The two protagonists relive their last-lap showdown at the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
SAM HORNISH JR.
It was pretty rainy that month of May. I'm not sure there were any days that year that we didn't get rain and there were quite a few times that we lost full days. However, all but one of the days we got on track, we were fastest. We got the pole, and we knew we were incredibly quick. The year before, we'd been running Toyotas and we knew they hadn't won on a big track for more than a year, but we were still fast. Unfortunately, though, we ended up getting taken out of the race.
So with the Hondas, we knew we'd be good, and we tried to make good decisions about how much running we did because we wanted the car to be perfect. Even though Dallara tries to make every car perfect, there are always little differences. The year before, for example, we put the exact same setup on our backup car as our primary and ran 2mph faster. So that whole month we looked after our primary car, we knew it was very strong, and I carried on that way of thinking into the race; take care of the car.
I know Dan Wheldon led a lot of laps but I was running at 90, 95 percent all day long and I could stay with him. When we got to lapped traffic, Dan would pull away but because he was making moves that I felt were pretty aggressive. I was just taking my time, not making mistakes. Any time I'd had a problem in the 500 before that was because of getting caught up in someone else's problem or because I got frustrated in traffic and made a mistake.
In 2001, I had the fastest car but I spun on lap 17 because I felt like Jimmy Vasser wasn't getting going on the restarts so I thought, “I've gotta get a really good restart and get around him,” and lo and behold I came off of Turn 4 and tried to turn down to go underneath him, hit the bumps and spun. I didn't hit anything but flattened all the tires and had to get the car back. We made up two laps back under green; that's how fast we were. In '02, I got behind Buddy Lazier and he was really trimmed out and although I couldn't get him on the straightaways, I could beat him in the corners, so I kept trying different things to get around him. Finally I decided to push a little bit on the exit of 4, but I slid up into the wall and bent the rear suspension.
In 2004, I thought we had a really good chance to win, got the lead, had a slow pit stop, lost the lead, got it back, came in had a bad pit stop, went to the back, decided to take it easy and then two cars wrecked in front of us and collected us. In '05, I led 77 laps of the 120 I ran, but ended up wrecked. So in 2006, I decided I wasn't going to push it hard until the last 10 laps.
That final restart, I think I was ninth car in line but seventh on the lead lap, but I got around Wheldon and Scott Dixon on that restart and that was key. People said that we were lucky that there was that yellow, but actually, after the refueling issue [in which the fuel hose nozzle broke during a pit stop, RIGHT], we'd come around and still under caution we'd topped up with fuel, so we could go to the end, whereas a lot of others would have had to stop. It was them who got lucky with the yellow because now they didn't have to stop, whereas we'd put ourselves in the position where we thought we could win even if there wasn't a yellow. But obviously the way it panned out was a lot more exciting and dramatic, and whenever there's talk of close finishes at Indy, I get phone calls from journalists!
I don't want this to sound rude, but if you look back at the days of practice and qualifying, Michael and Marco had 10th- to 12th-place cars; they weren't top-three. And if you look at where they ran all day, they got up there because of strategy: Michael stayed out, and then Marco was in the pits when the yellow came out, so everyone had slowed down and he was able to keep his spot. So, they weren't that fast.
I knew Michael would fight me hard, and the longer he held me off, the better chance he would have of being a winning team owner again, through Marco. So when I caught him, he did exactly what I expected him to do and I just beat him there. But when I caught Marco on lap 198, I didn't really know what he was going to do; I'd never raced with him that much, so I didn't know if he was going to block me or change lines or let me go. I caught him going down the back stretch, got in his draft and I decided, “I'm not going to pass him here but I want to see what he does.” So I pulled out early to pass him just to see what he was doing and I had so much momentum on him, I thought, “Well, OK, maybe I will get it done now.” But once I was halfway alongside him, he started coming down, I thought “Whoa! This isn't good.” I mean, I didn't want to be second, but after the past few years, I thought second was better than wrecking.
So I downshifted really quick and got back in his draft. Normally we ran three top gears for when we were running alone, running in the draft, or to help us if we were in a headwind. But we were so fast that year, we only ran two top gears. Any other year, I wouldn't have caught back up because I wouldn't have had the option of going down to fourth and rebuilding the momentum quickly.
We were also really trimmed out, running the least amount of downforce I ever ran there, and considering it was Marco's first year there, I suspect Andretti Green had treated him in the same way I was treated in my rookie year – run as much downforce as possible to give the kid an opportunity to learn. It's already a hard enough race in your rookie year, and it's a place where you run as little downforce as possible regardless, because of how fast you have to be. So I'm just guessing but he may have had two to three degrees of rear wing, maybe more. And I was running either zero or even negative one. So the straightline difference was probably 7mph, and the downforce level? He probably had 200lbs more than me.
The other thing that helped me which I didn't remember until I saw the footage again – and it's a shame there was no blimp-cam to show it more clearly – but Marco was really pinching the corners off. At that stage in the race, as the leader, you're really doing everything you can to not hit the wall, because how bad would that look? Whereas for those last two laps, I was running like it was a qualifying lap, giving it every little bit, using every bit of track. I remember coming through Turn 4, close enough to be getting the disturbed air off his car, and I have no idea how much room I had but I was almost at the point of closing my eyes because I didn't know if I was going to get 'round there or not! But I wasn't going to lift…
Once I got back up to him, I decided that whatever move he made to hold me off, I'd go the same way but harder or farther. I remember Rick Mears had told me before the race that he used to have the feeling coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap that even if all four wheels come off, at least he'd be able to still slide it over the finish line! I felt the same way: whether I was going to go inside, outside or over the top of Marco, I was going to do whatever I had to do. So out of Turn 4, I waited extra long behind him before making a move. Usually when someone's about to block you, they see you coming, they make their move, check their mirror and then make another move. I figured I'd leave the move late, so I was as close as I could be when I moved out so that when he checked his mirror, I'd already be alongside and it would be too late for him to make his second move.
I've got to say, I thought it would be closer when we crossed the line. I felt sure that it was going to be the closest finish ever, but it was twice the distance of Al Unser Jr./Scott Goodyear .
Go to the next page for Marco's account
I like to think I have a good handle on the place, and the three years we've finished, we've finished top three. But at Indy, more than anywhere else, you win or you're nowhere. So it's all about the race. As long as you have the speed to get the car in the field, that's all that matters in qualifying. It's 500 miles so I focus on race work through the month of May. Last year, I was the one of the five of us who was like, “Guys, we can win this,” while they're just downbeat, looking at how far off we were speed-wise from the Penskes. OK, it's not just a mentality: you have to go out and make it happen, but when you have a good setup for the race, you can still make things happen.
It's a shame 2006 has been the closest so far. When we came out of the pits for that final time, I had a bunch of cars ahead of me and so I radioed the team and asked who was for position and who wasn't. And they said I was second, so I asked who the leader was. They said, “You're not gonna believe this, but it's your dad.” I actually went back on the radio and said, “You've gotta be kidding me!” Leading up to the race, that's all the questions me and Dad had gotten – what if this scenario happened – and here it was. Pretty unbelievable.
I was really confident under that yellow because I had new tires and he didn't – and he knew my tire situation, too, so that's why he didn't challenge me. He could have been tougher on me for sure. From the restart, with four laps to go, I was flat. Bryan Herta [a teammate -Ed.] helped me a bit to get through and then I got the run on Dad the following lap – but at the same time, I think we knew we weren't racing each other. We knew who we were racing, because Sam and Penske had a huge speed advantage that whole month – the biggest advantage they've ever had over us in the last five years at Indy. We were both flat from that green flag and he was something like 7mph quicker. Crazy.
I did actually think I had the race won at one point. I baited him into taking the inside line into Turn 3 on the second-from-last lap and he took it, and I knew by the closing rate that he wouldn't have enough to actually make the pass there, so I just shut the door and he lost momentum. Against any other car, that would have won me the race, but how he made up all that ground on the final lap is beyond me. I was absolutely flat-out and he still got me on the run to the finish line.
The only thing that allows me to sleep at night is knowing I couldn't and wouldn't have done anything different. If he has a head of steam like Sam had, he's coming around you whichever way you move. The only way to stop him would be to crash him and that isn't an alternative I'd even think about.
Still kills me though…
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