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Archive for Friday, April 25, 2003

Hornish needs lift from Indianapolis 500

Two-time champion must reverse bad luck in IRL’s biggest race to turn around his slow-starting season

April 25, 2003

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A poor start to the season has put two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. in the difficult position of hoping to turn his season around in the Indianapolis 500.

That could be a daunting prospect for Hornish, whose worst performances in winning the IndyCar Series titles the past two seasons have come at the IRL's biggest race.

In his first three tries at Indy, the 23-year-old wunderkind has finished 24th, 14th and 25th, and has yet to complete the full 200 laps on the famed 21/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

"I feel really good about our chances this year and I felt really good about our chances over the past two years and things just haven't worked out," Hornish said.

"We've had the car and had the setup to probably be in the top five at least the last two years, and we've just made mistakes. But, you know, the pressure is on. That's the race you want to win even more than you want to win any other race or the championship."

Hornish said the uncharacteristic mistakes at Indy may mean he's trying too hard there.

"Mostly, it's mistakes because I want to do well," he said. "I always try real hard, no matter what, but it seems like I haven't been able to get away with some of things that I have at other places."

The mistakes include crashing while passing and spinning out on cold tires -- things Hornish never does at other tracks.

"I don't know if it's got something to do with (the pressure) or it just wasn't my time yet."

The first three races of this season haven't been kind to Hornish either.

In the opener in Homestead, Fla., the handling was off all day on his Pennzoil Panther Dallara-Chevrolet and Hornish finished an undistinguished 10th, a lap off the pace.

He had a strong entry at Phoenix, but tangled with rookie A.J. Foyt IV on the 30th lap and finished 21st.

In Japan earlier this month, Hornish got behind because of ill-timed caution flags and wound up sixth, again a lap behind.

Going into the May 4 opening of practice at Indy, Hornish is 10th in the season standings, trailing leader Scott Sharp by 49 points.

Kevin "Rocket" Blanch, the team manager, said the poor results so far this season have put the team in a hole, but have not buried Panther Racing.

"The results are showing that we're worse off than we really are," Blanch said. "What we always like to say around here: 'It's not necessarily that you need any good luck; you just don't need any bad luck.'

"I'm not saying we're the best or the fastest out there right now, but I think we've had some bad luck, and it just caught us out at the wrong time."

Hornish and Blanch also consider being a one-car team competing against multiple-car efforts by operations like those operated by Sharp's car-owner Tom Kelley, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti part of their problem.

"It's hard to go out there with half as much information and half as many tests and whatnot," Hornish said.

That will change, at least for Indianapolis, where Billy Boat will drive a second Panther entry. Boat, with three top-10 finishes in six Indy 500 starts, will bring some much-needed experience to the team.

Andretti, now an IRL owner-driver, came over from the rival CART series a year ago to race as Hornish's teammate. It was Andretti's first Indy start since 1996 and he wasn't much help to Hornish.

"What we really needed was one guy working on a race setup and one guy working on a qualifying setup and trying things between the cars," Blanch said. "We didn't know Michael and he didn't know us.

"We know Billy. He ran our car as recently as December when he did the testing for us. We know now, going into the speedway, we've got twice as many laps we can run and twice as many motors and twice as many setups."

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