Making An Unpopular Confession
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.