TOP NASCAR TRUCK DRIVER SEEKING RACING BLISS IN PEP BOYS IRL
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 12, 1998 -- Mike Bliss has driven NASCAR Craftsman trucks and USAC Silver Crown cars on the Walt Disney World Speedway oval, but that was nothing like driving a Pep Boys Indy Racing League open-wheel car around the 1-mile track for the first time. Bliss took his rookie orientation test Saturday during the Pep Boys IRL Open Test leading into the 1999 season opener, the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 24. "It's a lot different line," Bliss said about taking an IRL car through the turns. "When I got to 25 seconds, I couldn't imagine getting around here any quicker. But I'm picking it up now." Owner Jeff Sinden provided Bliss his driving test in a Nissan Infiniti-powered Dallara/Firestone car brought to the Florida test. Dave Steele drove the car for a few shakedown laps Friday. Bliss, an Oregon native, drove in USAC races against the likes of Tony Stewart, Andy Michner and Kenny Irwin Jr., winning the Silver Crown championship in 1993. But he couldn't find a ride in CART so he moved to Mooresville, N.C., and joined the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. In 1995 he signed to drive for owners Jim and Marlene Smith and crew chief Barry Dodson. He won his first truck race at North Wilkesboro, N.C., that season and in 1997 won the first race held at California Speedway. He placed 10th in the final standings in 1998, winning two races and earning $344,245. Now 33, he is looking to advance his career to the highest level. "We're here to see what happens," he said. "This year (in trucks) we ran pretty good, but had a lot of stupid luck. "I don't have anything going for '99 yet. I'm kind of down here to feel things out."
*** Lazier feeling sharp: Steve Knapp drove Buddy Lazier's Delta Faucet-Hemelgarn Racing Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear Friday and Saturday, but Lazier was a pit spectator Saturday. Lazier is recovering from recent lower-back surgery and will not be able to drive until January. He suffered a broken back in a March 1996 crash at Phoenix International Raceway but returned to his car in May and won the Indianapolis 500. "I'm feeling fine," said Lazier, who wore a brace across his lower back Saturday. "I drove the doctor home after the operation." Lazier has endured much pain over the years since his crash. He learned of a new medical procedure using energy to cauterize the disc but waited a year for surgery to verify the effectiveness of the procedure. He underwent the two-hour procedure Nov. 24, with Dr. John Pelonz of the Steadman-Hopkins Clinic in Vail, Colo., performing it at a hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They flew home together, and then Lazier drove the doctor home. "I was going to do it after this test, but decided that was cutting it too close," Lazier said of the surgery. Lazier will test at Orlando when the cars return in early January and also at Phoenix before the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 on Jan. 24 at Walt Disney World Speedway. Lazier, owner Ron Hemelgarn and team manager Lee Kunzman have been together for several years, and Lazier thinks this long-term relationship will help make the team a strong contender for the 1999 league championship and another Indy 500 victory. "I couldn't believe until I won how important the Indy 500 is," he said. "I wouldn't bet against us. I'm not underestimating the competition, but I really do believe we are poised for a breakthrough season."
*** Heads up for increased safety: The head-restraint device around the cockpit has been raised on some Pep Boys IRL cars by as much as four inches. Greg Ray, driving for Team Menard, sits so snuggly in the car that from the side the top of his helmet barely is visible. "It does two things," veteran Menard engine man Butch Meyer said about the raised head collar. "It protects the head and helps with the aerodynamics. Tony (Stewart) ran with it quite a bit last year."
*** Busy place: As the Pep Boys IRL cars roared around the track for two days, workers busily assembled the grandstand seats around Walt Disney World Speedway. The seats are removed when the race is over and rebuilt each winter before the race.
*** Tickets: Tickets for the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 are available by calling (800) 822-INDY.