Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr. renew rivalry
Sam Hornish Jr. couldn't appreciate the prescient metaphor at the time. He was 16 and therefore had little appreciation for metaphors -- even prescient ones, if he knew what that meant. And he was driving a go-kart at 50 mph toward the checkered flag, in the process of having his helmet skid-marked by a 13-year-old named Danica Patrick, who had desperately dive-bombed the final corner of the North American Karting Championships.
"She couldn't bear it to finish second to me," Hornish recalled, "so she ran me over."
Hornish wrecked. Patrick wrecked. Neither finished the race. Tears and consternation ensued alongside the road course inside Turns 3 and 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as Hornish and Patrick, both national champions as teens, sorted things out in the aftermath.
From that moment of crumbled fenders and spinning tires, Hornish, now 32, and Patrick, 30, took separate paths toward professional careers -- despite facing each other in go-karts a few more times -- and arrived in IndyCar within a few years of each other. Hornish won 19 races, including the 2006 Indianapolis 500, and became the first in series history to capture three championships before embarking on a still-nascent NASCAR career in 2008. Patrick won once in IndyCar, finished a career-best fifth in points in 2009, set various records for women (including a best finish of third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500) and began her first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season.
Seventeen years after tangling in that final turn and five years since their last IndyCar competition, the boy from Ohio and the girl from Illinois are vying for the same space once again.
Hornish, whose first three Sprint Cup seasons were statistical failures, is attempting to regain a foothold on his career with a first full season in the Nationwide series, and is fourth in points after seven races. He has raced in relative anonymity partly because of Patrick's full-time conversion to stock cars. That doesn't seem to bother him.
"I've known Danica for 20-plus years now, so it's not anything I haven't gone through before," he said in a phone interview. "I guess I've got the same answer from when she came to IndyCar full-time: It's going to attract attention. As long as the broadcasters, writers, all the TV people and journalists remember to give the other drivers some play, too, not wear the general public out on Danica-mania, I think it will all go very well."
Hornish has witnessed the phenomenon that is Danica Patrick from its origins. He's not threatened or offended by it. Sometimes he's amused by it, but he is used to it, used to the fact that sometimes her peers -- even more successful ones -- must learn to grow in her long shadow.
Old "friends'' of varying degrees of chumminess, Patrick and Hornish, more than most, understand each other's personality quirks, reducing the misinterpretation that occasionally has dogged both.
Patrick said Hornish "doesn't even come over and say 'hi' to me, and I'm an old friend from 12 years old," but she still invites him and his wife, Crystal, to stay in her Scottsdale, Ariz., home, and they have accepted.
"He's just like that," Patrick said. "He never used to be like that when we were kids, but as soon as I came back from living in England and saw him at an IndyCar race, he was just ... he's just really, really quiet. He just sort of had his sunglasses on and kind of had the unhappy-looking face and just did his thing. That's Sam."
The often-taciturn Hornish said: "I don't know if I ever talked to her a ton to begin with. You haven't seen someone for a while, and you might not have too much to say."
Today, they text birthday salutations, and the Hornishes occasionally dine with Patrick and husband, Paul Hospenthal -- "more than I generally do," Hornish said, "for most of the people I race against. I would consider her, of the people I raced against, somebody I would be more likely to sit down and have a drink with.
"It's different than a guy race car driver. If you're going to hang out with one of your racing buddies that's a guy, nobody thinks anything about it. But if you hang out with your racing buddy that happens to be a girl, they might think there's ulterior motives there."
It was during one of their family cookouts after an IndyCar race at Michigan International Speedway in 2007 that the old combatants, with the pregnant Crystal as "sober moderator," were able to rehash their last-lap dash at Charlotte. And on this topic, Hornish was positively verbose.
"It was kind of funny," he said. "I was giving her a hard time about blocking, like some people I raced against in the IRL who will remain nameless. I was like, 'Hey, you tell that [go-kart] story a lot.' I've never been asked my opinion on that story, but I'll tell you how it happened."
Many of the basics of their stories agree. Patrick led with two laps remaining.
"She kept trying to block me," he said.
Hornish passed her with just more than a lap left entering the final turn.
"Eventually, we're coming up to the corner before we got the white flag, and I finally was able to get underneath of her enough to where she couldn't block me, so I just kind of stayed right there," he said. Patrick wanted the spot back on the final lap, but Hornish was not amenable to the idea.
"He was kind of blocking," she said.
"I was on the inside trying to hold my line and [she] kind of ran into me a little bit," Hornish said. "I remember turning around in the corner before we were coming to the last corner, and she was, like, three car lengths behind me, and it was enough I knew she would never be able to pass me."
Patrick refused to brake entering that final corner and her throttle was still stuck open by the time she ran over Hornish's right rear, went over top of him and landed upside down.
"The last corner at Charlotte is not a hard-braking corner, but you have to take about half your speed off,'' Hornish said. "So, if you're going 55, you have to get down to about 35. I braked for the corner, and right as I turned in the corner, she just never lifted and drove right over top of me. The front bumper of her go-kart got wedged up, grabbed ahold of my helmet, so as she drove up over top of me, it basically dragged me out of my kart, and she went upside down. And then she's crying, and her dad is screaming at me like I had something to do with it."
Twenty years later, Patrick keeps running over the top of Hornish, but both seem more amused by it. At the Daytona 500 media day in February, a NASCAR publicist announced Hornish's arrival as he positioned himself at a director's chair behind his interview station, wide-grinned and prepared to discuss his next opportunity for a career in a series that rarely offers them. But Patrick was a few feet away, and little of the throng surrounding her budged. Hornish, unaware of the source of the scrum, was asked if he had ever seen such a crowd.
"I saw Danica get interviewed one time," he quipped.
Hornish has learned well. Sometimes you just stay out of the way.