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Hornish's expectations higher than most rookies
By Tim Puet, Associated Press

Sam Hornish Jr.
When it comes to rookies to watch at Indy, keep an eye on Same Hornish Jr., in the No. 18 car.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sam Hornish Jr. hardly sounds like a 20-year-old Indianapolis 500 rookie when he talks about the race.

"I don't see why we can't end up in the top three," he said. "I've got plenty of patience and the car has shown it's reliable, so a podium finish seems to be a reasonable goal."

That might be a reach, but he has some ammunition to back up his ambition.

Last month in the Vegas Indy 300, he started 18th but finished third behind winner Al Unser Jr. and polesitter Mark Dismore. And Hornish claims he could have won in his PDM Racing G Force-Aurora.

"I could have done better," said Hornish, 11th overall in the Indy Racing League standings. "I made one pit stop under green and as soon as I went back out, the yellow light went on."

That allowed the other cars to pit without losing positions.

"That was a bad thing, but at least I got to finish," he said. "We were just patient all day, and that kept us there at the end.

Hornish passed his Indy 500 rookie test last month, going as fast as 211 mph. He was the only driver to complete the test in one day.

That was his first trip to the Brickyard as a driver, but he's been there many times as a spectator with his father, Sam Sr. In fact, the younger Hornish has been going to Indy since before he was born.

He jokes that his first 500 was in 1979, when his mother and father attended the race 37 days before his birth. Now that he's run on the 2½-mile track, he's very excited.

"I can't wait till it's race day, with 400,000 people in the stands and all the different colors," he said.

Although Hornish began competing as an 11-year-old -- driving go-karts with his father as chief mechanic -- he never had big dreams of racing in the Memorial Day weekend classic.

"It was a father-son thing we could do together and we just kept going," he said.

From karting, he advanced to Formula 2000, where he spent three years before moving in 1999 to CART's Formula Atlantic series. He did well, winning a race and being selected as rookie of the year.

The next move could have been to CART's Indy Lights series, a step below the elite Champ cars, but Hornish thought the IRL might offer a better future. He contacted PDM crew chief Paul Murphy, whom he knew from Formula 2000, and was hired.

"CART and Lights didn't seem to be the way to go because it doesn't seem as though those series are actively looking for American drivers, whereas the IRL is," he said. "I knew I could run well on oval trucks and the IRL is an all-oval series."

PDM co-owner Chuck Buckman describes Hornish as "a young version of Rick Mears," a four-time Indy 500 champion.

"He's very cool and calm in the car, and gives terrific feedback -- better than a lot of guys twice his age," Buckman said.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, a driving coach for the IRL, is anxious to see how Hornish will adjust to his first Indy 500 as a driver.

"Sometimes, it takes a while to get the feel of the track at Indy, but there's no question the ability is there," Rutherford said. "He's got youth and desire going for him, and he's got that extra sense great drivers have of anticipating opportunities and problems before most others see them."

Away from the track, Hornish is a fabrication shop supervisor for his father's company, which mainly transports auto parts from the General Motors foundry in Defiance to other GM plants.

Because he knows how to work with metal, he has helped rebuild his own car at times. He says it relaxes him and permits him to do something most drivers can't.

"Anything they'll let me do, I'm willing to try it," he said.

Next, he'll try his luck in the big race.
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