NASCAR combine could be avenue to big leagues for Hope Hornish

Courtesy of Hope Hornish

Hope Hornish, niece of former IndyCar racer and current NASCAR driver Sam Hornish Jr., is participating in Drive for Diversity this week.

Of course Hope Hornish was going to gravitate toward auto racing. It's hard to imagine it turning out any other way.

She grew up idolizing her uncle, Sam Hornish Jr., who won 19 races, including the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and three championships in IndyCar between 2000 and 2007. Add a love for speed and plenty of support from other family members, and Hope's career choice was easy.

Now comes the hard part: getting a real shot.

She's getting her best opportunity yet this week at Florida's New Smyrna Speedway as an invitee to NASCAR's 13th annual Drive for Diversity (D4D) combine, a multifaceted tryout for scholarships in stock car racing's premier driver development program.

Seventeen drivers, including a record-tying 13 females, are competing for spots in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Class of 2017. At least six berths are available, but that number could grow if any of the six members of the 2016 class are invited back. Ali Kern from the 2016 class and another Whelen All-American Series driver, Maddie Crane, also are in the mix, so all told, 15 females are in the running.

Courtesy of Hope Hornish

Hope Hornish, majoring in political science at Adrian College in Michigan, spent most of this season racing on the JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour.

Hornish, 19, comes from Defiance, Ohio, and is majoring in political science at Adrian (Michigan) College. She has been racing go-karts and other cars since she was 8. She has also been watching her uncle Sam, who has also competed at NASCAR's top level and has a win this season in the Xfinity Series.

"We're pretty close," Hope said of her relationship with Sam. "I hang out with his children, who are my cousins, and we go to church and have family dinners all the time. He's been a really good mentor as far as being a role model for people who look up to you no matter what you are doing. He's also been very influential with my life as a Christian."

If Hope has a racing question or needs a tip, Sam is just a text message away.

"I can simply ask him a question, and he'll get back to me and give me some insiders or some pointers whenever I need it," Hope said. "But I have to ask for it. He doesn't want to step on my toes or anything, and I don't want to bug him too much because I know he has a busy schedule, but he's always there if I need him."

Hope began racing late models after graduating from high school in 2015, competing at Angola Motorsport Speedway in Fremont, Indiana. She spent most of this season competing on the JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour. Racing is expensive, and for Hope, it has been a "we" effort to this point.

"'We' is my parents, April and John Hahn; my grandpa, Sam Hornish [Sr.]; my nana, Joanne; my uncle, Sam; my aunt, Crystal ... my whole family in general," she said. "My grandpa has been very influential in my racing career. He has given me a lot of advice and pointers when I need them, and he helps me with the off-track connections and knowing people as far as trying to get my foot in the door in the racing world."

There's a lengthy application for the D4D program, and more than 70 candidates submitted résumés this year, according to NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Jim Cassidy, who leads the sanctioning body's multicultural development department.

Driving talent isn't the only skill the evaluators will be measuring during the combine, which started Monday and runs through Wednesday after being postponed from Oct. 10-12 because of Hurricane Matthew.

"First and foremost, we're looking for that vision of somebody who is going to be able to compete at a very high level," Cassidy said. "In order to compete at a very high level, you have to have a whole lot of natural talent, but you also have to be teachable. If you're not teachable, if you're not a great communicator in the car, that can translate in a way that doesn't optimize what your natural talent is."

Gone are the days when the racing jobs went only to the fastest and toughest. The skill set now has to be much broader.

"Outside of the car, you need to be able to represent Fortune 500 [companies], and be able to interact and represent brands in a way that drives business," Cassidy said. "And then, obviously, we're looking for young drivers who are ultimately going to represent the sport and understand the significance of their position being the star power of the sport. We want to see personalities, we want to see those come out. We always say it, and it's cliché, but we want the entire package."

Among the other female candidates are Macy Causey, who at 14 years old was the youngest participant in D4D combine history in 2015, and Hailie Deegan, daughter of Brian Deegan, the most decorated athlete in freestyle motocross history. Causey is the granddaughter of Diane Teel, who in 1978 became the first woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

Danica Patrick remains the only woman competing in NASCAR's top Sprint Cup series, but between the D4D applicants and participants and a few who are further along, there could be others before long.

Cassidy noted that NASCAR Next member Julia Landauer and alum Nicole Behar finished on the podium (second and third, respectively) in the K&N West Series race at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway late last month. NASCAR Next drivers receive promotional and marketing support.

"I think it would be short-sighted for us to say we'd like to find another Danica," Cassidy said. "What we want to do is make sure that every young woman out there understands that NASCAR has an avenue, if that's something that you think you want to do. We've really got a great group of drivers coming in, and I would hope that we're not looking for just another female driver to get to the highest level, but rather, we're looking for it to become not so much of a conversation as it is a norm."

And just maybe, NASCAR's racing future could include another racing Hornish -- a female iteration this time.

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