Sam Hornish Jr. is a man with an edge. By tearing up the 2-1/2 miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at an average speed of nearly 229 miles per hour, he won the coveted pole position for this Sunday's "greatest spectacle in racing": the Indianapolis 500.
Mr. Hornish is also a man dealing with stress - and not just because of the dangers of open-wheel racing. Persistent rain kept drivers from regular practice, and he experienced a personal loss: the death of a cherished grandmother. One of his biggest fans, she was also "instrumental in instilling the faith" that supports him during the challenges of racing life, he says.
For amid the glory and the glamour of the Indy Racing League (IRL), Hornish and other celebrity drivers are also men of faith. They take religion seriously and count on it to keep their lives on course.
"There are lots of challenges in racing that test one's faith," says Scott Sharp, originally of Norwalk, Conn., the fifth-ranked IRL driver in 2005. "Whether it's risks on the track, the politics off the track, or job security issues, I find myself really leaning hard on my relationship with God."
While the 500 is the big prize, IRL drivers and their teams travel to 14 races in the United States and Japan each year. The IRL Ministry, headed by chaplain Bob Hills, travels with them, ensuring that nondenominational chapel services and Catholic mass are each provided twice on race days, and prayer and counseling are available whenever needed.
"In all the craziness and chaos, Bob's services provide a calm for many people," Mr. Sharp says. "It helps you keep life in perspective and get focused."
And focused they must be. Standing in the pit behind stacks of tires as cars roar past in a blur on qualifying day, one wonders how drivers stay in control at such speeds. The keys are exceptional driving skills, total concentration, and trust in a team of engineers that monitors the car and strategizes adjustments as conditions change.
Driving 220 m.p.h. "is like being on a high-speed roller-coaster ride, but you're in control," Sharp says. "You have to be comfortable at that speed so you can give the team valuable feedback on how the car is handling, assess situations around you, plan for passes. You have to be fairly relaxed."
Before a race, he spends 45 minutes to an hour of quiet time, in prayer, getting focused, and listening to music.
Drivers develop their skills and confidence over many years, most starting as youngsters in go-karting. Hornish's dad traveled all over with him so he could compete in go-karting, even up to the world level. His faith grew in the same way.
"My parents made sure we got to church, even though it was 30 miles away from my childhood home," says the Ohio native. "I was really interested in it and considered pursuing [ministry] as a career."
But he took another route, like other young people who love the speed and competition and learn they have the reflexes and concentration required of top-notch drivers.
Some 25,000 people came out last Saturday to watch the racers compete for 33 starting spots (11 rows of three across), including the pole position Hornish won.
"The 30 seconds to start this race is the most exciting in sports - such a tumult, no one knows what's going to happen," says Michael Hollander, editor of Racing Information Systems. A 670-horsepower Indy Car can accelerate from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in less than three seconds.
The only thing scarier is the first turn. Brian Brown, a cabinet designer who's been coming for 39 years, recalls one legendary driver saying it's "like traveling a six-lane highway and turning into a closet." A trove of knowledge on the sport, Mr. Brown says, "I need IndyCar racing like I need oxygen."
Despite the risks on the racetrack, off-track demands can be just as challenging, drivers say. The life is full of uncertainties, with drivers beholden to team owners and sponsors, and dependent on the quality of the cars provided.
"Making sure they have 'a ride' on a team and maintaining sponsorship and funding is always an issue for race-car drivers," says Chaplain Hill.
Helio Castroneves, the ebullient Brazilian star who has twice won the Indy 500 and just missed winning the pole this year, is on the same team as Hornish - that of renowned owner Roger Penske. But Mr. Castroneves recalls difficult times when he almost gave up.
"People see the glory and the fun, but I've had low times," he says in an interview. "When I first came to America in 1996, I had difficulty with everything." Deciding that racing wasn't for him after all, at the end of the season he returned to Brazil. "I got love and support from my family and had a lot of conversation with myself and the Lord. My mother read the Bible, opening up [ideas] for me. My faith grew stronger," he says.
He came back and ended up vying for the championship. Then in 1998, his team lost its sponsor and his contract wasn't renewed.
"I couldn't believe it was happening again," he says. Signing with another team despite its second-rate equipment, he stuck with it and did well. Yet that team closed down, too. "But I didn't lose faith," he says. Suddenly, he got an offer from Penske.
Of the three races run in 2006, Castroneves has won two and placed second in the third. He's aiming to enter the rarefied world of those who have won three Indy 500s. Only three men have won four: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears.
A Catholic who treasures family ties, Castroneves now has his sister traveling with him to handle the business side. His parents are in Indianapolis for Sunday's race.
The six months of travel separate many drivers from family, presenting special challenges. Like other people, Hill says, drivers mostly come to him with personal relationship issues.
In addition, Hornish says, racing is not a normal job: "You are on call at all times, whether it's the team, the league, your sponsors. For example, my grandmother's funeral was on Wednesday, but that day we were supposed to be on track, plus I had PR obligations. So I flew home early in the morning, went to the funeral, and had to leave immediately to come back."
Still, there are many pluses. "I feel incredibly blessed that I get to do what I love," Sharp says. "I have the opportunity to meet lots of people, travel to great places, and be part of a real team concept."
Though he's been hurt, that, too, has been a fortifying experience. In 1997, Sharp had back-to-back concussions six weeks apart, and no one was sure how he would come out of it, he says. "I woke up the next day feeling God's presence around me, with my wife and 2-year-old daughter there. It put everything into perspective."
The front-runner, too, seems to have a clear grasp on what's most important. Hornish has won more events than other current IRL drivers, including the IndyCar championship twice. The 500 is all that's left to conquer.
"As far as my career, it means everything, but in the grand scheme of things, your family, friends, and faith should mean more," he says. "This is a great pastime for a lot of people, it's a great job for me.... But what I like about it is that it's something you can share with other people."
NASCAR, with strong marketing, may have successfully challenged Indy racing. But as Lewis Franck, racing columnist for Sports Illustrated.com, put it on Saturday, when it comes to the Indianapolis 500, "the magic will never go away."
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 to test cars for the new automobile industry. The 500-mile race was inaugurated two years later on Memorial Day, and has been held annually ever since, except for breaks during the two world wars. The world's largest sports facility, the IMS seats 250,000 spectators, with room for 100,000 or more in the infield. A few statistics:
• The 1911 winner completed 200 laps of the 2.5-mile track in 6 hours, 42 minutes, 8 seconds; the 2005 champion, Dan Wheldon, won in 3 hours, 10 minutes, 21 seconds.
• The IndyCars' Honda engines are fueled by 90 percent methanol and 10 percent ethanol, and next year will run on 100 percent ethanol.
• IndyCars can accelerate from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in less than three seconds.
• At 220 m.p.h., the cars travel slightly more than the length of a football field every second.
• Four women have raced in the 500, from Janet Guthrie (1977-79) to Danica Patrick, who led the race for several laps last year.
• The top 2006 qualifiers, who start the race in the front row, are Sam Hornish Jr. (USA), Helio Castroneves (Brazil), and Dan Wheldon (England).