Mr. Hornish Goes To Washington

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WASHINGTON – Sam Hornish Jr. figures he’ll just have to win the 91st Indianapolis 500 to continue his conversation with President George W. Bush.

Hornish, known for his quick wit and rarely at a loss for words, found himself temporarily awestruck when the president greeted the Marlboro Team Penske contingent in the President’s Conference Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Hornish, his wife, Crystal, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chief Executive Officer Tony George and Penske Racing owner Roger Penske flanked the Borg-Warner Trophy for a photo opportunity with the president, who welcomed the group by saying "Welcome to the White House, the bastion of freedom."

"You can’t really prepare for that," said Hornish, who also was the subject of a press conference outside the West Wing and participated in an "Ask the White House" online chat. "There aren’t too many people I come in contact with that I can’t find the words to spit out of my mouth on what I want to tell them, but that was one of them.

"I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say. I got out the fact how honored I was to meet him. As soon as his hand left mine and he moved on, I thought, ‘Hey, dummy, you didn’t say half the things you wanted to say to him,’ so I was more critical of myself for not saying the things I wanted to."

Only hours earlier, Bush returned from the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, where leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union discussed continued cooperation on a broad range of international economic, security, and political issues.

"I think it’s a real honor for the president to take the time to meet Sam and our team," said Penske, who last visited the White House as an Indianapolis 500-winning team owner in 1991 with Rick Mears after Mears’ fourth victory. "It’s a credit to IndyCar racing and the status it’s achieved in the sports world. To me, it’s a demonstration of how open our political leaders are with their constituency."

After the formal photo, which also included Indy Racing League President and Chief Operating Officer Brian Barnhart, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and COO Joie Chitwood, the crew of the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Honda/Firestone, and team and corporate officials, the president engaged Hornish about his victory from the pole in the 90th edition of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

"You had a close one there, how close was it?" Bush asked.

"A little too close for me," Hornish replied.

"I’ve had a few close races before, too, and my attitude is first is first," Bush said.

Hornish presented the president an autographed racing helmet and a Penske Racing jacket.

"That will look real good in the presidential library," Bush said about the helmet, and the president said about the jacket, "Just right for those cool Texas mornings."

Said Hornish: "He was very complimentary of us winning the Indianapolis 500 and the style in which we won, and of being a small town boy from Ohio having a dream. Seldom do people accomplish their dream. It might have been about 10 minutes, but it seemed like 10 seconds. I had as much fun watching him work the room and talk with everybody.

"He took an individual picture with everybody (at the outset inquiring if anyone else was from Texas), which was neat because he doesn’t have to do anything like that."

George and the president shared a brief exchange about ethanol, which this year is being blended with methanol to power the IndyCar Series cars. Next year, 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol will be used in the series, including the 91st Indianapolis 500 on May 27, 2007.

"You’re leading edge, leading edge," said Bush, who has touted exploration and support of alternative fuel sources in his State of the Union address for the past two years.

Hornish also visited with U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor, who represents Hornish’s district. Last month, Gillmor introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives to honor Hornish for winning the 500-Mile Race.

"There aren’t too many things you can do in life where you get to go to the White House," Hornish said. "It’s a pretty important day in my life."

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