Sam Hornish Jr. has much to be thankful for: new home, renewed Sprint Cup hopes with Richard Petty Motorsports

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It’s taken longer than he hoped for, but persistence to return to a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series has finally paid off for Sam Hornish Jr.

The 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and a three-time IndyCar champion will be back on the Cup scene in 2015 full-time with Richard Petty Motorsports.

The Defiance, Ohio native succeeds Marcos Ambrose behind the wheel of the No. 9 RPM Ford. Ambrose has returned to his native Australia to race in the V8 Supercars series after nine seasons of competition in NASCAR.

“With each day we get one day closer to the beginning of the season, I feel this is a great opportunity for me,” Hornish told MotorSportsTalk in a recent exclusive interview. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get where they want to be at and where I want to be at. But I also look at this as a great building exercise to build something together.”

When Hornish became available, he just seemed like a natural fit for RPM.

“We’re excited about Sam coming over,” said RPM director of operations Sammy Johns. “We’ve done a few tests with both Aric (teammate Aric Almirola) and him. They both have real similar driving styles and run very similar laps, so we’re excited about that. I think that’s really going to help us as an organization, to be able to work on common things for the two cars.

“I can’t say enough about Sam. As everybody knows in the garage, he’s a super guy, super nice, super humble but a great talent behind the wheel. He’s a championship-caliber race car driver and we’re looking forward to helping him get back to being a champion.”

It was hoped – if not expected – that based upon his IndyCar success, that Hornish would be able translate that success to NASCAR. But a long learning curve, coupled with opportunities that fell short due to lack of better equipment or sponsorship, hindered Hornish.

Up until now, that is. He’s now with a two-car operation that has a strong alliance with Roush Fenway Racing and which is also making its own moves upward in the Cup ranks.

“He had a great chance in good Nationwide cars and was a couple of points away from winning the championship there (in 2013),” Hornish’s new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer said. “I think that proved he can do it over here.

“He’s shown us in our tests so far that he’s can get up to speed and is extremely capable of driving stock cars already. We’re thrilled about the opportunity to give Sam that second chance and let him get in our cars and prove that he’s a top-notch stock car driver.”

Hornish isn’t necessarily looking at his move to RPM as a second chance in his Cup career, rather as his real true big chance to finally enjoy success on NASCAR’s highest level of racing.

When Hornish wasn’t able to immediately translate his IndyCar success to NASCAR, he struggled. But at the same time, it was a very valuable learning experience.

“It’s made me a better person all-around,” Hornish said. “I can’t be disappointed at how those things turned out. Those were life experiences. The only thing I can do is to direct my past failures and really be able to try and turn them into a success somewhere down the road.

“To get this opportunity and to be up against some pretty good people who were looking to be up for the same opportunity and maybe had a few more cards in their hands, to be the guy that was chosen, I can’t be more excited about it.”

During his stint in the IRL, Hornish won 19 races and three championships (2001, 2002 and 2006), enjoying 47 overall podium finishes in 118 starts.

Almost a decade later, Hornish, now 35, has compiled a record of 131 Sprint Cup starts, zero wins, three top-five and nine top-10 finishes.

It was in the Nationwide Series where Hornish found the greatest success in a stock car. He made 107 career starts with three wins, 32 top-five and 57 top-10 finishes, along with seven poles.

He finished fourth in the NNS standings in 2012 and just barely missed the championship in 2013, finishing second.

Hornish’s reward for doing so well in the NNS with Team Penske? Surely, a promotion back to Sprint Cup, right?

Wrong. Not only was he not promoted, he did not have his contract renewed. And because his release came so late in the season, there were few open opportunities remaining.

He ultimately picked up a 8-race Nationwide Series deal with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014 that was successful, with one win (at Iowa, see video) and four top-five finishes in eight starts.

“Sam has a lot to prove,” Blickensderfer said. “He came to the highest level of this sport right away from open-wheel racing and had a lot to learn. At the time, he didn’t have the greatest cars, I don’t think. That organization (Team Penske) has obviously picked it up a lot in the last few years, compared to when Sam drove there. Nobody got to see Sam’s true talent.

“We’ve gone and done some tests and I’m real impressed at his speed, feedback and willingness to get back into stock car racing and prove to everybody he’s the driver that they saw in Indy cars.”

In a sense, this is Hornish’s second first chance in Sprint Cup, with an organization that has made considerable gains in the last few seasons, including Almirola qualifying for the Chase this season (eliminated after the first round).

It’s a team that is definitely on the move upward.

“They’re (RPM is) not where they want to be and are real hungry to make the team better and to grow it with sponsorships and the success side of it,” Hornish said. “I’m just looking real forward to the opportunities and seeing what we can do.”

Hornish feels fortunate to be able to not only restart his Cup career, but also that RPM chose him over a reported five other candidates, particularly when it appeared he might once again get only a handful – if any, at all – of XFINITY Series races to compete in for JGR in 2015.

“Sam has obviously been around some top organizations and understands how they work,” Johns said. “He can bring some of that experience to us, as well as us giving him good equipment, good cars and a consistent opportunity in the Cup Series to go be successful. We’re looking forward to work with him.”

Besides the IRL success he enjoyed, Hornish has arguably one of the most unique resumes in the racing world. He’s the only driver to have ever raced for three of the most iconic names in motorsport: Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and now NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty.

In other words, he’s gone from driving for a Captain (Penske’s nickname) to a Coach (Gibbs) to a King (Petty).

“I’ve taken a tremendous amount of pride to be able to say I’ve worked for some of the most highly-respected team owners in all of racing,” Hornish said. “You’ve got a seven-time champion and 200-race winner (Petty) that I work for now on the NASCAR side, you’ve got a Super Bowl winner and three-time NASCAR championship-winning team owner (Gibbs), and a 15-time Indianapolis 500 car owner and NASCAR championship team owner (Penske).”

And now Hornish has a lot to give thanks for on Thanksgiving, with a new team, new organization and a new lease on his racing life.

“Obviously one of the biggest bonuses about this whole thing is to get the opportunity to work for Richard Petty,” Hornish said. “As a driver, having an opportunity to work for one of the biggest racing icons in motorsports, that’s a great addition to your legacy, especially to the NASCAR side. I’m real excited about that.”

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”