Sam Hornish Jr scored his first Indy Racing Northern Light Series victory in dominant fashion at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway as he beat Eliseo Salazar and defending IRNLS Champion Buddy Lazier to the flag in the opening round of the 2001 Championship.

It took 21-year old Sam Hornish Jr just nine Indy Racing Northern Light Series starts to record his first victory as he led all but 60 laps of the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 at the Phoenix International Raceway in his first start for the Panther Racing team.

Hornish grabbed the lead from pole-sitter Greg Ray on the opening lap of the 200-lap event and proceeded to pull out a healthy advantage during the first fuel run before Ray, driving the Team Menard Dallara-Aurora pegged him back just prior to the opening round of stops.

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It was during the first stops that Hornish put the only blot on his copybook in what was an otherwise faultless run as he pulled away from the pits just as Buddy Lazier was entering his pit stall and light contact was made between the two although no damage was sustained by either vehicle.

The win was by no mean a walkover however as a total of six drivers led the field at some point with Ray leading a total of 43 laps as his car came good in the middle portion of the race until he suffered an engine failure on lap 121 while holding down a comfortable second place to Stephan Gregoire who then crashed his Dick Simon Racing Dallara-Aurora just ten laps later coming out of Turn two and into the dogleg on the back-straight.

Leading away from the penultimate re-start after taking the lead thanks to a superb final stop from his Panther crew, Hornish led convincingly for the final 72 laps after second place man out of the pits, Helio Castroneves in the Penske Racing Dallara also suffered an engine failure on lap 142.

Castroneves, who had risen from 17th place on the starting grid, was one of four drivers who watched their Oldsmobile-Aurora engine disappear in a cloud of smoke, the other victims being Ray, Al Unser Jr who completed a miserable weekend in 23rd place and Sarah Fisher who struggled to vacate her Walker Racing Dallara when the HANS device she was wearing became entangled with the raised neck supports as flames licked around the engine bay on lap 145.

Castroneves' retirement left the way clear for Hornish to score his maiden victory with a final margin of just over one second ahead of runner-up Eliseo Salazar who drove a steady race in AJ Foyt's sole entry despite not leading a lap to record his best IRNLS finish.

Buddy Lazier came home third despite being stuck in fourth gear for the final 20-laps in his Hemelgarn Racing Dallara while Scott Sharp just failed to overhaul the defending Champion in the closing stages in his Kelley Racing Dallara.

Billy Boat completed the top five for the brand new Beck Motorsports team after a solid, problem free run all day and the former AJ Foyt and Team Pelfrey driver was the only other driver to go the full distance just 14 of the 27 starters were left running at the end.

Sixth place went to top rookie Felipe Giaffone in the impressive Treadway-Hubbard Racing entry while Jeff Ward, Robby McGehee, Buzz Calkins and he off-song Airton Dare completed the top ten.

Robbie Buhl was the only Infiniti powered car running at the end in eleventh place as a throttle linkage problem accounted for Eddie Cheever at around two-thirds distance whilst he was running strongly inside the top ten.

Davey Hamilton finished twelfth recording Sam Schmidt's first finish as a team owner while Shigeaki Hattori and rookie Brandon Erwin completed the finishers, the latter bringing out the first of five caution flags when he performed a harmless spin on the backstretch on lap 20.

Gil De Ferran ran strongly inside the top five during the early going and had move into the lead during the pit-stop shuffle when he was needlessly taken out by Jeret Schroeder on lap 76 when the PDM Racing driver failed to notice De Ferran slowing to make his way down pit-road and gave him a hefty clout in the rear, the ensuing accident also claiming Mark Dismore who simply had nowhere to go and was pushed into the outside wall at Turn Four in his efforts to avoid the melee ahead.

Despite some strong words aimed at Schroeder all three drivers were uninjured as was Stan Wattles who brought out the final caution flag on lap 157 when he spun coming out of Turn Two and smote the inside wall on the backstretch hard enough to punch a hole in the concrete.

So, one race down and twelve to go and the Indy Racing Northern Light Series certainly looked more impressive than it has done before with the safety crew demanding special mention for their quickness and efficiency in clearing up the damaged machines and ensuring that Hornish's winning speed of 125.072mph was the fastest average of any IRNLS race at Phoenix.