Some drivers fear the end of their career. They hang on long past their prime, trying to find a ride, any ride, in every desperate attempt at another shot at a checkered flag.
Not Sam Hornish Jr.
He’s a father of three, devoted to his young family, and should he never race again, semi-retirement at 36 is just fine with him.
It’s easy to forget that Hornish was one of the greatest American open-wheel drivers of his generation after his failed move to NASCAR. There was a seven-year period where Hornish was a contender every week in IndyCar. He won three championships, the Indianapolis 500 and his 19 career victories rank 15th on the all-time list.
Those glory days are almost a decade removed, and Hornish is on the sidelines during one of the biggest racing weekends of the year. He is not a participant in Sunday’s historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and he won’t be in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 later that night.
His free time is spent on his woodworking skills. Hornish is building a wagon that resembles a Volkswagen bus for his son, and a teardrop camper for the American Girl doll collection his two daughters share.
Hornish also has found himself in high demand as a substitute teacher at his children’s Charlotte-area school. This career change began during flu season when the private school asked for volunteers to sub for sick teachers. Hornish signed up and has found himself pretending to be a music teacher, a gym teacher, a computer lab leader, a two-day substitute for his daughters’ second-grade class and, in his roughest assignment, a pre-calculus teacher for high schoolers.
“Some of it is a little bit beyond my capability,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “My math skills are such that I just told them, `I’m here to make sure you stay on task. Work on your problems, but I can’t help you.'”
The trick is to keep the students quiet, which is far easier in the upper grades.
“The higher up you get in school, they take less advantage of you,” he said. “The younger kids try to get away with more.”
This is his life now, quiet and content away from the track. He still has “ambitions to race” but his career outside of IndyCar never took off. He left IndyCar behind a year after finally winning the Indianapolis 500. He had an opportunity to move to NASCAR with Roger Penske and with the Indy 500 goal no longer hanging over him, Hornish didn’t see why a switch wasn’t the best way to pursue a new set of goals.
It was a disaster from the very beginning.
Hornish wasn’t ready for the Sprint Cup Series and he wasn’t at all competitive. By 2011, he was a part-time driver before Penske put together a deal for select Cup races in 2012. He moved down a level in 2013 to the Xfinity Series in a chance to run for the championship, but he finished second in the final standings.
Hornish got just nine starts the next year and spent 2015 languishing near the back of the pack for Richard Petty Motorsports. The team didn’t bring him back this year, and Hornish’s NASCAR resume reads zero wins in 167 Cup races and three victories in 110 Xfinity Series events.
He has no interest in simply turning laps.
“I don’t have to race,” he said. “How I clarify that is, I don’t want it so bad and I stay out there and it doesn’t matter where we are running. I’m to the point, if we’re going to go out there and run 25th, I’ll just stay home. I just feel like my kids are only going to be young once. I’ve done this long enough to know I was super-successful in open wheel and I believe that with the right people around me in stock cars, I can be successful.”
He often gets asked why he left IndyCar and his answer is always the same. He’d spent so much of his life focused on winning the Indy 500 that he had nothing left to do once he did it.
“I accomplished more than I ever dreamed of,” he said. “I miss certain aspects of open wheel, but I guarantee I wouldn’t still be racing there now. I might have retired much earlier. It was time to try something new.”
Hornish also gets asked if he’d ever consider going back. Although things about the series bothered him, there was a brief period when he didn’t have steady NASCAR work that he considered a return. Then Dan Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale and Hornish knew he’d never return.
“That just, to me, it’s part of my life but it’s not all of my life,” said Hornish, who traveled to Alaska with his father in recent days for quality time. “There’s a lot more things for me to do outside of (racing).”
Hornish still watches races, still considers himself a fan. He’s played his 2006 Indy win for his kids on YouTube, and he may bring them to Sunday’s 100th running to give them their first experience with “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” It’s a journey he made each year with his family, bonding time from his Ohio childhood that he treasures.
Don’t feel sorry for the way his career has wound down to a footnote in history. Hornish is just fine with where he’s at right now.
“My mentality was never that I needed to do it so people knew who I was,” he said. “It made it easier for me to step away.”
© 2016 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.