Where Are They Now? Sam Hornish Jr. on life after racing and thoughts of a comeback
Sam Hornish Jr. may no longer race, but that doesn't mean he's retired.
After more than 30 years at the wheel, starting when he first buckled into a go-kart at the age of 11 (he won the World Karting Association's US Grand National Championship just four years later), Hornish definitely enjoys life outside of the box of racing in his hometown of Defiance, Ohio.
But just because he's stopped racing doesn't make you think he's sitting in a rocking chair on his porch watching grass grow or paint drying.
"I'm just as busy now, if not busier, than driving a car," Hornish told NASCAR.com.
Hornish, who will turn 42 on July 2nd, spends his days mainly with his family, his church and, as a self-confessed handyman, on building and handicraft projects.
But one thing that is never far away is his phone. Even though it has been more than four years since his last race, if Hornish "got the right call" he would jump back into a racing car if the situation was right.
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"Spending 30 years or more doing something and then basically hanging up your helmet is a strange thing," said Hornish. “It's something you like to do, it's that competitive aspect. I can understand why a lot of people who are at the end of their careers in their racing careers or football or baseball careers have problems with drugs and alcohol because suddenly they are no longer really able to do what they have put a lot of your life into it and who am I apart from that?
“What do I do with the rest of my life, that's the way it is. I was prepared not to be a racing driver and not have the thrill of the chase, as you might like to call it, but not everyone is as lucky as me, I think. "
Knowing that his racing career was slowing down, Hornish began making plans for the next chapters of his life.
He and his wife Crystal packed up their three children - daughters Addison and Eliza and son Sam III - and moved back to the Defiance area after several years in Charlotte. While racing has always been important to him, faith and family are even more important. Being closer to the family and watching their children grow up in a tightly knit small-town setting was a lure Hornish couldn't ignore.
"I could still do it from home," said Hornish of the race.
And although he had the opportunity to get behind the wheel again, the right situation did not arise.
"The hard part is when someone calls with a good opportunity, I don't know if I can say no," said Hornish. "I never felt like I was moving back here to retire, and I never felt like I was going to hang it up."
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Hornish's last two NASCAR races took place during the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2017. He showed he had plenty of gas left in his personal tank and finished second at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and the season-end race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
While he's still physically fit and ready to get into a racing car, Hornish hasn't put his life on hold from racing. He just shifted the priorities - and sometimes with a little help from family and friends.
"To be honest, when you're 41 years old and people think you're retired, they start thinking of a lot of things that you can do," said Hornish with a laugh. “You think you have all this free time and you need something to do to keep yourself occupied.
“When I had my 40th (birthday) check-up, my doctor asked me, 'Well, what do you do with all the extra time you have? Do you have anything to keep your mind going? ‘And I say, 'I'm not 70, you know.‘ I have three children and a wife that I'm trying to entertain. "
So what is Hornish doing these days to keep himself busy? The simple answer is what he wants, but it's more complicated. He still works for his family's haulage company, tries real estate investments, goes on a few mini trips with his wife and children, teaches Bible studies, and has been a substitute teacher at the school.
He also directed the funding and construction of a senior citizen center and heart treatment center in Defiance, raised over $ 500,000 for Speedway Children's Charities, and built a dance studio in his children's school and props for various plays in the school.
"I've always enjoyed building things with my hands," said Hornish. “It was a lot of fun to be able to do that. And being able to build something that will be used in any kind of performance enables me in many ways to do something that I'm passionate about. "
And when he feels the need for speed, Hornish will go into his garage and work on or drive a few cars from his personal collection, including a 1930 Ford Model A, a 1951 Mercury, a 1955 Chevrolet Del Ray, a Cadillac Coupe de Ville's 1965, 1967 Chevrolet pickup and the Corvette Z06 Indianapolis 500 pace car that he received for winning the 2006 Indy 500.
Before joining NASCAR, Hornish was one of the most successful drivers on the IndyCar circuit. In eight seasons, from 2000 to 2007, he won 19 races, won three IndyCar championships (2001, 2002 and 2006), with the highlight of his career being his victory at the Indianapolis 500 in 2006.
"I was told why I left IndyCar?" Hornisch said. "They said things like I could have been the first five-time winner (out of the 500)."
But Hornish is also a realist. As IndyCar speeds continued to rise and a number of drivers suffered career-threatening injuries, he decided it would be best for himself and his family to switch from open wheel racing to NASCAR.
"Maybe my feet would be crushed, you can't go around doing the things you want to do," said Hornish. “It's a double-edged sword. A lot of me are super competitive and I really enjoy being outside. And then there is a part of me that is a little more sensible and says, 'You will never be happy whether you have five Indy 500 wins and six championships and a NASCAR Cup championship.'
“You want to be someone who has done something that no one has ever done before. That's how competitive people are. There is a certain point in me that is grateful for what I have already achieved. And although it could be even more, that must not be your driving force, because there is always more in your head. How much is enough I'll let you know when I've had enough - and you never arrive. "
Matt Sullivan | Getty Images
Having accomplished so much in such a short time in the IndyCar series - just eight seasons - Hornish was ready for a new challenge and found it in NASCAR.
He went on to make 167 starts in the Cup but never took a win. Hornish, on the other hand, was very successful in the Xfinity Series, taking five wins, 38 top-5 and 64 top-10 finishes in 120 starts, including a career-best runner-up in the championship hunt in 2013, and losing that Title by just three points on Austin Dillon.
“To win Roger (Penske) the owner's title and to be the driver who brought the car into the championship (2013), that was something special for me. Those were neat things. And I always thought that next year there would be more opportunities and there was just nothing (he switched to Joe Gibbs Racing and only drove eight races there in 2014). "
During his NASCAR stint - starting with two Xfinity races in 2006, his Cup career spanning 2007-2015 and ending with six Xfinity races in 2017 - Hornish was a sought-after man.
He has the distinction of driving for some of the sport's greatest owners, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Roger Penske, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs and Richard Petty.
"It was very humiliating for all of them to drive," said Hornish. “I didn't know that I would ever get the opportunity to drive a racing car. ... And here I was allowed to race for Penske, Childress, Gibbs and Petty in my career. It was really an honor.
“Man, for a kid from Defiance, Ohio, who was hoping that one day he would qualify for the Indy 500, knowing that I had ridden it multiple times, won, won multiple championships, at Cup and Xfinity championship levels at . stand miami to go to the white house to be honored. I can sit there and take apart things that didn't go right, but I have about 8,000 other things to do that I never thought I'd do. "
Although he only made one start in the Camping World Truck Series (in 2008), Hornish would definitely consider racing in that series if an offer comes up.
Driving a truck is especially attractive to Hornish because it's a shorter season that would allow him not to be away from home as often as if he were driving full-time or even a significant part-time schedule in Cup or Xfinity.
"I love racing," said Hornish. “I'm excited when I see it, I'm excited when I talk about it. But the passion to go out and do it every day just isn't there. I would give up too much of something that I can never get back and that is time with your children as they grow up and influence them, shape them and be a part of their lives if they are still learning, in their lives to be."
For a guy about to turn 42, some may think Hornish is too old to race again. But he quickly points to his former Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, who won a record-breaking fourth Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago at the age of 46.
Although he couldn't be in person at the 500 this year, Hornish was particularly proud of his former teammate, who not only performed so well, but also showed that drivers can still be competitive at the age of 40 and over.
"He's 46 - but he doesn't act like that," says Hornish with a laugh. “Year after year he pushes on to have this competitive fire. I never thought he was 46. He is still very young. "
Speaking of teenagers, Hornish's youngest child and namesake, 7-year-old Sam III, could be following in his father's footsteps.
"We dug an old go-kart out of the garage on Easter Sunday and it ran a lot, it spent a couple of hours on the track doing laps," said Hornish. “The track that I had set up ran like 12-second laps. But I could see that on the straight he didn't go full throttle the whole way, but was really slick, didn't get on the grass and used the whole track.
“I asked him, 'Is that as fast as you can go?' He said, 'Yeah, that's about as fast as I can go.' And then he takes off and I can say it will go a lot faster and he runs like a second faster, probably within 2/10 (a second) than I thought he could go. "
Then Hornish added, laughing, "I said to him, 'I thought you couldn't run any faster?" He replied,' I only had a little bit left in my back pocket. ' recently had a dream one night where I was driving the truck and trailer and he was driving the racing car. "
Despite being over 40 and one of Defiance's biggest celebs, the young-looking Hornish recently got a rather humorous engagement to a fan in his hometown.
“I put some devices on my trailer and a guy says, 'So, hey, I just wanted to tell you, you're Sam Hornish, right? You're related to the racing driver, aren't you? And I said yes. Then he said, 'This is so cool. I just loved watching your dad run when I was a kid. ‘
“People tell me I look so young. Even though they were 30 and you are 22 and now that they are 50 and you are 42, they think you are 80 or should be older than them. I was trying to figure out how to tell him. How does a 50-year-old try to tell me how he looked at my father as a child?
“Then he shows me a hand-signed hero card from my time when I drove for Panther (Panther Racing in IndyCar in 2000) and said, 'Your dad signed this for me.' I look for my father's signature and is the only one what I see is my signature. "
Yes, it's been a crazy ride for Hornish at times, but he remains the family-oriented, god-fearing guy he always was. And while some may think he's retired for good, don't be surprised if one day he's back in a racing car. It's his passion, it's in his DNA.
“I grew up a real Indy 500 fan and loved all forms of motorsport,” said Hornish. “As a kid, I saw everything from Formula 1 to swamp buggy racing. That's what I am and I do.
“It was a god-given drive to be in a racing car, to be competitive and to drive fast. Even when I was in a go-kart that only drove 35 (mph), I always wondered how I could be a little faster than the next one. "
The Sam Hornish Jr. file:
• Age: 41 (turns 42 on July 2nd)
• Hometown: Defiance, Ohio
• NASCAR Cup Series career: 167 races, 0 wins, 3 top 5 and 12 top 10 finishes. Best individual race of career: fourth in Pocono in 2009.
• NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 120 races, 5 wins, 38 top 5 and 64 top 10 finishes. Also earned nine poles.
• Best overall result of the Xfinity season: 2nd place in 2013.
• Notable: Won the 2006 Indianapolis 500, three IndyCar championships in six seasons (2001, 2002 and 2006).
Veteran motorsport writer Jerry Bonkowski writes a series of Where Are They Now? Stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out the stories he's already made about Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. You can also follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, @TheRacingBeat Podcast, and his email newsletter TheRacingBeat.substack.com.
In this article:
Sam Hornish Jr.
American racing driver
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