Making An Unpopular Confession

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I have been carrying a deep, dark secret for quite some time. It’s a secret that could get me ostracized from the IndyCar blogging community, from my friends and even my own family. But after carrying this burden for about a decade, I feel the need to purge this blight from my conscience, in hopes of finally eradicating it from my soul.

I don’t seek out controversial topics on this site, simply to create a buzz. Sometimes a seemingly harmless post will quickly veer off-topic in the comments section, as was the case this past Friday – but it’s usually not my intent to bring up too many controversial topics here. In fact, I usually will try to avoid subject matter that has the potential to start the flame-throwing between readers. Sometimes while writing something that is strictly my opinion – there is no avoiding ruffling someone’s feathers that happens to be on the other side of an issue. I’m afraid that may be the case with this article.

Knowing that I’m in the vast minority on this topic, I’ve done my best to avoid it up until now. But since it is now being mentioned quite a bit in the silly season, I feel the need to finally chime in on my thoughts – blasphemous as they may be.

I am not a fan of Sam Hornish, Jr. There, I said it. It’s finally out there in the open. Until I casually mentioned it in a post last week, I had never even alluded to it. My oldest brother and I usually agree on practically everything regarding open-wheel racing, both past and present – but we strongly differ on this point. He likes Sam. I don’t.

One of my few Nashville friends that actually follows the IZOD IndyCar Series grew his sideburns out a few years ago as some sort of odd tribute to Sam Hornish. It’s probably just as well that he didn’t get a No. 6 tattoo in homage of his idol. He would have had to alter it when Hornish left the series following the 2007 season…or maybe not.

That’s why it’s now relevant to discuss my feelings on Hornish. There are mumblings; strictly rumors at this point – that since Roger Penske has been unable to secure sponsorship for Hornish’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series program, Hornish may return to the series he spurned three full seasons ago. Some have penciled him in at Panther Racing, the team that propelled him to two of his three IndyCar championships. Others say there is a chance he might resume his seat in his No. 6 Team Penske ride, thereby bumping Ryan Briscoe to a Penske mount in the ALMS. Most likely, he will take a step back and drive for Penske in the Nationwide Series for 2011.

Now that I’ve admitted to the sin of not being a fan of Hornish, I’ll acknowledge that he is an outstanding IndyCar driver – although even the most ardent Hornish supporter would have trouble defending his NASCAR record to this point. Hornish was one of only a handful of IndyCar drivers that could put a car wherever he wanted to on the track – especially on the outside line. He did it with much greater consistency than two other drivers that come to mind – Tomas Scheckter and Marco Andretti. Those two are just as likely to stick a car into the fence, as they are to successfully complete an outside pass. But Hornish was usually able to pass on the outside with ease, generally on his way to one of the nineteen victories he earned while driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Many say Hornish is the poster-child for all the principles the IRL was founded on. When he first appeared in, what was then, the Indy Racing Northern Light Series in 2000, Sam Hornish was driving for PDM Racing. Although most of his finishes were unspectacular; he did finish third in only his third race at Las Vegas. He caught the eye of John Barnes and was signed to replace Scott Goodyear in the No 4 Pennzoil car. He quickly became a fan favorite and drove the yellow No. 4 car to two consecutive championships in 2001 and 2002. While saddled with the inept Chevy engine in 2003, Hornish did well to drive the Pennzoil car to fifth in the standings.

When Team Penske moved to the IRL in 2002 and Helio Castroneves lost the championship to Hornish that year, Roger Penske took note. He coveted Hornish and when Gil de Ferran retired following the 2003 season, Penske got his man. The Toyota engine that powered Team Penske took a sudden downturn in 2004 which continued in 2005 and led to their leaving the series following the 2005 season. Still, the team managed to massage the chassis enough to secure third place in the standings for that season. When Team Penske got on equal footing with the Honda engine in 2006, Hornish won the championship in a tie-breaker with Ganassi driver Dan Wheldon.

Hornish also won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion by becoming the first person in history to make a pass for the lead on the last lap. Not only did he pass leader Marco Andretti on the last lap, it was only a few hundred feet from the finish line.

Hornish followed that remarkable season with a disappointing fifth place in the standings. He was dogged throughout the season with rumors that he was moving to Roger Penske’s NASCAR team for 2008. Those rumors proved to be true. It hasn’t gone well for Hornish in NASCAR. He has had a few top-five finishes sprinkled in with mostly DNF’s, crashes and poor performances.

So why don’t I care for Hornish when he has such a huge following? It’s not an easy answer. Initially, I didn’t care for him with PDM and Panther for purely superficial reasons – but that’s what you’d expect from a shallow, superficial person like myself. His appearance simply rubbed me the wrong way. Just as the tattoo-clad NFL and NBA bother me, Hornish’s combination of sideburns, soul-patches and what seemed to be a surly personality made me not care for him. I was thinking…."who is this punk with the goatee that’s winning all these races?" Apparently, Roger Penske felt the same because from the day Hornish signed with The Captain, Hornish has been clean-shaven.

But beyond his appearance, Hornish came across to me as arrogant and aloof. His many supporters will tell you that he’s just extremely shy. I am an introvert by nature, but my career has required me to develop my extroverted side. There are many drivers that do not have a natural affinity to cameras, microphones and mobs of fans; but they know it is part of their job and they do it to the best of their ability. Marco Andretti excluded, most of the drivers have done a good job of developing that skill out of necessity. Sam Hornish has not, in my opinion.

I will probably get many e-mails and comments disproving me, but in my own experience – I have found Hornish to be abrupt and borderline rude. In all of the years I hung around the garage area for the Nashville race, I witnessed and encountered many drivers. Most would venture out into the midst of fans on either bicycles, scooters or on foot. They were constantly approached by fans seeking photos, autographs or just a chance to chat. In almost every instance, the drivers were always obliging. Hornish, on the other hand, would have someone drive him anonymously through the crowd in a van with tinted windows. The vehicle would stop directly in front of the team motor home, where he would bolt directly from the van into the safety of the motor coach without having to acknowledge one single fan. He would stay hunkered down in there until time to race. Consequently, I have always found Sam Hornish to be the most absent and obscure driver in the paddock.

It didn’t do Hornish’s image any favors when he was teamed with Helio Castroneves. One driver was exuding personality and charm and a great driver in his own right, while the other was quiet, withdrawn and always had a look on his face that he was on the verge of nausea. It made for an interesting pairing.

Sam seemed to be the reluctant face for the league. Being one of the few successful Americans in the series, thrusted him into a spotlight he appeared to be very uncomfortable in. He would wear an uneasy smile when he won, but when things weren’t going well, Sam could come across as a pouter. Aside from being a successful American driver in a series that is predominantly foreign, Hornish is not a marketer’s dream. That could explain why sponsorship for him is hard to come by.

Now rumors are stirring that Hornish may be headed back to the IZOD IndyCar Series. If not for 2011, I think Sam Hornish will eventually come back. Whether or not he’ll match his previous success remains to be seen. Returning after a failed stint in NASCAR certainly did nothing to diminish the skills or reputation for Dario Franchitti.

Sam also has a very loyal fan base, so it’s doubtful that his popularity will take a hit. I am sure if I were to get to know him, I would like him better than I do. With so few Americans, I would certainly welcome Hornish back into the series. I think the IZOD IndyCar Series needs his presence and his driving skills. I just wish he were a little easier for me to like.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Making An Unpopular Confession”

  1. With all due respect George, this seems like a lot of scriblin’ to get to your dislike of sideburns and surliness. A lot of drivers dash to their motorhomes to take care of a “going problem”. I think you need more than that to hang your hat on. Find out if he’s a Republican.

  2. George, I am a Sam fan, and here’s one of the reasons why.

    I was lucky enough to attend a Peyton Manning charity bowling event that included many sports celebs, including Sam. I was introduced to him and he was not at all rude, arrogant, or abrupt. He was warm, engaging, and smiling. I imagine he was more relaxed, guard down, since he wasn’t “at the office”.

    While he was chatting with me, I noticed he was actually in line. He was in line, behind a few “regular” people, to have his personal copy of Quiet Strength signed by the author, Tony Dungy, who was also a celebrity bowler.

    Many other celebs walked right up to Tony to talk, or shake his hand, ignoring the not as celebrated guests. But Sam waited patiently, and with anything but arrogance.

    I respect your opinion, though I heartily disagree.

    Cheers,
    Doug

  3. Bravo! I was never a Hornish fan either. His driving skills on an oval in an IZOD Indycar are undeniable. He always seemed to steal a win from the clutches of someone on the cusp of greatness, see: Marco Andretti, Vitor Meira. Take a look at the Top-Ten closest finishes, he is in half of them! Again, nothing more than a testimony to his ability, just really really annoying.
    I remember being at the Kentucky race 05, I think. It was a battle between Hornish and Wheldon. Our entire grandstand was enthralled as were we with the action, however, EVERYONE was cheering for Hornish! My wife, friend, and I weren’t cheering so much for Wheldon but against Hornish. You would have thought we were cheering for some evil third world dictator by the looks we were getting! I still don’t get why fans found it so easy to cheer for Hornish, I certainly did not. In the end, he won the race, I was annoyed.
    Dixon is pretty quiet off-track but yet he is engaging with fans and by all accounts a very nice guy. On top of that he is absolute dynamite on the track, yet Dixon is derided for his “lack of personality”. So what was it about Hornish that garnered him such a huge fan base?

  4. Judy in Texas Says:

    Well, I’m relieved — I thought you were about to announce some serious decision or fault.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t like Sam either. However, you at least have reasons and I don’t! It’s just that I’m an Helio fan and Sam seems the total opposite of Helio — except that Sam could sure drive an Indy car!

    What will Sam be driving next year? My allegiance to Team Penske will be torn apart if the Captain replaces Ryan for Sam. Surely not!

  5. The American Mutt Says:

    BS talking point aside: Hornish did not improve on the road courses, and would be irrelevant in the series as it is now. The man simply can’t turn right for a whole race without spinning it once. Don’t throw that podium at Watkins Glen at me either, he got the position by a dirty pass, and had circumstances fall his way. I didn’t particularly care for Hornish, and by his last season I was ready for him to go to Nascar. You’re not alone George.

  6. If Sam does come back to the IndyCar Series I will gladly welcome him back.

  7. Panther2011 Says:

    I think your assessment of Sam has some definite holes in it. While he does appear to be arrogate or aloof sometimes, it is only because he is the type of person that carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is a very driven and competitive person who tends to be extremely hard on himself…this sport, no matter what series, has tremendous pressures. Add to that the fact that he is a very present husband and father and he’s just like anyone of us trying to balance it all. Sam doesn’t view himself as a celebrity, rather just a normal guy that happens to drive a racecar for a living. When he attracts attention and whatnot, even thought it’s been happening for years, he’s still surprised that people have so much interest in him.

    Take a look at his charitiable donations since he started racing…how much he’s donated, the events he’s participated in, etc. He’s by no means an Helio Castroneves, but that’s because Sam is a very humble, small-town guy. He doesn’t get wrapped up in the limelight because that’s just not who he is.

    Everyone has their opinion and I respect yours; however, I think you’re basing your assessment on one aspect of driving, which is the celebrity of it all. That isn’t something Sam places much weight on because he knows he’s not going to be a racecar driver forever. He wants to be remembered for what he’s accomplished on and off the track, not whether or not he won Dancing with the Stars.

  8. George, you’ve helped me come out of the closet. I’m not a Hornish fan either.

    The weird thing is, I can’t really put my finger on why. I’ve never seen him come across as arrogant, and as far as appearances go, I’ve been numbed by not only other pro sports (Dennis Rodman, anybody?), but by the entertainment world in general; he’s positively white bread compared to all that. And yes, I fully acknowledge his open wheel driving skill; maybe I don’t know enough about fendered racing, but part of me wonders how he’d do in, say, Johnson’s car.

    Regardless… I don’t know why I can’t warm to the guy, but I just can’t. Objectively, I admit that back in ’07, he had a legitimate gripe with Kanaan at Watkins Glen and should forgive his reaction, but I can’t help but think it exuded classlessness. I can’t reconcile my rational mind (which says he did no worse than any other driver with a gripe) with my emotional opinion (which says that I simply don’t like how he handled things), and the cognitive dissonance gives me a headache, but there it is: I have to admit to my opinion, irrational as it is, and say that I didn’t like how he handled that issue.

    And above that, before this news about sponsorship, didn’t he say he never wanted to return to Indycar? And say so in a rather dismissive manner towards the series? Again, the rational part of my mind understand the frustration at a series that gave less popularity to a proven winner than NASCAR did to a backmarker, but at the same time, that just rankled me.

    In the end, I do rationally understand that Hornish would only be a benefit to the series. I readily acknowledge his skill, and given his fanbase, can’t see anything but positives to the idea of his returning. But that said, I’m just a little cold to the idea inside. Dario returning made me genuinely happy. Sam returning? Well… I can’t help but feel that the smile on my face is just a little fake.

  9. Seems like I remember reading a quote from Dario after Dario won Indy for the first time. He’d said something about having not really known Sam, and having formed an opinion of-sorts that he thought he was maybe a bit snobby or snotty or something. Then at a celebration for his win, Sam bought Dario a drink and they sat and talked, and Dario came away (forgive me if I mis-quote) with a new opinion…that Sam was “a good bloke – a really good bloke”.

    It may rub people the wrong way when a guy feels so out-of-his-element with PR that he does come across as aloof or completely disinterested in the fans. I can’t imagine that a guy who recognized how fortunate he was to be in the profession he was could be completely disinterested, but can easily see (as I see in myself) how inept he might feel at being a “personality” with all its attedant requirements…and it may have just been far easier to hide from it than get out there and risk saying something that you’d end up regretting. Seems like I recall Sam saying something about finding it hard to believe that anyone would care what he was thinking about anything. That speaks volumes to me about him being a pretty humble man.

  10. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    My only issue with Sam, is exactly what the American Mutt mentioned. That while Sam was outstanding on ovals (as long as the team gave him a perfect car). He was merely a back marker on road and streets. Even with what seemed like countless hours of practice provided to him by the Captain, Sam never seemed to catch on to the right hand turn thing. Lets face it, from driver to driver there are always going to be those that are stronger on either one or the other, but to be a consumate champion, one must be able to do both well….

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