IRL: Eliseo Salazar in chase for championship

FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, June 8, 2000 -- Eliseo Salazar has won auto racing championships in South America. Now at age 44, he is focused on winning a major one in North America. Salazar, from Santiago, Chile, is in the chase...

FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, June 8, 2000 -- Eliseo Salazar has won auto racing championships in South America. Now at age 44, he is focused on winning a major one in North America. Salazar, from Santiago, Chile, is in the chase for this year's Indy Racing Northern Light Series title. He is in fourth place in the standings and trails series leader Buddy Lazier by only 28 points heading into MBNA Pole qualifying Friday for Saturday night's Casino Magic 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Salazar, driver of the Rio A.J. Foyt Racing G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone, said no one could imagine how hard he is pushing to win this championship. "We're going to try really hard," he said. "We're practically second in the championship. We still have a good chance for pole here. If we do that, we would be second with those three points. "We are trying to get the qualifying points, too. Those might end up being important at the end of the season. We've been talking to A.J. He's determined to win it again, and we're going to try really hard." A.J.'s last name, of course, is Foyt. The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner as a driver earned the Indy Racing championship in 1998 as a car owner with Kenny Brack. Brack, who won last year's 500 as a driver, and Billy Boat departed the Foyt team after last year. Foyt hired Jeff Ward and Salazar to replace them. Qualifying in the top three provides valuable points in the battle for the championship. For instance, Greg Ray collected 19 qualifying points on the way to winning the title in 1999. Salazar earned his first starting point when he qualified on the outside of the front row for the Indianapolis 500. He then also finished third in the race behind winner Juan Montoya and runner-up Buddy Lazier for 35 more and a total of 110. Directly in front of him and tied for second in the standings are Robbie Buhl and Scott Goodyear with 112 each. "I won a championship maybe 12 years ago in Chile, and I won a Formula Ford (title) in Argentina," Salazar said. "And I was in contention a couple of times in Europe. I finished second in the British Formula One championship the year before I did the Formula One World Championship. "This obviously would be huge and the biggest achievement of my career. I have to try." Should Salazar win the title, he would become the league's oldest champion. Buzz Calkins, 25, and Scott Sharp, 28, shared the Indy Racing League's first series crown in 1996. Tony Stewart was 26 when he took the diadem for the 1996-97 season. Brack was 32 in 1998, and Greg Ray was 33 last year. A year ago, Salazar signed a new three-year deal with his major Chilean sponsor, Cristal, and announced he intended to race through the 2002 season. "I'm really happy with the way the Indy 500 went," he said. "I had the single fastest qualifying lap (223.758 on the third of four). On one lap only, I beat Montoya, Ray, everybody. "Then in the race we had a good chance. I feel I am driving better than ever. Obviously more mature, have more experience. Actually, I went back to Chile and talked to the Cristal CEO. He said to me, 'Well, successful companies have plans, but plans are subject to change.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'You don't have to retire if you are good.' I said, 'I'm glad you say that. I'd like to keep doing it.' "Maybe three, maybe four, who knows? Five years. Until I feel I'm uncompetitive." Salazar calls the opportunity to drive for an owner such as Foyt an incredible situation. He said he often goes to sleep with a smile on his face. "I'm like a kid," he said. "This is awesome to be in this position. "He's on the radio with me. He wants to win everything, he wants to win the championship. I can't believe I'm in this position. Hopefully, I can stay healthy and nothing happens, and we can get down to the last race (also at Texas Motor Speedway on Oct. 15) and see what happens." Salazar does well on the 1.5-mile tracks. He won at Las Vegas in 1997, got a fifth at Texas and a fourth at Atlanta last year. "I really love the 1½-mile tracks," he said. "If I have to gamble and put up money, I'd put it on me. "I'll be disappointed if we don't win this race."

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Buzz Calkins , Greg Ray , Robbie Buhl , Eliseo Salazar , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Billy Boat , Scott Goodyear , Kenny Brack , A.J. Foyt