Sam Hornish Jr. says he’s a “bigger fan” of IndyCar racing now than when he was competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, which will provide an interesting backdrop when the three-time series champion joins the NBCSN telecast for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma this weekend.
Hornish, who competed in three Verizon IndyCar Series races on the challenging California road course, will provide commentary along with another Indy car champion, Paul Tracy. Brian Till is the lead announcer for the live race (4 p.m. ET Aug. 24) and qualifying (7:30 p.m. ET Aug. 23) telecasts.
It will be the initial IndyCar broadcast for Hornish, who has contributed to NBCSN's "NASCAR America" this year and previously contributed to NASCAR Nationwide Series practice and qualifying telecasts on FOX Sports 1 and “SpeedCenter” on SPEED (the predecessor to FOX Sports 1).
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“(NBCSN does) a really good job of keeping it fresh with Townsend (Bell) and Paul,” said Hornish, who caught up with Till during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race last weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “With Paul and me, there’s a lot of knowledge of racing that will go into it. I still have a lot of feelings that the IndyCar guys feel as far as the pressures in the championship, keeping emotions in check and what you want out of the race. I think that’s one of the things had makes me credible is still living the life of a professional race car driver.”
Hornish, who won Verizon IndyCar Series titles in 2001 and 2002 for Panther Racing and ’06 with Team Penkse, is competing in a limited Nationwide Series schedule this season. In seven starts, he has a victory at Iowa Speedway and three other top-five finishes for Joe Gibbs Racing. He was the series’ championship runner-up in 2013.
“This is an opportunity to get my feet wet,” said Hornish, who earned 19 victories among 47 podium finishes in 116 races over eight seasons. “You also walk that fine line of when are you more the TV guy than you are the actual driver. While I really enjoy what I’m doing, I’m looking forward to getting back to an IndyCar race.
“I don’t think I’ve missed watching one or two races (on TV) since I haven’t been there. I’m a bigger fan now than when I was in it. Everybody asks me, ‘Do you still watch the Indy 500?’ Yeah, I watch it from start to finish. The difference is when it’s over I watch the post-race comments and shut it off, think about it for 15 minutes and get on with the rest of my life.
“When I was in it, there was no going on with the rest of your life. It was like, ‘OK, how do we win next year?’ It consumes your life and I believe that’s why it has been hard for a lot of American drivers to win it because they put so much pressure on themselves to do so.”
Hornish, 35, of Defiance, Ohio, will bring such perspective to the booth for the 85-lap race on the 12-turn, 2.385-mile circuit. He had finishes of 11th, ninth and 18th in 2005-07 in an IndyCar, and has competed at Sonoma Raceway in a stock car in the intervening years.
Will Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car, takes a 39-point advantage over teammate Helio Castroneves into the penultimate race of the season. The Aug. 30 MAVTV 500 finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., carries double points, and Hornish said any falter this weekend by the top two in the standings would open the door for the other four drivers eligible for the title.
“A lot can still happen though it does look like a two-horse race at this time,” said Hornish, who finished 20 points ahead of championship runner-up Castroneves in 2002. “Ryan Hunter-Reay has been fast, but it’s been feast or famine for that team. Simon Pagenaud has stayed in picture and will be a factor at Sonoma, but to maximize 100 points at Fontana might be difficult.
“The competition (10 different winners in 16 races) has been great; nobody has run away with the championship.”
If either Power or Castroneves can claim their first series title, it will be the first for Team Penske since 2006 by Hornish and the 13th overall. Both drives have come close since – Power was the runner-up in 2010, ’11 and ’12, while Castroneves was runner-up in 2008 and 2013. Also, Ryan Briscoe was 12 points back in third in 2009 for Team Penske.
Following Power’s victory Aug. 17 in the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest, Team Penske has 174 Indy car wins since entering races with driver Mark Donohue in 1968.
“Who would have thought that eight years later we’d still be talking about that championship,” Hornish said. “They’ve been so close and there hasn’t been a year when they didn’t have a chance to win the championship, and for whatever reason it hasn’t come. To win the championship I think means a lot to Roger.”