Top five Indy 500s: No. 3 – 2006 goes down to the wire

Sam Hornish Jr. beats Marco Andretti to the finish line for the checkered flag in the 2006 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Scott Haber/LAT Photographic)

INDIANAPOLIS – As a five-year-old sitting in the first turn grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, young Sam Hornish, Jr. vividly remembers watching Danny Sullivan spin as he was attempting to pass Mario Andretti for the lead in the 1985 Indianapolis 500. Sullivan would go on to win that race in, what became known as, the “Spin and Win.” Hornish left the circuit dreaming, like many boys, of becoming a race driver one day.

Hornish achieved that dream through the World Karting Association, racing against a young Danica Patrick when both were still kids. In 1993, he won seven races with 29 top-five finishes. By 1995 he would win the US Grand National title for the second year with nine races victories.

He the moved up from US Formula 2000, to the Toyota Atlantic, and then to PDM Racing in 2000. PDM was one of the lowest-budget teams in the low budget Indy Racing League, but Hornish was able to finish third in a race that season. Panther Racing team owner John Barnes was impressed with Hornish’s ability to get a small-budget car to the front and hired him the next season.

Just 21 years old, Hornish won back-to-back IndyCar Series titles for Panther before moving to Team Penske in 2004.

Hornish had achieved so much success behind the wheel of an IndyCar, but none of that success had came at the Indianapolis 500.

That would change in dramatic fashion on May 28 2006 as the boy who witnessed the “Spin and Win” went on to become the first driver to make the race-winning pass on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. He won the race in the last 450 feet when he passed rookie driver Marco Andretti and won by just 0.0635-seconds for the second-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.

That is why the 2006 Indianapolis 500 gets the pick as the No. 3 Indianapolis 500 of all-time.

It’s also team owner Roger Penske’s favorite Indy 500 win of the record 15 victories that he has in the “World’s Biggest Race.”

“That was an amazing race,” Penske recalled. “One of the commitments I made with Sam was we were going to win the Indianapolis 500. To be able to do it in 2006 was terrific.

“That run he made those last five laps – I show that a lot of times to our people to show someone who never gave up. It was an amazing run. Marco shut him down in Turn 3 but Sam was so focused that, when it was time to go, he was very focused. It was so close to make that run like he did off Turn 4.

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“They moved to our team and one of the things we told them we would do is win the championship and the Indianapolis 500. To be able to close the deal was terrific.”

Hornish would go on to win the 2006 IndyCar Series championship. He would compete one more season in IndyCar before moving to NASCAR in 2008 to drive for Team Penske. He is driving a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, and won last Sunday’s race at Iowa Speedway.

When told that his Indy 500 victory was Penske’s favorite, Hornish’s pride was evident in his voice.

“That really means a lot to me because you have four by Rick Mears, and Al Unser, Jr. won it by dominating in 1994 and Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Mark Donohue winning the first one for him and Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran and Danny Sullivan’s ‘Spin and Win,’” Hornish told “What a lot of people like about the 2006 500 is to see that comeback. It’s almost like Mears in 1991 when him and Michael Andretti had the duel and passed on the outside. It was the continuation of the Andretti hard luck.

“But at the same time going through Turn 2 on the white flag lap, I think I was the only person in the world that thought we could win.”

Ever since 2001, Hornish had entered the Indianapolis 500 as a favorite to win the race, but each year would experience misfortune that would keep him out of victory lane.

Prior to 2006, Hornish’s best finish was 14th in 2001 with Panther. He had finished 26th in 2004 and 23rd in 2005 for Team Penske.

“It goes before that because we were there in 2004 and 2005 and had really strong race cars but we got caught up in somebody else’s issue,” Hornish recalled. “That kept us from having the showing we should have.

“I looked at 2006 as whatever it takes to get to the end is what I’m going to do. I didn’t worry about leading laps. We led 77 laps the year before that and only led 19 laps the year I won. We ran up front. We stayed close enough to the front all day that we could see it and made a good judgment about where everything was happening. We didn’t push it. We were quick all month long and that helped as well.”

Hornish had been the fastest driver in qualifications all month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and won the pole. His drive to victory, though, was nearly derailed because of a fire in the pits on Lap 150 when he was the leader of the race. Hornish’s car caught on fire and one of his crewmembers was engulfed before the flames were extinguished.

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Hornish would return to the race but was assessed a “drive through” penalty because of the pit fire. Along with Michael Andretti, Hornish drove onto pit road to top off his fuel tank on Lap 160 to make it to the finish without making another pit shop.

“On the pit problem, Roger Penske was calling the race and when he saw the jack start to drop he told me to go. But that is the assumption that when the jack drops the fuel man can pull out cleanly and I can go,” Hornish explained. “But the fuel filler got caught and wouldn’t come out. It ended up tearing out the fuel line and we had a fire and had to go to the tail end to serve the drive through penalty. I told Roger that it was at the edge of what a lot of people can do so if we went into fuel-save mode after the drive through we could make it to the end because everyone else was running hard for the win. As long as we stayed on the lead lap when they pitted, they were going to come out behind us after everything circled around.

“That was working pretty good and I was pretty happy with the plan of what I thought we really needed to do. But Felipe Giaffone wrecked with a couple laps to go (Lap 191 of 200) and that was it right there, because then other people could make it to the end.”

When the race restarted with five laps to go, it started a chaotic turn of events that would make this one of the most thrilling Indy 500s ever. The storyline changed four times in the final four laps.

Michael Andretti was in the lead after coming out of retirement in an attempt to win the Indy 500 as a driver for the first time in his career. He was first with 19-year-old son Marco Andretti second when the green flag flew. The crowd went wild, hoping to see the elder Andretti finally win the Indy 500.

Further back in the field, Hornish would begin his charge to victory

“We had a great restart and Dan Wheldon and I actually got together in Turn 4,” Hornish recalled. “He jumped the start a little bit and I was working on getting a run on Scott Dixon. Wheldon got to the inside and we actually bumped for a second between Turns 3 and 4. It was really fortunate it was a small bump for both of us. Even with that I had a great run down the straightaway and was able to make up and get around Dixon.

“I knew it was going to be between Dixon and Michael Andretti – the two most difficult ones to pass. I got around one of them and got behind Michael and hadn’t had a lot of experience running around Marco at all because he was a rookie.”

Michael was still in the lead before his son stunned the crowd with three laps to go, pulling to the outside of his father on the frontstretch and passing him for the lead in Turn 1.

The crowd was now cheering wildly for Marco. After all, if he won in his first Indy 500 attempt, an Andretti would still win the race. Andretti tried to protect his son’s position, but Hornish was able to pass Michael for second place down the backstretch.

Hornish set his sights on Marco and began to size him up for the right opportunity to make the pass.

“On Lap 198 I had a good run on him coming off Turn 2,” Hornish recalled. “I wasn’t interested in passing him; I wanted to see what he was going to do and how much he would block me. We went down the backstraight and I thought he only moved a little bit to block and I was quicker than him. I got down in there and he blocked me and held me down almost to the grass. I figured I better get out of there because there was no point in us having an issue right now. I wanted to finish the race. I was able to downshift pretty quickly and give myself the opportunity to get another run. I didn’t know for sure if I was able to get a clean run on him but I knew for sure that pass wouldn’t work in Turn 3.

“Marco had been between 3-4 miles per hour slower than us the month of May. With him tentative and pinching the corners a little bit and getting wide it was perfect timing coming off Turn 4. If I had been any closer to him I would have pushed up a little more than I did. At that point I was driving up behind him and letting him make a move one way or another, and I was going to go twice as hard whatever direction he went, so if he looked in the mirror the only choice he was going to have was to wreck both of us.

“It worked out. I had a great run and it was everything it needed to be.”

Over the final five laps, the crowd never stopped cheering or standing. What they witnessed at the end with Hornish’s incredible finish stunned the crowd as they had witnessed the first pass for the win on the final lap of the Indy 500.

The young boy from Defiance, Ohio who dreamed of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a five-year-old in 1985 had achieved his boyhood dream.

And it was emotional victory lane, as Hornish cried for various reasons. He had won the race he had always dreamed of, but his grandmother had passed away earlier that month.

“The only thing that allowed me to get through with the amount of emotion that I had was it was so close at the end,” Hornish said. “If I had five laps to think about it at the end of the race, I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk. But I was still so pumped up that it happened the way that it did, and such a great way for it to work out even though I was emotional about it.

“I lost my grandmother, and one of my good friends from high school – his father passed away. There had been some people who had been good friends of mine and followed me in my formative years and I thought about not being able to share the win with them because they would have been excited about it.

“For a lot of the things that went wrong in 2006 outside of the race track, that is one thing that went right and I couldn’t help but think of that during the month to go out there and win the race.”

If Hornish had stayed in the IndyCar Series, he may have gone on to win the Indy 500 two or three more times and become a legend of the sport. But he walked away at the end of the 2007 season at the top of his game to become a NASCAR driver with modest success in the Nationwide Series after struggling in Sprint Cup.

Hornish has no regrets on his career decision and can rest assured that he will forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner.

“The 500 means a tremendous amount to me,” Hornish said. “It’s the whole reason I started racing in the first place. I still love it. Now, I love it even more than when I was racing in it because I get to be a fan of it again. It’s not a pressure thing and my whole year doesn’t ride on how that goes.

“I know how difficult it is to win there and when everybody asks, ‘Sam, how come you’re not still running it? You might have won three of four.’ I know how hard it was to win one. There is a certain amount of luck involved in timing. I feel darn lucky and blessed to have won it once and I could have gone another 30 years and it may not have played out for me to win again.”

The one that Hornish won, however, is one of the all-time great moments in the 103-year history of the Indianapolis 500.