EARLY STRUGGLES HELPED LAZIER BECOME INDY RACING LEAGUE STAR By Dave Argabright indyracingleague.com Special Contributor PHOENIX, March 5, 1999 -- As the Pep Boys Indy Racing League heads for the challenging 1-mile Phoenix...
EARLY STRUGGLES HELPED LAZIER BECOME INDY RACING LEAGUE STAR
By Dave Argabright indyracingleague.com Special Contributor
PHOENIX, March 5, 1999 -- As the Pep Boys Indy Racing League heads for the challenging 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28, Buddy Lazier is "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects of a good weekend for the Hemelgarn Racing team. Lazier, 31, drove the Delta Faucet-Coors Light-Xerox-Hemelgarn Racing Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear to a 10th-place finish at the season-opening Trans World Diversified Services 200 on Jan. 24 at Walt Disney World Speedway after moving from the eighth starting position to second just past the midway point in the race. That's when Lazier and Scott Sharp bumped, sending Lazier into a spin, losing three laps in the melee. But Lazier, from Vail, Colo., soldiered on and made up one lap, working his way to a well-earned top-10 finish. It was another example of the "never quit" attitude that has carried Lazier through his entire racing career, which can be traced to humble beginnings 10 years ago when he and his father, 1981 Indianapolis 500 veteran Bob Lazier, fielded cars together. "It was a humble beginning, let me tell you," Lazier said with a laugh today. "When my father and I raced together, I basically spent every week looking for sponsor money, trying to keep the thing going. "That was a really difficult thing, but it's something that helped me because I gained a real understanding on how much effort it takes to make it in racing. Every young guy needs to have that experience, I think, to help them understand." Lazier is a two-time winner on the Indy Racing League circuit, including an amazing, gritty performance that earned him the 1996 Indianapolis 500 title. "Playing hurt" is a reality in many professional sports, but never has it been better displayed than by Lazier on that May afternoon at Indianapolis, when he ignored intense pain from back injuries to win a wheel-to-wheel battle with Davy Jones to seal the victory. "Winning Indy was a genuine change for me, in a lot of ways," Lazier said. "Your schedule fills up like you can't believe, having your likeness on that trophy changes your life whether you are ready or not. "But it changed my whole outlook on this sport, really, because at that race we had modern equipment, competitive equipment, and it was an eye-opener to me how much of a difference that really makes. "I had been racing Indy cars for six or seven seasons at that time, and for basically my entire career up to then I had always driven older race cars, older equipment. Going to Indy with the IRL that year was the opportunity to have what I saw was the most even playing field I had ever been exposed to. "It just really confirmed my suspicions that when you've got a good race car and a good team, what a difference it makes. It really is a team industry, and the driver gets a lot of mentions, for better or for worse, but it's a team effort and you can't get past that." The Indy win was especially sweet for team owner Ron Hemelgarn, who had fielded entries at the Brickyard since 1984. Hemelgarn and Lazier have built a solid relationship, working together continuously since 1990. That sort of tenure is rare in the topsy-turvy world of auto racing. "I've known Ron, (team manager) Lee Kunzman, and (chief engineer) Ronnie Dawes for over a decade, and it's been a very natural relationship," Lazier said. "We started off with very old race cars in the early days, but we were always best in class. Everybody on the team is gifted, in my opinion, and they've proven that with some of the really old stuff we used to race." Lazier insists that he isn't surprised that he and Hemelgarn have enjoyed such a durable relationship. "We all believe in each other, and that is the key," he said. "As a driver, you just can't do well when you go out there and question whether or not the team is doing their best, or giving as much as you are. With this team, I really don't have to question that, because I've been through enough with these guys that I know their level of commitment. "I don't care who you are in this sport, you're always going to have slumps. It's inevitable. But if you have a mature team and a mature driver, you can get past that." The team continues to grow and improve, Lazier said, as it led in more than half of the 1998 events. But he says they must keep improving to match the progress of many of their competitors. "Everybody in the league is getting better, there is no question about that," Lazier said. "There are enough variables in chassis, engine builders, tires, that it's tough to have it all together every weekend. It's a very competitive series. To dominate, or win multiple races, you almost need to have something that nobody else has, and this series isn't like that. It's pretty even. "Gains on the racetrack are very hard to come by. But we've worked hard all through last season and at the Orlando race, and we have made some gains. "But let me tell you, it's just too tough right now to think you can cruise into Phoenix or someplace like that and think you're going to have everybody covered. Right now, it's wide open." Lazier's younger brother Jaques passed his Indy Racing League rookie test at Orlando and is scheduled to debut with ISM Racing at Phoenix. Buddy Lazier is excited for his brother, but is not enthusiastic about having to compete with him on the track. "I really don't like racing against a family member," Buddy Lazier said. "Obviously, I'll help him all I can, and I wish and hope the very best for his success, just like anyone would for their brother. "But I raced against my dad years ago, and I hated it. Out there on the track, it's just a tough, uncivilized world. It's dog-eat-dog, really. And to compete, with that frame of mind, against someone in your family, well, it's just very unpleasant and uncomfortable. "If it's meant to happen, then I'll deal with it. But it's not something I'm looking forward to." Lazier has proven that when the chips are down, he can be a cool, tough cookie. He is ready to climb aboard for the ride at Phoenix, ready to go fight the good fight. After 10 years of weekend battles, he is sure of one thing: he wouldn't have it any other way. *** Tickets: Tickets are available for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28. Call (602) 252-2227 for more information.