybe it was a moral victory to finish seventh of the IRL regulars (CART drivers and teams occupied the first six finishing positions), but Hornish will have none of that. Instead, he’s using the experience as motivation.
“To have another year like this year would be great,” he said. “Maybe try to add a win in the month of May.”
If not in May, Hornish will have a chance to win at Indy in August when he races in the all-star IROC series. Hornish was invited to participate in the four-race series after winning the IRL title.
In addition to testing in IROC, Hornish will spend the offseason preparing for his title defense. He’ll also squeeze in some personal time.
“It feels good to be able to relax a little bit and know that the next couple of months I don't have to think about racing,” he said. “I'm going to Cancun at the end of December. I'll actually have some time to get some sun, and I'll just try to figure out how to win races next year.”
If he hasn’t figured it out yet, Lord help his IRL competitors.