For a quarter century Sam Hornish Jr. tried off and on to win at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
The circuit is located roughly 130 miles southeast of where he grew up in Defiance, Ohio.
Hornish started racing at the road course in his early teens. But it wasn’t until August 12, at the age of 38, that he finally conquered it in an Xfinity Series race.
In his fourth series start there, driving the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske, Hornish led 61 laps from his third pole at the track to earn the win.
“The fact that I was able to do that this year with my wife and kids there, my in-laws and a bunch of other people that have supported me for a long time by coming out to races, that hadn’t got the opportunity to see me win a stock car race in person, that was pretty cool,” Hornish told NBC Sports.
Only a part-time driver, it was Hornish’s second Xfinity win in two seasons (nine starts) and his fifth overall.
But his celebration in August was different from when he was 25 and winning the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
“I had some friends from Indiana that were there who had cooked us some pork tacos earlier in the day before the race started,” Hornish said. “They made me two for after the race. We sat and talked for about 15 or 20 minutes, loaded up the motorhome and drove home and got home by 11:30. Got up and went to church in the morning. … It’s more of a relief now to win than it is sometimes a celebration, especially one that I wanted as badly as I wanted to win as Mid-Ohio. I just tried to enjoy the moment going through victory lane, hugging the kids, enjoying that with them because I know there’s probably not a ton of those left.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: What’s your earliest vivid memory related to auto racing?
Hornish: A lot of times, you’ve seen so much racing you’re not sure if, ‘was I really there for that or do I just remember it this way?’ One of the biggest things I’ve always thought about was seeing Danny Sullivan’s spin and win at the Indianapolis 500 (in 1985). The big part of that was … most kids … you see a lot of racing, and you’re almost kind of waiting for the wreck. It’s a little bit more drama than the cars just going around the track. I remember seeing him spin and you’re like, ‘he’s going to wreck’ and then he comes out of it and he wins the race. You’re like, ‘wow, how cool was that?’ That just showed how close they were to the edge, even somebody that was good enough, had a good enough car to win the race, was that on edge that the big mistake almost happened.
NBC Sports: When was the first time you met Roger Penske?
Hornish: I’m sure that I had time where I talked to him about it or had talked to him previously (about) this. But I was about 12 years old and to kind of pay for my racing or learn things I washed trucks at my mom and dad’s company after school. I had a dream one night Roger came pulling up in this big motorhome. He wanted me to come race for him. I remember waking up and going, ‘yeah right, like that’s ever going to happen.’
I was 22 years old when I first started talking to him about the opportunity to come race for him. About 10 years for that to come to fruition. I remember probably the first time I sat down to talk to him was at his offices up in Detroit. I can’t remember exactly all that we talked about. It was a long time ago and to think at this point in time growing up thinking I would never have the opportunity to probably even meet Roger, but to have gotten to work for him for almost a decade and to have the opportunity of having him wish me a Merry Christmas or call me out of the blue to see what I was up to cause he hadn’t seen me at the track in a while. Lot of really cool people over the course of the years, but Roger was definitely about as good to me as anybody could be.
NBC Sports: What’s the most fun race you’ve ever been part of?
Hornish: There was probably in the go-kart days, there was a lot of times we’d go up to Canada and race up there. They really didn’t like me that much because it seemed like I won a lot when I went up there. So it was like they were always looking for something to pick a part, like ‘oh, your rear axles are 1/36th of an inch too wide, so you get disqualified from the heat race’ and I’d have to start from the back of the feature. That happened a couple of times at their grand nationals. I remember a couple of years in a row, they found some little thing to basically disqualify us from our heat race and have to start at the back of the feature. Come from like 32nd to win the race in basically a kart sprint race of 30 laps. I’d say those are probably some of the funnest times that I had, just because in karts you’re doing it a lot more for just the love of the sport as opposed to trying to make a living at it.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Hornish: My first car was a truck. I had a Chevy short bed, 1500 two-wheel drive, stick shift pickup my dad wanted me to get. It’s kind of funny, because with the exception of my Corvette that I got for winning the Indianapolis 500, it’s the only other red car I’ve had in my entire life. … I remember I drove that truck harder than I probably ever drove that Corvette I got for winning the Indianapolis 500. Just because I was 16 and doing burnouts and sliding around in the stones and stuff like that. My dad had decided I should get a manual truck because he knew if I was going to be racing, I needed to be very proficient in shifting properly.
NBC Sports: Do you still have that Corvette?
Hornish: I still have the Corvette, yeah. It’s very low-mileage. I think I got 1,100 miles on it now.
NBC Sports: How often do you take it out?
Hornish: About once every couple of years. Something always happens when I take it out. I either get a speeding ticket. I had an issue with one of the body panels coming off of it. With the Corvette, it’s got a molded body panel that’s the roof. There’s a structural support underneath it that’s the roll cage. … I got a recall (notice) for paint delamination on the roof. I thought, ‘it’s paint delamination. I don’t drive enough for the paint to come off.’
We were having a Halloween party for the kids so I was cleaning the garage out and took it down off the lift and went to clean it out, drive it around the street and get the fuel burned out of it, keep the injectors and everything clean. Got up to second gear and I heard this big pop and the body panel on the roof came off. I had to go get that replaced. That’s a little bit different than what I thought paint delamination meant. I didn’t know it meant a painted part was going to come off. They were like, ‘Well, we don’t really know. We haven’t seen that one before.’
NBC Sports: What’s the best advice or criticism you’ve received in your career?
Hornish: I had one my friends tell me, it was pretty early into when I went back down to the Xfinity Series back in 2012. We were actually having a beer talking about racing or whatever. He said, ‘let me tell you something. You’re too damn good to have some of the problems you’re having’ (laughs). I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘if they give you a car that’s 35th and you bring it home 35th, you did all that you could do. If they give you car that’s a 15th-place car and you try to make it a first-place car and you end up 35th, that’s on you. So you got to be smart about taking what you have that day, trying to maximize, getting a little bit more out of it and you move on to the next day.’ I think if I had had that a little bit sooner and taken some of the weight off my own shoulders of thinking I was going to carry the car when it wasn’t right, I probably would have had some more opportunities.
In February, Casey Mears did what he had done for most of the last 14 years. He traveled to Daytona to participate in media day for NASCAR’s Speedweeks.
Then he left.
For the first time since 2003, Mears had no part in NASCAR’s on-track festivities building up to and including the Daytona 500. The “odd” circumstances were a result of Mears’ seven-year relationship with Germain Racing ending at the end of 2016.
The winner of the 2007 Coke 600 and a veteran of 488 Cup starts waited until the March 25 Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway for his first track action of 2017. Mears has since competed in 12 races for Biagi DenBeste Racing in the No. 98 Ford and will end the year with the races at Phoenix and Miami.
The schedule has provided him his most free time since his days driving Indy Lights.
“It was definitely tough at the beginning of the year to watch the races and not being a part of them,” Mears told NBC Sports. “Just out of, what do I want to say, repetitiveness. Just so many years of going every single weekend and then all of a sudden not going was definitely an adjustment for sure. The flip side of that is that it’s been a good thing. I’ve had a lot of time. … Even though I have a passion for racing and would still get right back in it at a full season opportunity again if the opportunity came around. But knowing that it hasn’t for this year, it’s been fun to take advantage of the time I do have.
“I’ve gotten to make a lot of my kid’s games and tournaments. My kids are involved in gymnastics and soccer and basketball and all those kind of things. Actually being home for some weekends and getting to watch some of their games and be a part of that stuff has been really enjoyable. But it’s been adjustment for sure.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: How was your Global Rally Cross experience last weekend? Was that the first time you’ve done that?
Mears: I really enjoyed that. … When the series was first trying to get rolling, they did some events at Loudon and at Charlotte, kind of on the front stretch and then in the infield during our race weekends when we were racing Cup. I was exposed to it a little bit then. Years ago I entered the Race of Champions over in Spain (in 2003). I got to drive a Peugeot for a couple of laps, which is a world rally car there. … I’ve been looking at that series talking to those guys about possibly getting involved, and I just wanted to go out to California last week. It was their last race of the year. … It seems like the series really has some legs and starting to take off. … It seems like there’s a lot of IndyCar car guys, open-wheel guys that are involved that series right now. Not just drivers, but team owners. Michael Andretti, Bryan Herta. Those guys are all involved. And when I look around at a lot of the teams, they’re all guys I worked with in the past on my Indy Lights teams and IndyCar programs I drove for. … It was kind of a big reunion in a lot of ways of catching up with people I hadn’t seen in quite a while.
NBC Sports: What was the first NASCAR race you ever attended?
Mears: The very first NASCAR race, that was sanctioned by NASCAR, would have to be when my dad (Roger Mears) did the Truck Series. The very first year that Truck Series started my dad was a part of that. He ran a handful of races (four points races). I want to say the very first (exhibition) race was at Mesa Marin in Bakersfield, California, where I grew up. I was at the very first ever Truck race at Mesa Marin.
NBC Sports: What do you remember about that?
Mears: My dad was involved so a lot of my memories revolve around the team and the program that he was trying to put together. I remember helping him build the truck. I remember as a younger guy building the floorboards for the truck and the foot rests and a lot of stuff in the interior. Just because from a driver standpoint that was the stuff I was most familiar with at the time and I was pretty young. … I had to be probably 12, 13 years old.
NBC Sports: How did you go from open-wheel racing to stock cars? What prompted it?
Mears: What really drove it was the state of open-wheel racing at the time. At that moment, open-wheel racing was in a flux at best. I had done the Indy Lights thing, had won races and finished (second) one year in the championship and (third) the following year in the championship and it was really time for me to move on and go to that next level. I started dabbling in some IndyCar races. I did a race for Bobby Rahal and filled in for Alex Zanardi when he had a big accident in Germany. He lost his legs there. I ended up filling in for him for the remainder of the season. … I was sitting there trying to decide which was going to be the right way to go. I didn’t know if CART was going to be the future in IndyCar or if it was going to be IRL. Nobody really knew it. Randomly, I had a guy call me that was involved in a program in North Carolina, which was a Busch Series team at the time. It was Welliver-Jesel Racing. Welliver had been involved in the sport for quite awhile. Wayne Jesel was just getting involved and wanted to do an engine program and have a race team. A silent partner who was involved in the IndyCar side of things at that point said, ‘Hey, what are you doing next year? Would you like to come back and start stock car racing?’ The more I thought about it, my dad already moved back in 2000 and was a shop foreman for Chip Ganassi and his stock car program. He kept telling me how much was going on back east and how many teams there were and all the racing that was happening. ‘You got to get back here and check it out.’ All those things combined made me make a decision to go ahead and try it.
NBC Sports: What about stock car racing appealed to you that other forms of racing you’d been in couldn’t provide?
Mears: That’s a good question. Because I loved open-wheel racing and I still do. The cars are very fun to drive, I definitely have a passion for it based on my family’s history and the people that I knew. The stock car thing was really foreign to me. … The one thing I learned that I enjoyed about stock car racing that I didn’t know that I was going to like was the short tracks. It took me awhile to get the hang of them because they were probably the thing that was most different from anything I’d ever done before. Probably my third year in stock car racing the one thing I really enjoyed about it was how diverse all the tracks were.
NBC Sports: Where is your Coke 600 trophy? Where does it sit now?
Mears: Right now it’s in my office in my house.
NBC Sports: How often do you stop and look at that?
Mears: You know you get used to it being there and not often. I think that’s what trophies are kind of cool for, right? You get used to having them and over time and it’s another piece of equipment in your house. But what’s cool about having a couple of them on display is that every now and then somebody sees it and wants to ask about it. It helps you relive those cool moments from your life. Every now and then a friend comes over or somebody new comes to the house and asks about em’. It’s sitting right next to the (2006) 24 Hours of Daytona win (trophy) and a win I had in Houston in Indy Lights. It’s just cool to have. It was a very special moment in my life. I think in my long career in NASCAR I obviously didn’t accumulate a lot of wins. I have the one for winning in Charlotte, so it’s definitely a special moment.
NBC Sports: What’s your dream car?
Mears: I lived my dream for a little while. I can tell you that. I had a sand car, I know it’s not a vehicle you drive on a road. I had a sand car that had about 1,300 horsepower. Out of anything I’ve driven outside of motorsports, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever driven. Horsepower-wise, handling, the whole scene of going out to the sand dunes and ripping around the sand dunes and a camp fire at night. That whole thing. That’s probably the most fun car I’ve ever had.
NBC Sports: If you could have a one-on-one matchup with any driver past or present on any track in any form of car, what would the arrangement be?
Mears: I would love to go head-to-head with my dad in an off-road event. Like the stadium trucks we used to race in the Mickey Thompson off-road stuff. About the time I was old enough to start moving up into the Truck Series was about the time the Mickey Thompson series kind of fell apart and I ended up going open-wheel racing. My brother and my dad raced against each other for years doing that stuff. He’s one of the guys I respect the most in the sport and it would just be a blast. It would probably never happen at this point in our careers, in our lives. But that’s something I would love to do.
NBC Sports: With Halloween coming up, what’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?
Mears: Last year or the year before my wife (Trisha) and I dressed up. I dressed up as Clark Griswold and she dressed up as Christie Brinkley from the Vacation movie. That was pretty fun.
That’s the impression left by more than one of the 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff drivers when asked a simple question.
What are you willing to do to advance to the Round of 8?
Thanks to wins by non-playoff divers Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney, none of the 12 drivers have officially advanced to next round.
Here’s what each driver had to say before the start of the playoffs.
Justin Allgaier, JR Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet (+54 points above first driver outside transfer spot)
“You know having teammates involved in this, you know you look at where you stand. I mean I have a lot of respect for my teammates, and you know that makes it very challenging when you get down to that final spot. If you’re battling it out with a teammate, what’s the limit? How far do you go? And I think that’s the area of concern for everybody. You know, none of us want to be the villain in this. None of us want to be the guy that goes out and crashes everybody to try and make it. I know that we all get along. That’s the one thing that’s pretty cool. Everybody in the top 12 gets along really well at this point. We’d love to keep it that way when this playoffs is over.
“I think whatever you feel like is the right thing to do. We are going to do whatever it takes as far as our performance, as far as what we can do in our control and then when it comes to racing around guys I feel like we are doing our job if we are ahead of those guys already. So, if we are not, then there is something we are not doing that isn’t going right. So, we are going to approach it the same way we have and compete at a really high level and give 110 percent and if that means that we need to win we are going to go out there and win.”
Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet (+41)
“You’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to try and get all the points that you can. Now with the stage racing, (that) gives you two more opportunities per race to get more points under your belt than maybe you really could in years past. So there’s things you’ve got to pay attention to, there’s a lot of things going on these days during these races that if you don’t understand what you’re doing, don’t ( look) ahead, some other teams could take advantage of them. I think that is what our team has done the best this year is getting those stage points. So that’s something that’ll be a main focus of ours as we try to head through these playoffs.
Cole Custer, Stewart Haas Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet (+40)
“You don’t know until you are in that situation because every situation is different, but you definitely got to be pretty aggressive when it comes down to it. If you are going to have to advance to another round, there is not much that I don’t think a lot of us wouldn’t do.”
“How about whatever it takes. The whole season is on the line. These guys bust their tails for it day in and day out at the shop. My entire career has been built for that moment so we find ourselves on the cut line I will do whatever it takes to prevail not only for me but for success of myself moving forward, for my career, for my team.”
“I just kinda hang it out there, you know. Anytime I’m in a position to be able to get the lead or win a race you know you just put everything on the line, doesn’t really matter, you just do what it takes to get it done regardless, worry about it later.”
Matt Tifft, Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota (+14)
“I am willing to wreck my grandma in a (cutoff) race. I mean you got to do what you got to do. But at the same time obviously, (the) second round cut race is going to be maybe a bigger move than a first round cut race would be. … But if it’s something where you’re kind of close, you don’t want to go and make somebody mad that’s going to come back to haunt you (in the second round), but you know, you got to, sometimes you got to take a chance, if that’s what we have to do we’ll do it.”
“Really anything, you know if it’s two (laps) to go and the guy in front of you is the difference between advancing and not advancing, you’ll move him, you’ll wreck him. I think you saw Ryan Newman move Kyle Larson (Phoenix, 2014), that was a really good example of … Ryan Newman doesn’t do that, he doesn’t make that pass, he doesn’t do that move if it wasn’t for the playoffs and for that situation and that holds truth. I think almost every single driver, they will do whatever it takes to get to the next round.
Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 62 Chevrolet (-2 from final transfer spot)
“Everyone … wants to hear us say we would wreck our mother for a win and a guy goes out and wrecks his mother for a win and people turn on him. Who was it in the (Camping World Truck Series) race? Austin Cindric did that. Everyone loves us to say those words and that when we do they are like, ‘oh that is a bad guy.’ Here’s deal, I will race you hard. If it means I have to win to get in and I can get to your rear bumper, I am not going to wreck you but I am definitely going to take a shot at you to move you. That is just what you have to do. If you are in that position and it is a must-win, you will do what you need to do to get that must-win.”
“You don’t want to wreck a teammate but if you’ve got to move them, I think any one of them would sit here and say the same thing; they’re going to do it because you’ve got to drive that car down pit road and meet your guys and if they think you left anything out there, then I don’t think I’ll be able to look them in the eye. So that’s the mentality you know that I don’t think you’ll see necessarily come out, you know unless you’re racing for a win throughout the year. But when you get to the playoffs if it means moving on to the next round or not, you know that one spot, it’s going to feel like a win at least that day.”
Blake Koch, Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet (-12)
“It is a tough question to really have a solid answer for, but I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to pass the guy in front of me, and whether that’s a cutoff spot or not, I feel like every point matters so much in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who it is, whether they have a red spoiler (for playoff drivers) or not, you need to get around that car because that one point could be the point that gets you to the next round of the playoffs.”
“I’m willin’ to do anything it takes. If we gotta move a guy to get that spot and they say we need that extra spot, that extra point, I’m gonna have to do it. I mean this is – we don’t know how many times we’ll get this opportunity (to be in the playoffs). So we’re gonna do all it takes to make it to the next round and … and if I gotta move my Mom outta the way I’ll do it.”