CONCORD, N.H. — Sam Hornish Jr. learned an invaluable lesson at 11 years old: don’t ever get comfortable in a winner’s circle.
With the wave of each checkered flag, Hornish’s father would begin the search for a way to raise the level of competition.
“But, why can’t I just beat up on these guys and win some championships?” an angry Hornish Jr. would complain.
At each turn, his success was met by what became a familiar refrain from his father.
He would simply say, “Well, Sam, it’s time for something a little bit harder.”
Now 33, the career path of Hornish Jr., who will race in this weekend’s Nationwide Series event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, can be traced back to that idea. And that’s how he explained it to an automotive class at Concord High School in New Hampshire in May.
“Basically, every time I could win at something, I continued to move up,” Hornish Jr. said to the class of nearly 50. “I found myself in [professional racing] because I had that mind-set and I had someone who was willing to push me to continue to try to make myself [better].”
Winning has come naturally to Hornish Jr., who recalled placing first in three of his first four go-cart races the first time he and his father went down to the dirt track near their house.
His success continued as he climbed the racing ranks all the way to Indy cars. After claiming his third IndyCar Series Championship in 2007, as well as the Indianapolis 500 in 2006 — a lifelong dream for Hornish Jr. — the chance to leave open-wheel racing for a seat behind the wheel of a stock car was exactly the next step Hornish Jr. was looking for.
However, with just one trip down Victory Lane in the four years since he left the IndyCar Series, the learning curve has been, by Hornish Jr.’s admission, steeper than he would have hoped.
“It’s been a struggle, but it’s been a lot of fun, too,” he told the class. “Stock cars are a lot different than the Indy cars. An Indy car generates enough down force at 200 miles per hour that it could basically run upside-down, whereas a stock car weighing 3,500 pounds only generates about 1,000 pounds of down force. So whether you’re trying to stop the car, start the car, or turn the car, it doesn’t want to do it as well as an Indy car.”
Learning the ropes of driving a new car hasn’t been the only hurdle facing Hornish Jr. He’s also facing a seasoned field of competition.
“Most of the guys that I’m racing against started running these cars when they were 15-16 years old,” he said. “So for the last 10-20 years they’ve been running these types of cars and learning their nuances.
“What I’ve found is that what you can get away with is a lot different from one car to the other. These cars, they work different. I’m just learning now all the nuances that they’ve been learning since they were 15. And I’m learning on the highest level, where everyone picks apart every little mistake you make.”
Despite the criticism and the struggles, Hornish Jr. remains without regret and committed to one day contending in the Sprint Cup Series.
“It’s been a lot of heartbreak on certain days, but it’s really been worthwhile because it’s taken me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step forward. We’re kind of in the middle of that right now.”
Saturday night Hornish Jr. was quite busy, Penske Racing flying him from Charlotte, N.C., to Daytona Beach, Fla., to sub for AJ Allmendinger, who was temporarily suspended for a failed drug test. Hornish Jr. finished 33d. It’s not known if he will take over if Allmendinger’s suspension is upheld.
After speaking with the class, Hornish Jr., who always has tried to reach out to fans, privately recalled his first experience with a pro driver.
“I remember Bobby Rahal was signing autographs and I was like three or four back in line and he just got up and left,” he said. “There were only two people behind me and he was just like, ‘I don’t got time.’
“That kind of always rubbed off on me, as far as wanting to make sure that I take care of the fans that are coming out. Maybe it was a good lesson for me.”
The lasting lesson from Hornish Jr.’s visit to the class was to continue to challenge yourself.
“I achieved everything that I ever wanted to do in Indy racing and that’s why I made the decision to come over,” said Hornish Jr. “Yeah, I’d like to be able to win some races over here, but at the end of the day, if this doesn’t work out, I’ve challenged myself.”