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Hornish living out his faith behind the scenes
Saturday, Dec 12, 2009
By Lee Warren

KANSAS CITY, Kansas (BP)–Three-time Indy Racing League champion and current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Sam Hornish Jr. is known for being a shy, mild mannered, behind-the-scenes kind of guy who is always aware of the needs of people around him.

He isn’t running in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season, but he was a couple of minutes late for an interview at the Kansas Speedway in early October because he was wanted to watch the beginning of the Nationwide race.


He wanted to see Parker Kligerman, 19, lead the field to the green flag in his debut in the Nationwide series. Kligerman was driving for Penske Racing – the same organization Hornish races for – and Hornish wanted to cheer him on as he led the first lap.

So, the IRL champion, who also won the biggest race in motorsports when he made a thrilling final lap pass to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2006, watched the rookie in what was probably the most exciting moments of his young career.

That’s the kind of guy Hornish is.

He’s also the kind of guy who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Through his foundation, he’s helped to build a senior center in his hometown of Defiance, Ohio. His efforts have also benefited the cardiac catheterization laboratory at the Defiance Regional Medical Center, the Defiance Area Inpatient Hospice Center and a fitness center at his former high school.

There’s actually more – much more – but you get the idea. Many of the organizations and people he helps are a direct result of needs he’s seen firsthand.

“With the heart center,” Hornish said, “my grandfather on my dad’s side passed away from a heart attack. And my grandma [who died a couple of weeks before Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006], she was going through a lot of things. She might not have used the senior center, but to see how lonely she could be at times when all the kids were busy – just to have the opportunity to get out and be more active – it really adds to the quality of life, having relationships outside of the family.

“With the hospice center, there were people who were traveling an hour and a half to be able to go and visit their family members. That’s three hours a day when you already have work and you’re trying to support your family. It’s hard to do.”

Hornish is known for visiting patients in the hospice center. In March, he paid a visit to Eric Babcock — a man who was battling cancer. Eric’s son, Brad, wrote a letter to The Cresent-News in Defiance thanking the hospice staff and Hornish for what they did for his father. Hornish came bearing gifts for the Babcock family and he visited with Eric for more than 30 minutes. Brad said the visit made his father glow.

Not surprisingly, Tim Griffin, the vice president and director of spiritual formation at Motor Racing Outreach and the lead chaplain for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, says that any time Motor Racing Outreach has a need, Hornish is the first one in line to help. Griffin appreciates Hornish’s quiet, dedicated demeanor.

“I think sometimes, in our church orientation, we like big personalities and big stories and big testimonies,” Griffin said. “And he’s not that kind of guy, even though he’s in a fishbowl, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. He’s the kind of guy who will lead by example and not by word.”

Hornish has been attending the same church, Poplar Ridge Church of the Brethren (located north of Defiance), his entire life.

“My grandmother went there,” Hornish said, “She used to come and pick us up to take us to Sunday school every week. I enjoy the church and feel very fortunate to be able to give back to them – to be part of building a new church and activity center.”

Yes, Hornish helped to build a new church and activity center too.

Since the NASCAR season is so long (10 months), the Hornish family benefits from attending MRO chapel at the track each week. Hornish says he always takes at least one spiritual truth away from each chapel service to think about for the rest of the week.

So how do the demands on his time and his faith intersect?

“There’s a lot going on today,” Hornish said. “Today has been a pretty bad day for us as far as not feeling like we have the car figured out [for the Sprint Cup race the next day]. There’s always so many things going through our minds. I look forward to the day when I can get a little more free time and I can learn more.

“I think everybody has that constant struggle of knowing if they are doing enough. I feel like there’s more that I could be doing right now, honestly.”

It’s understandable why Hornish might feel a little out of sorts. In addition to the demands on his time, he’s experienced a number of big changes in the past few years.

In 2006, he lost his beloved grandmother. In 2008, he and his wife, Crystal, had a baby. That same year, he made the move from the IRL to NASCAR and at times his team has struggled. He’s not afraid of struggling on the track; it’s just not something he’s accustomed to. And the pastor who married his parents and then Sam and Crystal died about a year and a half ago.

As he enters new territory in his life, you can be sure that one thing will not change: Hornish will continue giving and cheering others on.

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