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Driven to SUCCESS

Ron Hornaday, a Native of Palmdale, Has Become One of the Top Performers on NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series

July 18, 1998|VINCE KOWALICK | Times Staff Writer

FONTANA — Seems like there are more juniors in the world of auto racing than the local public high school.

Andretti, Unser, Earnhardt...all families in which racing practically is a birthright passed from father to son.

Then there is Ron Hornaday--son of and father to Ron Hornaday, as well as son-in-law to a former racer. Yet, Hornaday is anything but stuck in the middle of three generations of racing heritage.

Hornaday, 40, rapidly becoming one of the best NASCAR talents to emerge from the West Coast, answers simply to Ron Hornaday these days. A decade ago, the Palmdale native carried the title "junior," as well as modified division champion at Saugus Speedway, the short track his father dominated in the 1960s.

Hornaday may finally be just plain Ron Hornaday, but he has been anything but ordinary since shifting from stock-car to truck racing three years ago.

Last Sunday at Nazareth, Penn., Hornaday cruised to a record 21st career victory on the Craftsman Truck series, a division that has soared in popularity since its inception in 1995.

Hornaday, the series' champion in 1996, is second in points entering the tour's annual 200-mile race today at California Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ESPN at 1.

With a series-best three victories in 11 races, Hornaday is 72 points behind leader Jack Sprague.

At Nazareth, Hornaday grabbed the lead from pole-sitter Mike Bliss on the 57th lap of the 200-mile race and, well, never looked back.

Hornaday never looked better than he did starring as himself and doing schtick in a recurring auto parts commercial aired between laps during the nationally televised race.

"I'm not a person who can read off scripts," Hornaday said. "But I'm pretty good at imagining what they want from me. I have fun doing it. It's fun to get your name and face out there."

He's come a long way. Seven years ago, Hornaday pulled up an grimy crate in his Newhall garage and sat for a cigarette and an interview during a break from his day job as an auto mechanic.

This week, Hornaday relaxed in an air-conditioned lounge at the immaculate two-year-old Fontana track while reflecting on his career. Outside, in sweltering heat, roadies unloaded from a trailer the team's NAPA Brakes Chevrolet after a cross-country journey.

Racer-car drivers never really get anywhere, considering they're always speeding from one race to the next. But in Hornaday's case, it appears he has arrived.

On Wednesday, Hornaday made a promotional appearance in Palmdale and was greeted by several hundred fans.

"It's probably the most I've ever seen at an autograph session," Hornaday said. "It's a very nice homecoming, people coming up to me and telling me they respect me for where I came from and where I am.

"This is what I've always wanted to do. You work your butt off trying to make money and it's a struggle. I quit racing two or three times. But it's finally taken me where I am."

Where Hornaday is, is on the cusp of a leap the Winston Cup series, NASCAR's major-league circuit that includes the storied Daytona 500. Job offers appear certain to come in time for Hornaday, considering his track record.

"My main dream was always to drive for a major racing team, and I've fulfilled that," Hornaday said. "But now I have a goal to go to Daytona. I don't care if it's in a Busch car or a bicycle, I want to race Daytona."

Since 1995, Hornaday has driven full-time for owner Teresa Earnhardt, wife of Dale, the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

Already the only two-time champion of the NASCAR Southwest Tour, Hornaday caught the Earnhardts' eye while driving a Winston West race at Tucson Raceway Park in late 1994.

Hornaday had rubbed shoulders with his racing idol but was unprepared for the telephone message he received after arriving home Monday.

"There was a phone call from Dale," Hornaday said. "I called him back and I told them I'd be more than interested in driving their truck. I was surprised because I had met him a couple of times, but that was it."

Ron Hornaday Sr., 67, dominated short tracks from Tijuana to Spokane, winning consecutive Winston West titles in 1963 and '64, as well as multiple titles at Saugus.

But Ron Sr. never motored further east than Phoenix for a race.

"I had a family and some kids and I had a job, so I decided I could never pack up and move," Ron Sr. said. "He called me after he got the call from Dale and I said, "Pack up and go!"

Hornaday did, relocating his wife and two children in late 1995 to their current home in North Carolina, NASCAR's infield.

Hornaday won six races and finished third the first season. In 1996, he won six races and had 23 top-10 finishes, winning on short tracks, superspeedways and road courses.

Last season's championship defense began with a crash at Walt DisneyWorld Speedway. Despite seven victories, Hornaday finished fifth.

This season, Hornaday has won at Walt DisneyWorld, Phoenix and Nazareth.

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