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Hornish calls himself a classic underdog

5/28/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sam Hornish Jr. already has the clean-cut
image, the good looks and the charm. All he needs now is a major
victory.

The 24-year-old driver enters Sunday's Indianapolis 500 carrying
a heavy burden -- the next big American hope in open-wheel racing.

"I've always been an underdog,'' Hornish said. "So that's
always good when you have people cheering for me, and I don't mind
that pressure.''

Hornish is among a large group of U.S. drivers who have
struggled recently in Indianapolis.

Americans like Foyt, Mears, Unser, Rutherford and Sneva
dominated Indy car racing from the 1960s through the 1980s. But no
American-born driver has won the race since Eddie Cheever in 1998,
two years after the Indy Racing League was founded with the goal of
developing young American drivers.

The only other Americans who have driven into Victory Lane at
the Brickyard since 1989 are Buddy Lazier ('96), Al Unser Jr. ('92
and '94) and Rick Mears ('91).

The five-year drought without an American winner is the longest
streak in Indy 500 history and has coincided with a noticeable
decrease in fan interest. Attendance at practice and qualifying
days has dropped dramatically over the past decade.

The dearth of U.S. drivers stems in part from the defection of
some of open-wheel racing's top prospects to NASCAR. About a dozen
top names, including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon,
have switched from the open-wheel series to stock cars in the past
decade.

Cheever, who grew up in Europe, believes Americans have been
held back by their interest in other sports and the lack of a
strong Indy car developmental series.

"I think in other countries they are so competitive at such a
young age,'' Cheever said. "When they finish carting, they're
almost ready to do this. That's why you have so many Brazilians
doing well here.''

The Indy 500 has always had an international flavor, though.
Foreign-born drivers won every race from 1913-16, and three races
in the 1960s.

This year, nine countries are represented in the 33-car starting
field, and drivers from England, Scotland, Brazil and Mexico are
among the top six qualifiers. The only American in the first two
rows is pole-winner Buddy Rice.

Hornish, who starts 11th, and Roger Yasukawa, who starts 12th,
are the only other Americans starting in the first five rows.

But Mears, Penske's driving coach, believes competition -- not a
driver's nationality -- is the issue.

"When everyone has a helmet on, I don't know if they're
American, Brazilian or whatever,'' said the four-time Indy winner.
"I just wanted to beat the best, whoever that is.''

Cheever believes it will take patience and a new kind of
thinking for Americans to reclaim their dominance in the Indy car
series.

"We're creating great NASCAR drivers and have some awesome oval
drivers here,'' he said. "American drivers need to get their act
together and be prepared. I think there is a big push now to
develop open-wheel racers here.''

Hornish is the front man for that effort.

His resume includes two IRL points titles, a league-record 12
race wins, five poles and more than $7 million in earnings. But in
four starts at Indianapolis, he has struggled with inferior
equipment, underfinanced teams and bad luck. His best finish, in
2001, was 14th, and he has yet to complete all 200 laps.

He's not alone in his struggles.

Unser Jr. won twice but hasn't been back to Victory Lane at the
2 1/2-mile oval since 1994. And during his career, Michael Andretti
led more laps, 426, at Indy than any non-winner.

Some in racing circles expect Hornish will have a better shot at
the sterling silver Borg-Warner Trophy this year because he has
better equipment and drives for the league's best team, Team
Penske, which has won every Indianapolis 500 it's qualified for
since 1994.

Mears said Hornish reminds him of himself.

"I don't see a lot of emotion in him,'' Mears said. "I was
kind of that way myself. He talks with his foot.''

Each May, Hornish shies from talk of becoming the future face of
American open-wheel racing. He knows, though, what a victory at
Indianapolis means.

It defined the careers of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mears -- the
race's only four-time winners -- and added luster to what others
like Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi achieved overseas before
coming to Indy.

For Hornish, a win at Indianapolis would give him instant
credibility and resound far beyond the Penske team as Americans
return to the winner's circle.

"I always come here to win,'' Hornish said. "On this team,
when you finish second, it's a bad day.''