Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Sam Hornish Jr. Drives on Edge … & Dreads School?

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Some people might wonder why a three-time IndyCar champion with 19 wins, including the Borg-Warner trophy for winning the series’ most prestigious race, the Indianapolis 500, and its Most Popular Driver award would be satisfied with toiling in NASCAR’s version of AAA ball when he could be padding those already-impressive statistics in open-wheel competition.

Well, the short answer is that Sam Hornish Jr. isn’t satisfied with his foray into NASCAR. Not yet. But the 32-year old Hornish is far from giving up, either. Perhaps rushed a little too quickly into stock car’s top division, Hornish has been given the chance to start over by team owner Roger Penske and Hornish is making the most of every moment.

He grabbed his first NASCAR win in the Nationwide Series last fall at Phoenix and is off to a hot start in 2012, currently sitting sixth in the standings.

But there’s much more to the Ohio native than just his racing. Hornish is a family man as well whose face lights up when he talks about his daughters Addison, 4, and Eliza, 1. Hornish sat down with Amy Henderson at Bristol to discuss his aggressive style behind the wheel, building confidence in himself and his race team … and planting flowers with his daughter.

Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: Roger Penske has given you a second chance in NASCAR. On the Media Tour, he acknowledged that the first time in the Cup Series might have been too soon and he’s committed to doing this the right way for you. What are you doing differently this time?

Sam Hornish Jr.: We’re trying to be smart about it. We’re trying to make good decisions moving forward and get where we need to be. Just taking the time to look around a little bit and see what’s going on around us and how to make ourselves better.

Henderson: When you first came into the Cup Series, you kind of got thrown into the fire. Having taken a step back, will that make it an easier step back up to that level?

Hornish: We thought with running a partial schedule last year that we’d be able to come out here [and do well]. I guess we’re still on just the first couple of races this year, so we don’t really have a good idea of where we stand yet. With how everything is going, we want to continue to build our chemistry and get everything going well and in the right direction.

I feel like all in all, it’s been a good start to the season for having some of the cars that we had early on in the year and to be able to get out of these races with top 10s. It’s been good.

Henderson: Talk about the transition from open wheel into NASCAR. Just how hard is it? You’ve done just about everything there is to do in IndyCar, but NASCAR is a real transition for most drivers who come from those cars.

Hornish: It’s really difficult. It’s something totally different than what we had and you have to be in the right position with the right people around you to be able to move forward. I’ve said many times that I didn’t feel like I had anything more to accomplish over there, but it’s been an incredibly difficult transition because you basically have to forget everything you’ve learned to adapt.

[At the same time,] you still have to try to get people on board with your way of thinking. Even though we’re all trying to accomplish the same things here, sometimes it’s like, ‘This is what I need to make the car better’ and we can’t focus on this right now because we need to focus on that.

And there’s still a little bit of having that confidence in yourself that you feel comfortable putting your foot down and saying, “No, this is what we need to work on right now and you guys need to listen to me on this.”

Henderson: Have you found more of that confidence since you won in Phoenix last year?

Hornish: I don’t know. I’d like to have more of it. We’ll see how it goes. It’s just hard to tell sometimes. You go do testing in the offseason, but you really don’t know where you’re at because there’s nobody else there. You don’t have those opportunities until you get to the first couple of races of the season.

I wish we were doing a little bit better at this point in time, but I feel like it only takes small clicks to get where we need to be. We just need to keep our heads up and keep believing in one another. We’re trying to do the best we can with that.

Henderson: You are one of the most accomplished drivers in IndyCar with three championships and multiple race wins (including the Indianapolis 500). How did winning at Phoenix compare to those accomplishments? It’s so different …

Hornish: It’s totally different. But it was a long time coming and it felt really good. It was exactly what we needed, a good shot in the arm to get us going through the offseason and helping us finish out our sponsorship deals.

I feel like we can just keep doing the right thing and we’ll continue to get that little boost. I had a lot of great days over in IndyCar. Not to say that I ever took it for granted, but after having a couple of years of not having that celebration at the end of the race, that one felt pretty good!

Henderson: With all of your accomplishments in IndyCar and now NASCAR, it’s easy to forget that you’re still a young guy. So, say a couple years down the road, you’ve won a Sprint Cup title … is there anything else that you would want to do? You said you felt like you’d done it all in IndyCar, so if you do it all in NASCAR, what’s next?

Hornish: (Laughing) You never know what the next thing is going to be. You never know. Even if I don’t accomplish all my goals over here, I’m not the kind of guy who idly sits around. There are a lot of things I want to do in my life and they don’t all revolve around being in a racecar. The big thing is to continue to do my job to the best of my ability.

The most important job I have right now is raising my kids. While this is a very important part of what my daily life is, I need to always keep in the back of my head that I’m doing the right things by them, too, because you only get one go around. I’ve already proved that if you work hard and keep your head down and work hard you can get more than one go around over here, but with your kids you only get one.

Henderson: You’re really intense in the race car. You always have it right on the edge and had a little trouble in practice because of that. That’s a good thing, because it shows that intensity. Are you always that intense in the racecar?

Hornish: I’d say I’m pretty intense most of the time. I’m moving forward as much as I can. Sometimes in the racecar, yeah, it’s a little bit too much. But I feel like if I continue to back that up, I feel like they don’t have to push me forward.

Sometimes it’s more pulling the reins back and trying to slow me down a little bit. The better your car is, the more comfortable you are, the less chances you have to take, so I just feel like if we make good changes on the car and it’s better, then I don’t have to push as hard on it.

Henderson: There’s a fine line between driving on the edge and going over it. It looks like you’ve been finding it more and more successfully through last year and into this year. It’s a tough line.

Hornish: It is. I want to win. I want to do good for our sponsors and keep them all happy and the team as well. But at the end of the day, nobody can push you while you’re in that car and you can only push it as far as you’re comfortable with.

Sometimes I get a little bit too comfortable with what’s going on. I want to find speed wherever we can find it. I’m not one to lay back. Sometimes I feel like I need to do better at that. Sometimes it’s really hard to do it.

Like I said, though, the better the cars are handling, the better we run on a weekly basis, the more often you feel like, “OK, I can ride a little bit; we’ve made good changes.” But we’ve got to get that first part done, I guess.

Henderson: We’ve all seen that intensity on the racetrack, but what are you like at home?

Hornish: I’m pretty much a busy body. I don’t let any grass grow under my feet. I’ve always got a project going, doing something. When I’m out there doing something with my hands, it allows me to think a little bit about my job, but then when I really need to focus on something, I can focus on that and it’s kind of a little bit of a getaway.

Henderson: You talk about how important it is to spend time with your family. What’s your favorite thing to do together?

Hornish: Oh, I don’t know. We travel a lot. This week, we went to the park. We made s’mores one night, we blew bubbles, played freeze tag. My 4-year-old and I planted some flowers for her. She’s got some little flower pots, so we did all that. We worked on her treehouse. We’re kind of all over the place.

She went to Lowe’s with me and we got some new flowers to fill in where the old annuals died off. We put new fertilizer and dirt in there and got those going again. I do a lot of stuff with them. When I’m away from the track, I try to spend as much of every day with them as I can.

Henderson: Do they come to the track with you?

Hornish: Yes. They’re here this weekend. They came to Daytona. They won’t go anywhere west of the Mississippi until summer, when the oldest is done with her preschool for the year. She’s going to do one more year of preschool. She could go (to kindergarten) if she was old enough; she knows all her ABCs and her numbers and all that stuff.

But not yet. I’m kind of dreading that, too. There’s a lot less getting to spend time with her when she has to be in school all the time.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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