This week the IndyCar Series heads for Richmond and its third SunTrust Indy Challenge at the .75-mile bullring for a 250-lap shootout on Saturday night. 2001 Richmond winner Buddy Lazier - who led 224 of 250 laps in that victory - has a great...
This week the IndyCar Series heads for Richmond and its third SunTrust Indy Challenge at the .75-mile bullring for a 250-lap shootout on Saturday night.
2001 Richmond winner Buddy Lazier - who led 224 of 250 laps in that victory - has a great appreciation for this circuit and its intricacies, which hearkens him back to early days any driver goes through on his way to the top echelon of motorsports.
"Friday and Saturday night racing in midgets and sprints is how many of us came up through the ranks. The SunTrust Challenge is a great spectacle under the lights. Fans love it. They go crazy. I haven't seen them sit down once during our two races here.
"This is a beautiful facility and a neat form of racing," the 1996 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner and 2000 Indy Racing League champion admits. "The track is suited well to our Indy cars. It's a really fun place to run and incredibly fast."
Lazier, driving the #91 Hemelgarn Racing Dallara/Chevrolet sponsored by Delta Faucets, Victory Brand cigarettes and Life Fitness has been part of the Indy Racing League since its inception. He considers the Richmond round, round seven of 16 probably the most physically demanding track of the year.
"G forces have a lot to do with this track. Your eight-pound head starts to weigh 45 pounds as the race goes on and it becomes harder to steer the car and there's enormous pressure on your heart and nervous system," Buddy explains. "You're very, very busy here and racing has to be intuitive. You're not able to make decisions because everything happens so fast. There isn't time to sit back and weigh your plans; it has to happen automatically."
This is one of the few tracks on the IndyCar Series circuit that allow what Lazier calls "a little body English. You don't usually throw a car into corners on a 1-mile track because our cars don't like going sideways. Here you can use trailing throttle or trailing brake to get through the corners."
He calls the turn1-2 complex at Richmond International Raceway a "flat-end corner with a mid-corner bump. The turn has a tendency to fall off at the end. Turns 3 and 4 have a little bit of banking but two distinct entry lines. Those distinctions are what make this track" so much fun for the IndyCar Series drivers. "This track is unique to the Indy Racing League."
Turning 16-17-second laps at Richmond isn't too fast for the IRL's new cars and engines, Lazier believes. "The big concern is 20-plus cars running close together. This track isn't hard to drive alone and it's one of the more fun places to hustle a car around. But in the middle of the race, you've got cars inside and outside on a tight, tight area. That's my only concern.
"We didn't do the open test held here so we're a bit behind. The cars this year have a lower center of gravy and the engines are dramatically better so we'll go a good step faster than we did the last two years."
Taking a lap around this 3/4-mile track, Lazier says that, "If you get the car out of the groove, there's not much response or recovery time. There's not much room for margin and that's the fun of it. The outer groove gets better as the race goes on."
Even passing lapped cars can take a good amount of time here. "You have to wait five, six or even ten laps to set up a slower car. You have to be patient and plan your attack."
At Richmond, "pure speed is very important. The car changes a lot with different fuel loads, so you need a dominant car. You must be able to maintain your pace and be good in traffic, be able to average out your short and long runs. But," he admits, "track position is key at the end of the race," like always.
As his current year's plans with Hemelgarn Racing came together late and the team missed the first round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Lazier and crew have been doing the bulk of their testing during race weekends, but they've gotten stronger as the season's progressed, earning 10th place at Pikes Peak International Raceway's Honda Indy 225 two weeks ago - Lazier's home circuit as he was born, raised and still lives in Vail, CO.
"We're heading in the right direction and we've got a pretty good handle on the race car," Lazier says. "Everybody on the team has been very patient because we want to win" even within the constraints of what he calls a "thin budget."
His long history with the same Hemelgarn team has come about because of chemistry within the group. "Chemistry and opportunity have to be there. You have to be very flexible and able to adapt.
"At this moment we're in survival mode but I think times will be getting better, not only for our team but for all of motorsports." For Hemelgarn Racing, "either we work together or go stale. These people are my friends and we continue to support each other, working through each other's strengths and weaknesses."
The 35-year-old Lazier has seen many changes in the Indy Racing League since it first began in 1996 and he likes what he sees in the IRL paddock. "We're just about on track with my expectations. We've got quality teams, great competition on the track and the Indy Racing League structure is terrific. The IRL business model gets more successful every year.
"There's growing respect in the racing community worldwide for the Indy Racing League. That's about what I expected when I became part of the League eight years ago. I'm honored to be involved with the Indy Racing League and I've got more appreciation for it because of my experience in other forms of racing," Lazier admits. "The IRL leadership is absolutely right because it's young and dynamic."
With his Dallara/Chevrolet package progressing, Lazier can't wait for Chevrolet's new "Gen IV" engine. "We're very excited about what's coming and where we're at. Chevrolet is very committed to this series and its [proposed] relationship with Cosworth isn't unusual in motorsports. After all, Roger Penske owns 25% of Ilmor, who build Honda's engines right now and he's running a Toyota. This is pretty common in racing."
Buddy Lazier admits that racing "turns me on every day. I love driving the car and can't imagine making my living any other way." When the green flags drop at 8pm EDT on the 3rd annual SunTrust Challenge Saturday night at Richmond International Racway, Buddy Lazier will be exactly where he wants to be.