Judging by all the attention generated by NASCAR's initial get-to-know-you test session at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this week, it's tough to tell who's more enthusiastic -- the NASCAR-starved fans and local media who showed up for a sneak peek or the hometown hero, Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr., who logged the test laps.
In effort to compile a data foundation -- from gear ratios to tire compounds -- Hornish spent all day Monday and a rain-abbreviated session Tuesday morning running his No. 12 Penske Racing Ford around the picturesque 2.25-mile road course in Lexington, Ohio in preparation for the Aug. 16-17 Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 there.
It will be the first NASCAR national series stop in the "Buckeye" state since 2008 when the Camping World Truck Series raced in Mansfield. The last major NASCAR-sanctioned stock car race in Ohio was won by Herb Thomas in 1953.
This summer's much-anticipated stop will mark the debut for this series, whose sponsor Nationwide, will also title the race and whose headquarters is located nearby.
"It's exciting we get an opportunity to race in Ohio, especially somewhere that's as close to home as this is for me and also with it being in the backyard of our series sponsor, Nationwide, as well,'' the series championship points leader Hornish said Tuesday.
"I think there are a lot of really good things about coming here. One of the most important is the fans. You've got a great core of fans in this region that love racing so to give them an opportunity closer to their home to come out and watch a race is going to be great.''
Surprisingly, Hornish, who still has a house in his hometown of Defiance, Ohio -- about an hour and a half drive away -- has only competed a handful of times at Mid-Ohio. Most recently he finished 14th in an Indy Racing League event at the track in 2007 and has two other starts coming up through the open-wheel ranks in Toyota Atlantic and as a 14-year-old in go-karts.
"I did win my class in go-karts,'' Hornish said with a laugh. "I realize for how close it is to home, but I haven't run here as much as you might think.''
Still he has more experience there than any of the other fulltime Nationwide Series drivers and that -- along with his hometown roots -- is a big reason why NASCAR asked him to be the first to shake down the car. All the data collected this week will be shared with NASCAR and the other teams and drivers.
And Hornish is convinced his competitors will soon become as fond of the winding 12-turn venue as he is.
"It's different from what we have in places like Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wis.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and I think that's good because it will be a little bit more variety,'' Hornish said. "It isn't exactly like Montreal either. This has a lot more elevation changes but there are some times when you have to be very mindful of how you're treating the rear tires and your brakes as well.
"Sonoma (Calif.) is more of a slow speed track where you have to be very technical where Watkins Glen is a lot more about being high speed and carrying momentum. "Here, you get both of that. The back part is very technical and the front part is about carrying your speed and using your momentum to complete passes.
Hornish said the unique challenges at Mid-Ohio and the learning curve should only enhance the racing. And the fanbase -- which attends the annual Grand-Am, IndyCar and motorcycle events -- is more than ready.
"It's been six years since I've been here and I think being in a stock car, being up a little higher in the car gives you that impression right off the bat (that the track is smaller),'' Hornish explained. "But there are a few blind corners and corners where you can't see the exit when you're cresting a hill. I think that's part of what makes this track so much fun. It seems like, from the last turn to Turn 4 it goes by really quick then all of a sudden you're in all these tight sections and it's a lot more meticulous about how you do things. Then all of a sudden you get going again.
"It's a tale of two tracks. The front part and back part feel really different to me.''
For Hornish, the chance to compete at such an elite level at Mid-Ohio is particularly gratifying since he and his family used to attend races here when he was kid and just starting out on his racing career.
He said he'd love to see the Sprint Cup Series come to the area as well one day and is hopeful this summer's Nationwide race is "a little step as it continues to move forward.''
"Just the fact we get to race in Ohio means a lot to me,'' Hornish said. "I really have a lot of pride in my home state and always enjoy coming back here. Not many times I've had the good fortune of running top level events in my home state so I will enjoy that.
"Just having the opportunity to race means a lot so to win would mean that much more."
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-- Sam Hornish Jr.