LAZIER COULD BECOME IRL'S FIRST $3 MILLION MAN AT CHARLOTTE CONCORD, N.C., July 14, 1998 -- Buddy Lazier won the first Pep Boys Indy Racing League pole at the inaugural Walt Disney World 200 in January 1996. He won the first...
LAZIER COULD BECOME IRL'S FIRST $3 MILLION MAN AT CHARLOTTE
CONCORD, N.C., July 14, 1998 -- Buddy Lazier won the first Pep Boys Indy Racing League pole at the inaugural Walt Disney World 200 in January 1996. He won the first Indianapolis 500 under the IRL umbrella, also in 1996. Last year when the IRL ventured into NASCAR country for the first time, he won the VisionAire500, the first open-wheel race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Lazier returns to Charlotte on July 25 for the VisionAire 500, hoping to add another IRL first to his auto racing dossier. At the end of the race, either he or Arie Luyendyk should become the first driver to win $3 million in league prize money.
Luyendyk, the Flying Dutchman who has won two Indy 500s, led the Pep Boys IRL total prize money after the New England 200 on July 28 at Loudon, N.H., with $2,876,853. Lazier followed with $2,790,404, with reigning Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever Jr. third at $2,513,053. These figures will be elevated by their winnings during the Pep Boys 400K on July 19 at Dover, Del., putting Luyendyk and Lazier in position to top $3 million.
"Enormous," Lazier said about his career winnings. "Wow! I wonder where it all went. I wish the driver got a bigger percentage than he does."
A good chunk of Lazier's winnings came from the thrilling victory at Charlotte in 1997. He picked up a winner's check for $152,700.
The Indy 500 also has been extremely kind to his wallet in the last three years. He drove in three Indy 500s during the early 1990s and earned $472,878 for his finishes. In the last three years, since the formation of the IRL by Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George, Lazier has finished first, fourth and second and earned $2,130,304.
"I don't think you count those first three years, because that was a different format," said Lazier, driver of the Hemelgarn Racing/Delta Faucet/Coors Light Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear.
"First of all, I was a rookie, and I have improved as a race driver quite a bit. That was a time when we were not a well-funded effort. (Ron) Hemelgarn, I'm not so sure he was so well-funded given the competition.
"The opportunity I had before the IRL certainly was not an opportunity like this. The only chance I had to show what I could do in Indy-car racing was in 2-, sometimes 3-year-old race cars on a shoestring budget running basically motors nobody wanted anymore and parts that nobody else wanted anymore."
Still fresh in Lazier's mind is the first opportunity he had driving a new car as the third driver on John Menard's team in 1995. He said he only had 20 laps of practice in his '95 Lola but was able to drive it flat out in qualifying. Then in the race, he felt he had a good chance of finishing and even winning for the first time.
"At that point I realized how much a difference it makes to have a brand-new race car within the current rules," he said. "Trying to compete with old equipment is way too big of a disadvantage."
But he also sees a big difference in the IRL, where the car parameters haven't changed that much between the '97 and '98 machines. He noted that with an update kit a driver can race, be competitive and win in a year-old car.
Lazier drove both this season. He was leading and "almost pulled off" a victory in the season-opening Indy 200 in late January at Orlando, Fla. He didn't drive his new car until Indy and came within 3.191 seconds of becoming a two-time winner of the world's foremost auto race.
Cheever, the former Formula One competitor, did a good job of preventing Lazier from passing him on a late restart and then pulled away to win at age 40. Lazier, 10 years younger, had to back off because of an ill-handling car. He wanted to win badly.
"I tried everything in reason and it just wasn't our day," he said.
"To be that close ... to be that close," he said with a sigh. "Usually, you're thrilled with second, and I am thrilled with it. But when you've won it before, you know how much it means to win. What an awesome place. It's incredible."
Lazier is quick to add that if he couldn't win Indy, taking the checkered flag at Charlotte would be next in line as one of the races he'd most like to win. He calls last year's victory very meaningful.
The team started the 1997 part of the '96-97 season at Orlando with Nissan engines before switching to the Oldsmobile Aurora in May at Indy. Also, he feels the Dallara chassis was behind the G Force last year but believes it has passed that chassis by now.
"Went to Charlotte and won it," he said. "It was very meaningful to us, because the season started so poorly."
Lazier, from Vail, Colo., said he won at Charlotte although he did not have the fastest car. He fell a lap down due to a weak pit stop, but the consistency of the car kept him in the hunt. Once he claimed the lead, the car's handling kept him there. He praises his team for the work they did with the car.
"I'm happy to be with guys I trust, are friends with and have so much ability," he said.
Team manager Lee Kunzman has similar feelings about Lazier. Lazier won Indy in 1996 after suffering 17 fractures of his vertebra and pelvis in a crash at Phoenix two months earlier. Kunzman can empathize with his driver's fortitude, because he also fought back from injuries and severe burns during his career that included four Indy 500 starts.
"When we're able to put him in a position to win, he's as good as they come, especially when he can see the roses," Kunzman said. "At Charlotte last year the bottom line was he hustled the car and used the whole track. At the end he had nothing left. I was impressed."
Lazier believes the key to winning this year again is running flat out the entire race, being able to handle the bumps exiting Turn 4, keeping the balance in the car and being physically tough.
"It's a physically demanding race with the banks, those bumps and the g-forces we're pulling," he said. "I think as a race driver you need to be pretty tough."
In the Pep Boys IRL, that's been Lazier's middle name.