Sam Hornish Jr.’s old, yellow No. 4 Indy car, with black Pennzoil lettering on the sidepods and front and back wings, sat in the pit garage at Phoenix International Raceway last week.
The car had rocketed Hornish to Indy Racing League championships in 2001 and 2002 and created an openwheel star, barely into his 20s.
Hornish, now 24, stood a few pit stalls away, not paying any attention to the No. 4 Panther Racing car. An older model of the car also had propelled him to his first IRL victory, at PIR in March of 2001.
Thanks for the memories, Hornish said, but it’s time to move on.
Hornish left Panther Racing after the 2003 season to join Marlboro Team Penske. He turned in his yellow and black racing colors and handed over No. 4's keys and title to Tomas Scheckter, who brought the car to PIR for testing. Hornish looks at the No. 4 and pictures Scheckter behind the wheel. No time for sentimentality.
"It’s different," Hornish said. "I look at it as somebody I have to beat."
So a few stalls down in PIR’s garage, Hornish watched his new crew work on his ride for 2004, the red and white No. 6 owned by Roger Penske.
Gil de Ferran, who won the Indianapolis 500 last May driving the No. 6 for Penske, retired, paving the way for Hornish to leave Panther and join Helio Castroneves on Penske’s two-driver IndyCar Series team next season.
But that meant leaving behind Pennzoil and leaving behind the yellow and black colors that had been his trademark look. "I’ve had a fair amount of success wearing the yellow uniform, so this is kind of new," Hornish said. "It’s almost like being a rookie again."
Penske’s colors are red and white with black Marlboro lettering. And when Hornish put on his new red racing suit for the first time, the enormity of his decision started to sink in. "I kept looking down, and I couldn’t help but smile. . . . How cool is this?" Hornish said.
He was now driving for the most successful racing team in Indianapolis 500 history. Penske drivers have won 13 Indy 500s since 1969, including the last three (Castroneves in 2001 and ’02 and de Ferran in ’03).
Hornish already has two drivers’ championships to his name, but a win at Indy has eluded him, and that prompted his move from Panther to Penske.
"I felt I did everything I could do at Panther Racing," Hornish said. "There was only one team that I was going to leave Panther Racing to go run for. I’m there now."
With Penske, Hornish said expectations are high to win, especially at Indy.
"There’s some pressure, but I look at it as a blessing," he said. "It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so even if it’s more pressure, even if it’s more work, it’s well worth it. The bad part is that there’s a tradition of winning the Indianapolis 500. If you don’t win the Indy 500, if you finish second, you almost feel bad."
And Hornish is also curious as to how his fans, usually decked out in bright yellow shirts at races, will respond to his new look.
"I haven’t seen too many fans yet," he said. "All the tests that we’ve done have been closed to the public, so we don’t really know yet."
Reaction in Internet chat rooms, Hornish said, has been mixed. " ‘Sam looked better in yellow, Sam looks better in red. He shaved, he got a hair cut, he did this, he did that,’ " Hornish said. "It’s always kind of neat to see what they’ll say next."
PIT STOP: Hornish crashed in Turn 4 during testing last Wednesday at PIR. He was not injured but the back end of his car sustained major damage, prompting Team Penske to cancel Thursday’s test session.