FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000 -- Buddy Lazier won the first pole in Indy Racing League history on Jan. 26, 1996, at Walt Disney World Speedway. Now, 1,724 days later, he can win the leagueâ€™s fifth championship on Oct. 15 at Texas...
FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000 -- Buddy Lazier won the first pole in Indy Racing League history on Jan. 26, 1996, at Walt Disney World Speedway. Now, 1,724 days later, he can win the league’s fifth championship on Oct. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway. Lazier holds a 38-point lead heading into the Indy Racing Northern Light Series finale, the Excite 500. A 13th-place finish or better will assure him of the Northern Light Cup title and $1 million postseason bonus from series sponsor Northern Light. “We want this really bad,” said Lazier, referring to himself and the Hemelgarn Racing team. So bad, the team has purchased Stan Wattles’ Dallara to provide a spare parts backup car for the race. Everything in it will be set up identical to his primary Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone car so if something breaks during the race, the replacement piece can quickly be installed so Lazier can return to the track within a couple of laps. “I’m really blessed by an awesome race team backing me,” Lazier said of his dedicated crew. Actually, Lazier and Buzz Calkins, who won the inaugural Indy Racing event, are the only drivers still with the same teams from that 1996 opening date. But Lazier goes back even further with the Ron Hemelgarn-owned team, driving off and on with it since 1990. He qualified 23rd for his first Indianapolis 500 in the Hemelgarn-owned Vail-Beaver Creek car in 1991, finishing 33rd when he damaged his nose cone trying to avoid a spinning Gary Bettenhausen. Lazier was 23 then. He’s 32 now, and people like team manager Lee Kunzman and engineer Ronnie Dawes are still there with him in the shop and at the track. It’s a continuity that makes for a closeness among everyone involved with the team. Even main sponsor Delta Faucet has maintained its relationship over a number of years. “That gives me a lot of confidence having those guys behind me,” Lazier said. “There’s a lot of loyalty there, a lot of continuity in our race team. I can tell you, I really respect their abilities and feel like they respect mine. It’s great, because there’s no learning. You don’t have to learn anybody. I don’t have to learn the team; the team doesn’t have to learn the driver. “At the beginning of this season, I feel like I found a hole in my swing, so to speak. Something I put a lot of emphasis on. One of the biggest parts that keeps me so excited about racing is that I keep working so hard to constantly improve each weekend and each year, go to the offseason and find areas of improvement. And certainly, they work with me on that. “There are a lot of friendships. We are really good friends. We’re not just friends racing together; we are good friends away from the racetrack. Ron Hemelgarn and I, Ron’s been very loyal, I’ve been very loyal to Ron. We’ve just all have had the same goals.” Toledo native Hemelgarn owns a string of fitness clubs he built from scratch and originally got into racing as a sponsor. Then when Primus Racing closed, Hemelgarn purchased the team. Kunzman, one of USAC’s foremost open-wheel drivers, came along, as he jokes, as part of the package. He’s been there ever since. “For the most part, Ron concentrates on the sponsor and leaves the racing up to me,” Kunzman said. “We don’t get into each other’s hair.” Dawes, who owns a restoration and fabrication shop in Avon, Ind., has been with the team since the first Indy Racing League event and so has Gary Miller, who handles transportation and changes the right-rear tire in the race. Most of the others have been there at least three years. Chief mechanic Dennis LaCava changes the right front, Brandon Andrus the left front and Lindsay Hollard the left rear. Jeffrey Royland handles the air jack and vent, while Greg Garnett is the fueler. Doc Kerr works the dead man’s valve. Willie Davis, once Gary Bettenhausen’s sprint-car owner, provides his own experience. Others involved include Joe Barlam, Carl Wenzel, Pete Clemens, Bob Hildreth, Rick Dawes, Tom Finley, Phil Hobbs, Linda Barlam and Amy White. Davey Hamilton was the first Hemelgarn Racing driver for the Indy Racing League, but Hamilton and the team parted company after a few test sessions. Lazier was hired. After winning the pole for the first race, a steering arm broke in the competition, and Lazier finished 14th. Then during the next race at Phoenix, an end plate on the wing came loose and he hit the Turn 1 wall, suffering numerous back fractures. “There were a lot of team owners who quite possibly would not have kept the seat open for me for the Indianapolis 500,” Lazier said. “I told them I would be ready, and certainly there was a loyalty to allow me to come back.” Said Kunzman of Lazier’s relationship with the team, “When he won the Indy 500, that cemented it.” In 1997, Lazier won the inaugural Indy Racing event at Charlotte, N.C., but then the team went through a period where things, as Kunzman put it, wouldn’ t come together right. Lazier finished second to Eddie Cheever Jr. at Indy in 1998 and was runner-up again this year to Juan Montoya. But this season, Lazier also was able to come from last to first at Phoenix and seventh to first at Kentucky to put him in position to win his first Northern Light Series championship. “It seems now like the gods are smiling on us,” Kunzman said. Lazier said he will drive to win, noting that changing the normal rhythm of the way he has done things in previous races can be detrimental. “It’s not a completing of a career,” he said. “I’m hoping this is the beginning of some really good things for us. It’s difficult to win two championships in a row. I don’t mean to say we’ve won this one; we have to win this one first. But I do feel we have the sort of team in place that could be contenders year in and year out.” That’s a scary thought. But so is Lazier’s clinching finishing position, 13, and his birthday date of Halloween. And he hasn’t masked his feelings that he’s ready to pick Indy Racing’s “Great Pumpkin” for a nice birthday gift.
EXCITE 500 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Excite 500 starts at 1 p.m. (CDT) Oct. 15. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at noon Oct. 14. Practice sessions start at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Oct. 13, and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Oct. 14.
On the air: The Excite 500 will be televised on a same-day delayed basis on ABC at 4 p.m. (EDT) Oct. 15. “Indy Racing 2Day” will be televised at 3:30 p.m. (EDT) Oct. 15 on ESPN2. ESPN2 will televise MBNA Pole qualifying at 3:30 p.m. (EDT) Oct. 14. The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute pre-race show at 1:30 p.m. (EDT) Oct. 15, followed by the live race broadcast at 2 p.m. IRRN will broadcast a qualifying summary show at 5:30 p.m. (EDT) Oct. 14. The area IRRN affiliate is WBAP-AM 820, Arlington, Texas. The IRRN race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracing.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com. Live streaming video of all practice sessions will be available at www.LiveOnTheNet.com .
Tickets: Tickets for the Excite 500 are available by calling Texas Motor Speedway at (817) 215-8500, through Ticketmaster outlets or at Ticketmaster Online at www.ticketmaster.com . Ticket information is available at www.texasmotorspeedway.com .