A perfect fit: Sam Hornish Jr. and Richard Petty Motorsports

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For perhaps the first time in a long time, Sam Hornish Jr. finds himself in the right place and at the right time.

Hornish was announced Wednesday morning as the replacement for Marcos Ambrose in the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 Ford Fusion for the 2015 season.

Ambrose will be leaving RPM at the end of this season to return to his native Australia and to race in the V8 Supercars series, where he’s a two-time past champion. In addition, Ambrose will be driving for a team in which legendary motorsports owner Roger Penske – who was Hornish’s long-time boss in NASCAR – owns a significant chunk of the pie.

But this isn’t about Ambrose, it’s about Hornish – and with good reason.

Hornish finally has the one thing he’s been seeking for most of the last four seasons in the NASCAR world: career stability.

At RPM, Hornish will have an opportunity to grow and continue a building process that began with Ambrose in the No. 9.

But more important, he’ll have a future that’s secure – and a place he can potentially hang his hat at and eventually retire from maybe 15 years from now.

15 years?

Yep.

Perhaps because he has been around IndyCar and NASCAR racing for such a long time, many race fans might have the impression Hornish is older than he is.

Au contraire.

The Defiance, Ohio native is only 35 years old. Heck, he’s practically in the prime of his racing career.

It’s not every day that a race car driver has an opportunity to hit the reset button on his career and get another chance like the kind Hornish is getting at RPM.

That’s why this opportunity makes so much sense for both Hornish and RPM.

Plus, it also puts Sam in a very unique class, having driven for three of the biggest names in motorsports: Petty, Penske and Gibbs.

Now is the time for Hornish to look forward, but there’s certainly the back story that needs to be mentioned.

He came to Team Penske with high hopes and an outstanding resume, including three IndyCar championships and a victory in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

But it was admittedly a struggle for Hornish to make the adjustment from sleek and fast open-wheel cars to the more plodding Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series cars.

After just 11 Nationwide Series starts and two Sprint Cup starts, Hornish was moved up to the Sprint Cup series in 2008. Unfortunately, he struggled in his three full-time campaigns, finishing 35th in his rookie Cup campaign in 2008, 28th in 2009 and 29th in 2010.

When sponsorship evaporated after the 2010 season, so too did Hornish’s ride. He moved back to the Nationwide Series for more seasoning from 2011 through 2013, with a half-season return to Cup in 2012 to fill in for the suspended AJ Allmendinger that again didn’t work out.

Rather than getting Allmendinger’s former ride full-time in 2013, Hornish watched as his seat in the No. 22 Ford was given to Joey Logano.

It was back to the NNS in ’13, where things took a dramatic turn for the good. Hornish challenged for the series championship and, if he would have had maybe one or two higher finishes, would have ultimately won the title rather than finishing second as he did.

Even with such a lofty finish, the best season of his NNS career, Hornish and Team Penske parted ways after last season, leaving him with only a part-time NNS ride and schedule with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014.

But the move to Richard Petty Motorsports is perhaps the best thing that could ever have happened for Hornish.

He’s a respected driver who has battled back from bad luck and bad circumstances. And after all that, Hornish is living proof that good things do happen to good people.

Sometimes, it just takes a while.

But now that he’s part of a company with perhaps the most prestigious name and history in motorsports, Sam Hornish Jr. has emerged from grey clouds of uncertainty – and from here on out it’ll hopefully be sunshine and blue skies – Petty Blue, of course.

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INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500