By David Reininger - Motorsport.com Phoenix, AZ (March 15, 2001) -- Having started in all 43 Indy Racing Northern Light Series races, Davey Hamilton is known as Indy Racing's iron man. But the true iron man is 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy...
By David Reininger - Motorsport.com
Phoenix, AZ (March 15, 2001) -- Having started in all 43 Indy Racing Northern Light Series races, Davey Hamilton is known as Indy Racing's iron man. But the true iron man is 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier. Buddy has started in all but one Northern Light Series events, and he has a darn good excuse for being absent from the Phoenix race in 1996.
Five years ago, Lazier crashed during practice at Phoenix International Raceway. The impact with the turn two wall broke his back in 36 places.
"That's an injury that I'm very blessed did not end my career, and I think there are four or five reasons why it didn't end my career, the first of which was the care that I had from the Indy Racing League Safety Crew. They got to the car in something like seven seconds. They ripped the car apart so they could lift me without bending me."
"I recovered in Phoenix for a week in the ICU, and then the Indy Racing League crew made arrangements for me to fly home to Colorado, where I could recover at home, which made a big difference."
Two months after the crash, Lazier was back in a race car at Indianapolis. Although he wasn't 100% recovered from his accident, Lazier drove a flawless race, winning the 80th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Despite his injuries, Lazier wouldn't miss his opportunity to run Ron Hemelgarn's entry in the Indy 500, because this was, "the first time I had a really big break with a race car that I knew had a chance to win the Indy 500. A lot of team owners, frankly, would have replaced that driver, saying 'Hey look, you stay home, get healthy. We'll go race by summer time.' Instead, he kept my ride open for me, even though I was still in a hospital bed a week before I had to travel for time trials."
Hemelgarn honored his oral commitment with the 33 year old driver from Vail, Colorado, allowing Buddy and the team to each score their first Indy 500 victory together.
"The team really took special care of me. When I was in Gasoline Alley I had a special seat to sit in. We built a special seat for the race car. He (team owner Ron Hemelgarn) stuck by his agreement and kept me in the race car, and we won the Indy 500."
Since the team scored its first win at the Indianapolis 500 in 1996, Lazier has gone on to score three more victories. Two of those wins came last season, en route to winning the series championship and the Northern Light Cup.
Now the reigning champion starts the 2001 season with a clean slate. His goals for the season are to improve upon his second place finish in last year's Indianapolis 500 and repeat as the series champion.
"We want to win the 500 and the championship this year," said Lazier. "We realize that's a very tall order, and we really do appreciate the fact that we won last year. I think as a race driver and a team, you're very uncomfortable if you haven't already set new goals. So even before we won the championship we set that goal for the perfect season this year."
"I had called it mission impossible earlier in the year, and that's really what it is. It's almost impossible to do."
The first step in defending the championship comes this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, where Lazier is also the defending champion of the race. In his last appearance at the Phoenix one-mile oval, Lazier struggled on Friday and Saturday, choosing to switch to an untested backup car for the race. The move to the backup car disallowed his qualifying time and he was relegated to the back of the field for the start of the race.
But Lazier was undaunted, capping the weekend by driving through the field, earning his third career victory.
Twenty laps into the race, Lazier knew he had a car capable of winning. "We were moving up real quick, but a lot of times when you start a run, say when the green flag drops or when you come out of the pits, a lot of time you have a really good race car for the first five to ten laps. But then you start to burn the tires off the car and you start to slow down really quickly" said Lazier.
"Basically, as a lot of my competitors were starting to slow down and go backwards, I was maintaining the pace that I had run, so we just started to really move through the field at that point. So we knew all of a sudden, after about 15 or 20 laps, that we had a car that was really good at the end of the long runs."
"Clearly history shows that you win the race at the end, so we try to focus on the end of the race. We try to do what we've got to do to get to the end, and once we're at the end of the race, have the information logged that w need to be able to make that push to the front."
"I'm not the only one who's come from towards the back to win the race. The key in these cars, because the series has created such an even playing field, and all the equipment is so equal, if you have a huge budget and you do a lot of testing, you know you're going to get a little bit of an advantage. But that little bit of an advantage is not overwhelming. You can overcome that if you're a smaller team. Anybody in the field can win the race."
Twenty eight drivers are entered in this weekend's Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, and as Buddy Lazier has pointed out, any one of them could take home the victor's share of the purse.