Fast-tracked youngsters are off to flying starts

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 25, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It's business as usual in Formula One. Michael Schumacher won for the ninth straight time last weekend, showing he is ready to make a strong defense of the title he won for Ferrari last season.

But business is not as usual in the Indy Racing League, where rookie Sam Hornish Jr. won that series' first race of the season last weekend in Phoenix. At 21, Hornish is the youngest driver to win an IRL race and, it seems, the youngest ever to win in open-wheel racing.

"But I'm not an overnight success," Hornish said. "I started when I was 11 years old in karting. I've got 10, 11 years' experience."

Asked during a conference call what he would like to be called, if not an overnight sensation, the IRL's newest winner thought a moment.

"Well," he said, "you can call me anything but slow."

It seems a lot of rookies are no longer slow.

In CART, Juan Montoya won that series' championship in his rookie year in 1999.

In Winston Cup, Tony Stewart ended a 12-year run of winless rookie performances in 1999 and became the first rookie in that series' history to finish his first season in the Top 5, placing fourth.

Three weeks ago, Winston Cup rookie Kevin Harvick became the first driver to win his first race in the series in as few as three starts.

"I think if I keep doing my job the way I'm supposed to," Hornish said, "you're going to see younger open-wheel drivers moving up [in the IRL]. They're out there. They're just waiting for someone to prove younger drivers can do it. They just need a chance."

Hornish was chosen to drive for Pennzoil's Panther Racing team. He replaced veteran Scott Goodyear, who won the last race of last season for the team.

"I think they chose me because of my youth and my will to win," Hornish said. "My crew chief told me after I won, `We hired you because we thought you could win races - and now we know you can.' It made me feel great."

Harvick, 25, of course, got his chance this season when Winston Cup car owner Richard Childress chose him to take the late Dale Earnhardt's place in the Goodwrench Chevrolet.

"He was recommended to me, but I'd seen him race before," Childress said about the rookie. "When I watched him last year, he was aggressive when he had to be, patient when he had to be. He was calm and cool.

"There are a lot of talented young drivers out there. Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony [Stewart], Kevin. Unbelievable talent."

And, Childress says, owners and sponsors are willing to put a young driver in a well-backed car.

"Years ago, you wouldn't put a rookie in a top car," he said. "But owners will do that now because they can see the talent is there."

Hornish and Harvick

Harvick on how he has been able to deal with being thrust into the limelight, first by Earnhardt's death, then by winning:

"My father told me a long time ago that there would be situations I wouldn't know how to deal with. He said just deal with it as best you can. And that's what I'm doing." I could be one of the most hated guys in this sport, stepping in for Dale, but the fans have taken me in. I know no one is ever going to replace Dale Earnhardt and I'm not going to try. And the fans - everybody has been so understanding. Everyone has come together to help each other. I think we're all going to have to hold on to each other for a long time."

Hornish on the pressure that comes from winning as a rookie:

"There's no pressure now. I got rid of the pressure by winning. I know the history of the Pennzoil teams- Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, "Big" Al [Unser], they all drove for the Pennzoil team."

Handling the hurt

Asked how he's doing in the aftermath of Earnhardt's death, Childress had a quaver in his voice as he said:

"I'm kind of taking it day by day. What I try to do now is really think of all the good times. I think that gets me by. We never had many bad times. We had some tough times. But thinking of all those good times Dale and I had together as friends and all the good times we had as teammates - those are the things that get you by."

Childress said the way Harvick has handled his new job also has helped.

"I thought we'd be able to get a win in the second half of the season, but ... to win at Atlanta ... it was a great victory for RCR and for the race fans. The race fans needed an uplifting. ... I don't know what we'd have done if we didn't have Kevin Harvick."

Indy takes shape

The Indianapolis 500 is shaping up as the real deal this May. Not only will all the IRL teams be competing, but most of the well-known names from CART will be there, too.

As already reported, car owner Chip Ganassi plans to defend the 500 title his then-driver Montoya won last year.

Veteran car owner Roger Penske, whose two teams competed in an IRL race for the first time last week, will be at Indy.

And, now, speculation is that driver Michael Andretti will get to fulfill his long-held dream of returning to the 500. On Tuesday, a news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be held with Andretti, team owner Barry Green and Speedway president Tony George.

Nuts and bolts

For those who haven't heard, road racing lost one of its great drivers March 16, when Bob Wollek was killed.

He was hit by a car while riding his bicycle near Sebring International Raceway.

Wollek, 57, had won the 12 Hours of Sebring (once), the Daytona 24 Hours (four times) and the prestigious Porsche Cup (seven times).

He also entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his native France 30 times, finishing second four times.

Hagerstown Speedway will present small-block modifieds, late models and a visit by the "dwarf cars" today.

Race time is 1:30 p.m. with gates opening at 11 a.m. Warm-ups begin at 1 p.m.

For information, contact the speedway's office at 301-582-0640.

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