IRL: Lazier takes aim at 2001 season

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000 -- Buddy Lazier will waste little time sitting on a champion's throne as the fifth and newest king of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. His royal seat is the one he belts into in his...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000 -- Buddy Lazier will waste little time sitting on a champion's throne as the fifth and newest king of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. His royal seat is the one he belts into in his Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo/ Hemelgarn Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone race car. And barely one week after succeeding Greg Ray as series champion, Lazier will be back in the cockpit of his car testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One week after clinching the title by finishing fourth in the Excite 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Lazier will begin four days of chassis and engine testing in preparation for the 2001 season. His new goal now is to win the Indianapolis 500 for the second time -- his first win came in 1996 -- and repeat as Northern Light Cup champion next season. No driver has been able to either repeat as series champion or win the Indianapolis 500 and the season title in the same season since the Indy Racing League started competition in 1996. Actually, Lazier came close to that feat this season. He chased rookie Juan Montoya to the checkered flag at Indy in May for a second-place finish. Then in the rest of the Northern Light Series, Lazier won at Phoenix and Kentucky and added two other runner-up finishes at Disney World and Atlanta en route to joining Kenny Brack as a winner of both the Indianapolis 500 and the championship. Brack won the season title in 1998 and at Indy in 1999. "I believe he's going to be a great champion for the series next year," said Excite 500 winner Scott Goodyear. Lazier will be saluted at the annual Indy Racing Northern Light Series awards ceremony Nov. 11 in Indianapolis. That's where he and car owner Ron Hemelgarn will pick up champion's winning check for $1 million from series sponsor Northern Light. "I think winning the Indy 500 and winning the championship are so similar," Lazier said. "They're huge. "I think it's going to do what a championship always does for all race drivers. It kind of helps step them up another level. I'm really looking forward to it. I've never won a championship anything close to this significance. "I'm not exactly sure how my career will react to being champion, but I'm looking forward to it." Lazier, the Vail, Colo., driver who won skiing championships as a youth, will not begin actual defense of his title until March 18 at Phoenix. The 13-race 2001 season has been condensed into a six-month period from March through September. Previously, the season started in late January and ended in October. "In a way, I'm going to miss that early race," Lazier said. "At the same time, having a longer break allows you to plan things more methodically and have time to accomplish some things. I think it is going to enable me to have more time preparing for the beginning of the season." Lazier said both he and the Hemelgarn Racing crew learned "a lot of things" in racing to second behind Montoya at Indy. One of the keys to victory for Montoya was the rapid refueling done in the pits by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. "Now we're fueling our cars just as fast," Lazier said. "That's a big factor. "I saw some of the things Juan was doing on the racetrack. That's a factor. You size up your competitors, and you learn vicariously from their strengths. You're constantly comparing your strengths and weaknesses with theirs." The question now arises whether the Hemelgarn team will choose to carry No. 1 on the car, symbolic of the series championship, or continue to run with its traditional No. 91. When Brack won the championship, car owner A.J. Foyt retained his favored No. 14, while Ray and car owner John Menard advanced from No. 2 to No. 1 for the 2000 season. "From a driver's perspective, you don't know how often you're going to get to carry that No. 1 around, and that would be pretty neat," Lazier said. "But at the same time, I know there's a lot of identification that comes from No. 91. There are a lot of NASCAR teams that have drivers for a long time and a lot of continuity. When they win the championship, they keep their numbers. It is hard to say what we will do." The decision will come from Hemelgarn, Lazier said. Lazier will turn 33 on Halloween. Ray was only two months into his 33rd year when he won last year, while Brack was 32 when he captured his title. Clinching the title at Texas was nerve-wracking for Lazier. Goodyear and Eddie Cheever Jr., who said Lazier turns from a low key person to a "killer" when he gets on the track, showed Lazier early that they were going to make him work for the championship to the final lap. Goodyear and Cheever were the only drivers who could take the Northern Light Cup from Lazier, and they wound up first and second, respectively, at the finish. Lazier said it was a difficult decision on how to approach the race, but in the end he and the team chose the strategy of competing for the victory, just as always. However, he then admitted that he didn't take some of the risks he normally might have. For instance, when he got out of sync on pit stops late in the race, it was decided not to pit next time around but maintain the lead out in front of traffic until the championship was decided. That he came in with about 10 laps to go. Lazier pitted for a splash of fuel, but there weren't enough laps remaining to overtake the leaders like there might have been if he had pitted sooner. When Lazier was told he could even bring the car back without wheels and still be the champion, he turned up the wick and tried to catch Goodyear, Cheever and Boat. But he had to settle for fourth, .701 of a second behind winner Goodyear. "We still filed the edges very sharp and had an aggressive strategy," he said, "but we did kind of burr the edges a little bit too and tried to be a little cautious in areas where it didn't pay enough to take those risks." Lazier said he was driving so hard on the last lap trying to win that he didn't see the checkered flag. He didn't realize the race was over until he got into Turn 1. "I was just so proud of my guys," he said. "They did a fantastic job. They' ve been backing me up all year. My guys want to win every race. They certainly wanted to win this one, but the championship was the priority."

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Buddy Lazier , Scott Goodyear , Kenny Brack , Chip Ganassi , A.J. Foyt