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.
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.