INDIANAPOLIS, April 9, 1998 -- Few people realize that former alpine skiing champion Buddy Lazier came within 10.5 seconds last May of becoming the first driver to win consecutive Indianapolis 500-Mile Races since Al Unser Sr. accomplished...
INDIANAPOLIS, April 9, 1998 -- Few people realize that former alpine skiing champion Buddy Lazier came within 10.5 seconds last May of becoming the first driver to win consecutive Indianapolis 500-Mile Races since Al Unser Sr. accomplished this rare feat in 1970-71.
Not many know that Lazier's finishes of first and fourth are the best two-race combination among 17 drivers who have competed in both 500s under the Pep Boys Indy Racing League aegis. No other driver has finished in the top five in both, and only Robbie Buhl (ninth and eighth) has managed a pair of top-10 finishes.
That's quite an achievement for Lazier, who fought his way rung by rung up the racing ladder by starting his Indy career in slower cars and failing to make the field yet displaying sufficient skill, speed and moxie to draw attention from top car owners John Menard and Ron Hemelgarn. He won in a Hemelgarn car in 1996 and placed fourth -- by 10.330 seconds to winner Arie Luyendyk -- last year.
From the 20th lap onward last May he never dipped below sixth place.
That's why the calm Colorado native is excited about returning this May with a chance to become the 16th driver to win Indy more than once. He also says he's basically the same driver his father, Bob, a 19th-place finisher in the 1981 Indianapolis 500, first brought to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1989 when he was only 21 years old.
"Exactly the same driver," said Lazier, now 30. "Maybe a little bit smarter. But there was good equipment. I always wondered what it would have been like if this series had been around when I started. I'm excited. I really am."
He again will be driving the Hemelgarn Racing-Delta Faucet Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear car. The team hasn't had a very good start. At the Indy 200 in Orlando, where he became first the IRL pole sitter in 1996, he started eighth and placed 15th. At the Dura-Lube 200 in Phoenix, he had a car that owner Hemelgarn felt could dominate the race. A spin in the fourth turn on Lap 9 dropped him from ninth to 28th and last place.
Lazier, from Vail, Colo., is peeved about the stories that surfaced last year suggesting he would be abandoning the IRL for the CART series. He said he had no such intentions and never made any public comments to that effect.
"I can't stress how excited I am about the IRL," he exclaimed.
"That's why that other bit of business I can't get off my mind. It's very disappointing. You brought up a sore subject, because I fully anticipate driving here for the next 10 or 15 years. I mean, as long as I possibly can do it and be competitive. So I'm thrilled to death about being here. And I think what's most exciting is everybody's got equipment that can win. And at a reasonable price."
After 24 drivers qualified within one second of each other at Phoenix, Lazier said it wouldn't surprise him if there were 20 drivers capable of winning the 500 on May 24.
"I like to think some of us have a little better chance than others," he said. "And I'd sure like to think I'm one of those."
Something that particularly excites Lazier about the IRL is the strides the league has made in making the cars safer. Lazier came to Indy in 1996 after crashing so hard at Phoenix that he suffered 16 fractures of the vertebra and pelvis. He could barely walk when he started practice for the 500 that year yet persevered through the pain to outrun Davy Jones to the checkered flag.
The pain still exists, but he said it doesn't bother his life or lifestyle, which includes marriage since last year. The pain may be alleviated through a new surgery at the conclusion of this season.
"I got confirmation just recently that the technology I'm waiting for now is available," he said. "It's a radio frequency that allows you to have a fusion without putting metal in your back. That's just coming to light now, and I'm pretty excited about it."
The surgeon that worked on the healing of his back following his Phoenix crash also is one of the testing surgeons with the next technique.
"So as soon as he feels he has perfected it, we'll do it," Lazier said. "It will be actually within the next 12 months, 10 months. I don't want to do anything until the season is over. But it's not a big deal. You recover from it in six days."