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Hornish Blisters Hot Track

He wins the Toyota Indy 400 in Fontana with a record-setting speed, as the track temperature reaches 142 degrees.

September 22, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

In one of those cases of the whole being more than the sum of its parts, Sam Hornish Jr., running at a record speed, won the Indy Racing League's Toyota Indy 400 on Sunday at California Speedway in Fontana.

"Everything that I pretty much planned today kind of went out the window at different points in time," he said.

"The heels of my feet were frying all day long," he added.

"Right from the start, [my pit crew] couldn't get any of the [on-board] telemetry," he said. "So, basically, it was me telling them what the fuel level was ... where the knobs were, what I was doing inside the car [with] the weight jacker and the anti-roll bars."

Grim stuff, huh?

Yet Hornish, the two-time defending series champion, who won for the third time in the last four races, made it look easy in his bright-yellow Dallara-Chevrolet, gunning down Scott Dixon's G Force Toyota in a late-race shootout and posting an average speed of 207.151 mph, the highest on record for a closed-course race.

This on a day better suited for a beach party than a high-speed motor race. The air temperature hit 101, the track temperature 142 and a south wind pushed all that heat most of the race, baking the crowd of about 40,000.

"I pressed my [drinking] water button and I had a hot tea," said third-place finisher Tony Kanaan.

When it came down to the late-race hot-lapping, though, Hornish had the hot setup and that made the difference.

After the last round of pit stops, Dixon came out in the lead on Lap 169 of the 200-lap race, thanks to 9.8-second service from his crew, which gave him four tires and just enough fuel to finish. Hornish was running second, less than a second behind.

They swapped the lead twice, then, on Lap 185, Hornish got word from his crew that it was "time to launch the grenade," and passed Dixon with an outside move, denying Dixon's retaliatory moves and beating him by 0.3563 of a second, a couple of car lengths.

"Towards the end, we really didn't have enough for Sam," Dixon said. "My car was really bad on the high line and his was really good. Then he actually started to use the low line.... Sam was pretty smart. I think he knew I could only stay at the bottom and he was using that up." Not so with Hornish.

"I could run wherever I wanted to and that was the big key today," he said. "We definitely didn't have the fastest car, but we had the car that could run wherever."

For more than half of the 400-mile race, though, Hornish, Dixon, Kanaan and everyone else played follow-the-leader as Tomas Scheckter, Dixon's Chip Ganassi teammate, threatened to run away with the proceedings. Scheckter led three times, for a total of 112 laps, more than anyone else, and was solidly in charge when he made his third pit stop on Lap 124.

Refueling problems cost him valuable seconds, though, and when he came out, he was running seventh, the car that had run so smoothly in clean air now misbehaving badly back in the pack.

"It went sideways," he said. "I saved it from hitting the wall on several occasions."

Scheckter's misfortune left the lead to Helio Castroneves in Team Penske's Dallara-Toyota, fellow Brazilian Kanaan right behind in the Dallara-Honda he drives for Andretti Green. Castroneves, who began the race leading the standings, looked for a while as though he would put himself further out front, then encountered the same kind of pit problem that had sent Scheckter backward.

"Unfortunately, we came in before the rest of the lead pack on the final round of stops and we took on more fuel than they did so we ended up sixth after it all sorted out," he said. "In the final laps of the race, I lost the draft and I couldn't catch the leaders."

That left the race to Dixon, Hornish and, for a while, Kanaan. Then it was Hornish and Dixon.

"We kept up with the lead pack through the whole race, then, with 20 laps to go, all of a sudden, I do not know what happened," Kanaan said. "These two guys decided to take off.... I could not do anything."

Neither could Dixon, at the end. Hornish could, though, did, and left an admiring Kanaan in his wake.

"Sam is a very good driver," he said. "He can do things [like] that -- I'm impressed."

The high-speed race was an extremely clean one, with only one caution period, and that for debris on the track. That, in large part, accounted for the record average speed.

"There was only one yellow and we took care of each other -- there was not a single crash," Kanaan said.

The outcome, though, left the standings even closer, with the finale in three weeks at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Dixon, with his second-place finish, jumped into a tie with Castroneves for the lead at 467 points. Kanaan remains third but cut his deficit in half and now has 460. Hornish, who had been fifth, 41 points behind, picked up 50 points for the victory and moved into fourth, ahead of the soon-to-be-retired Gil de Ferran, who had a disappointing race and finished 15th in his second-to-last outing. Hornish, the only driver to have won two IRL races at California Speedway, has 448 points and still is in striking distance of his third consecutive championship. De Ferran remains mathematically in contention with 437.

De Ferran had switched from a Dallara chassis to a G Force in search of more speed for this race, but the move backfired.

"My car wasn't handling well at all," he said. "I spent most of my time just struggling to stay in the race.... In hindsight, we probably didn't have enough experience with the G Force in this race trim."

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