The famous Pennzoil Panther
PHOENIX - On a day that was supposed to showcase the return of one of the oldest, most successful teams in Indy car history - Team Penske - it was a breakthrough day for Indy car racing's youngest star, Sam Hornish Jr.
The 21-year-old driver from Defiance, Ohio became the youngest winner in IRL series history when he won Sunday's Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The previous youngest winner was the late Greg Moore, who won a CART event at Milwaukee on June 1, 1997 at the age of 22. Troy Ruttman was also 22 when he won the 1952 Indianapolis 500.
Not only is Hornish young, but also fast as he led the race two times for 140 of the 200 laps in the race. It was Hornish's first race for Pennzoil Panther Racing and his first victory came in his ninth IRL start.
"I'm surprised that I got to Victory Lane as soon as I did," Hornish said. "I was pretty much in with the mindset today to try to get in the top three. But as far as getting to where I'm at this point in my career, I'm not really surprised at myself.
I'm just really thankful to have parents that were willing to do whatever they could to get me to the next level and to keep moving me on and progressing to the next level. When the time came they weren't able to help me any more was the time I got picked up and got a ride."
Hornish finished 1.378 second ahead of Chile's Eliseo Salazar. He led the race twice for 140 of the 200 laps in the race, including the final 72 laps. He won $124,300 in front of a crowd estimated at over 30,000.
"They did a great job putting the car underneath me today, I could drive it anywhere I wanted," Hornish said. "It's a great opportunity. I'm with a well-funded team that will get me to all the races. All I have to do is maintain my patience and my cool, get the car and bring it home. I went out there to push the car to where I knew it would finish.
"The car was perfect all day long." Hornish is the latest driver for Pennzoil Panther Racing, replacing Scott Goodyear who left the team at the end of last season after a mutual agreement from the team and driver to part ways.
"We tested a lot of people and we went to look for a new driver here and he outshone everybody," said team co-owner John Barnes. "We knew after we tested him last year at Kentucky, he was the guy and he was going to wear yellow (team's sponsor) this year.
"Sam had huge shoes to fill when Scott Goodyear left. Scott did a good job for us, won our last race last year and we were able to carry it on this year."
Defending IRL champion Buddy Lazier was third followed by Scott Sharp and Billy Boat.
CART's Penske Racing competed in its first-ever IRL race and suffered bad luck. First, Gil de Ferran crashed while leading when he was attempting to make his first pit stop on lap 77. Jeret Schroeder ran into the back of de Ferran's Dallara/Oldsmobile sending both cars into the fourth turn wall. Mark Dismore had no where to go and ran into the two crashed cars to bring out the second caution flag of the race.
Ironically, that crash allowed his CART teammate, Helio Castroneves, a chance to pit under the yellow. Castroneves had started 17th and was second at the time. Castroneves led the race one time for four laps and had a car that could keep up with Hornish's fast Dallara/Aurora.
In the latter half of the race on a restart after caution on lap 132, Hornish and Castroneves took off from the field in a two-car battle. But just 11 laps later, the Ilmor-prepared Oldsmobile Aurora engine in Castroneves' Dallara blew up, knocking the talented Brazilian out of the race.
De Ferran finished 24th and Castroneves 18th for team owner Roger Penske.
"I think that we did well," Penske said. "We were competitive. Unfortunately, Gil got drilled coming into the pits. We were right on our strategy, running conservatively on fuel. I think we learned a lot. We obviously need to get reliability up to where it needs to be.
"Hopefully, we got our bad luck out of the way here."
Penske Racing will also compete in this year's Indianapolis 500 for the first time since the legendary team failed to make the field in 1995.
Hornish showed his dominance early in the race when he passed the pole winner, Greg Ray, in the first turn at the start. He led the first 68 laps of the race. Ray led twice for 43 laps before his engine blew up on lap 121.
After several cautions, Salazar was able to catch Hornish in traffic on lap 150. The final caution of the race came on lap 159 when Stan Wattles backed his car into the second turn wall. When the green flag waved to restart the race on lap 168, Hornish had a huge lead on the field and was able to drive to victory.
"There was a time when Helio was behind me that I knew I had a little bit better can than he did in traffic and he couldn't put the car on the high-side like I could," Hornish said. "I knew if he didn't get underneath me, he couldn't pass me.
"My car worked the best through traffic. There was a time at the end when Salazar was able to catch me, but my car was the best in traffic."