Even though it has been 10 years, Sam Hornish Jr. still vividly recalls his emotional and monumental win in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 – 10 years ago to the day, May 28.
Hornish started from the pole, was sidetracked with an issue in the pits, almost crashed, then rallied back to dramatically pass Marco Andretti on the final lap to win – the first time in history that “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was decided on a last-lap pass.
Hornish was 26 and in his third season with Team Penske when he captured the biggest race in the world. The Defiance, Ohio, native remembers it well.
“In my first two starts at Indy for Penske, we had fast cars and had a car capable of winning,” Hornish said. “Either bad luck or … just being in the wrong place at the wrong time got us both of those years.
“When we got there again in May (2006), all we cared about doing was the end, the last five laps. When we unloaded, I think we were the fastest every day that month, except for one (day), which was the final day of practice. We were second fastest that day.
“We knew we had a car capable of winning. I felt I had learned all the things I needed to win that race and the whole month was basically a lesson in patience about us just getting to race day. When I woke up that (race) morning, I reminded myself of my goal: We don’t care about anything that happens until Lap 195.
“I led 77 laps the year before (crashing on Lap 147 after starting second). I just looked at it from the point of view that I didn’t need to lead any lap until the last one. Even if somebody was quicker, we got bogged down in traffic or a pit stop didn’t go well, none of it mattered. It was just all about how to get to the end.”
Hornish made eight starts in the Indy 500 in his career. Prior to 2006, his best finish was 14th in 2001.
“Race day morning in ‘06, I knew what I needed to do and everything just went like clockwork,” Hornish said. “We only led 18 laps, but I guarantee we were in the top two or three all day long up until the Lap 140 area, when we had the issue on pit road.
“The fuel probe got stuck and Roger (Penske) told me to go. He’s watching the fueler, when he starts to pull out, that’s when (Penske) tells me to go. He started to pull out and then it got jammed, so there wasn’t enough time to tell me to stop. It was a good thing it happened under yellow, and then we find out we’re going to have the drive-through penalty.
“I start counting the laps (remaining) in my head, knowing what we have got to do. I said over the radio that if we have to do a pass-through, we might as well stop and fuel it up. As long as we could stay on the lead lap, go into fuel save mode and if we stay on the lead lap when everyone else pits, we’re going to cycle around to be the race leader.”
Hornish’s plans were almost derailed when a caution came out on Lap 192. “I thought, ‘Man, here we go again, it’s not going to work out’ because some people could make it to the end from there, other people were on pit road and while we were under yellow trying to catch back up, they were able to do their pit stop and get back out ahead of us.
“We restarted fourth, with Michael and Marco (Andretti) ahead of us, as well as (Scott) Dixon and five or six lapped cars. The real key in order to win the race, I had to get around Dixon quick because there were so many cars between him and the Andrettis.
“If I didn’t get around him quick, there was no way I was going to get around those other guys. Dixon balked a little on the restart. He tried to go high, so I tried to go low and (Dan) Wheldon had snuck up underneath me. His right front tire hit my sidepod and my left rear tire hit his side pod – and neither one of us checked up. Usually when that happens, one car climbs up on top of the other.
“But since neither of us checked up and bumped, we were both able to keep going and I was able to get enough of a run to pass Dixon going into Turn 1. It was then that I knew I had an opportunity (to win), but I knew I had to get past Michael first. I knew he was going to make it difficult on me and protect that position. I was able to get a run on him coming off Turn 2 and passed him; he didn’t have time to block me.
“Then it was all about getting Marco. It was Lap 198 when I pulled up behind him on the back straightaway. I wanted to see what he was going to do and how he was going to protect the line. But as I crept up and finally pulled out to pass, he looped down and didn’t give me any room. I didn’t come there to wad this thing up on the next-to-last lap, so I checked up and downshifted.
“I pretty much thought, ‘That’s just about it.’ Then I downshifted again and went back to full fuel and it gave me the right run to come off Turn 4 and I started to catch up to him. By the time I got to Turn 4 (on the last lap), I just kept my foot in it. I was either going to hit the wall or I’m going to do everything I need to pass him.
“I was into it until the last possible second and it turned out the way I wanted it to. I was still in shock that it worked out that way, especially it being the first time anybody had passed on the last lap to win the race.”
Hornish will be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 100th Running of the Indianpolis 500 on Sunday as a spectator but also to reflect back on what he did on that special day in May 2006.
“It’s pretty nice to remember that you did something really awesome,” Hornish said. “I’m proud to be a fan of it, to see the 100th running and proud to have my face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. It’s a pretty elite club, for sure.”