Ken Plotkin - Motorsport.com Richmond, VA, June 29, 2001 - Jaques Lazier put his ...
Ken Plotkin - Motorsport.com
Richmond, VA, June 29, 2001 - Jaques Lazier put his #99 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Racing Special on the pole for tomorrow night's SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway. Jaques' speed of 160.417 mph is a new track record, shattering the 131.374 mph mark set by Randy Tolsma in 1996 in a Silver Crown car.
The pole is a major triumph for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which ran its first race at Phoenix this year only 30 days after its conception. The team has since had more than its share of misfortune. They were caught in the multi-car accident at Atlanta. They were headed for a top-ten finish at Indianapolis when the engine blew. At Texas, driver Davey Hamilton suffered major foot and leg injuries when the car hit the fence after spinning in oil from another car's blown engine.
The team hung in, scoring a ninth place finish at Pikes Peak two weeks ago with Richie Hearn at the wheel. Jaques Lazier was hired two days ago for this weekend's race. Sam filled him in on the team's way of working - a partnership between owner, manager, crew chief and driver. The lesson worked, as the team spent yesterday in test session mode gathering data and working on race setup. Today they worked on speed, topping the charts in the final pre-qualifying practice, with Lazier joining a select group of five drivers who cracked the 160 mph barrier in practice this weekend. Lazier was the only driver to qualify at over 160 mph.
"Being on the pole far exceeded our expectations," said Jaques. "All the credit goes to the team. They worked extremely hard and kept the faith. They haven't had the success that they deserve, and they've had some trials and tribulations. And they kept going at it and stayed headstrong, and we're tasting the fruits of our labor right now."
Joining Lazier on the front row is Sarah Fisher, at 159.891 mph. Fisher's run was a major comeback from yesterday, when her track time was cut short by wall contact and a round of precautionary x-rays. This is her best-ever qualifying position, and is also the best-ever starting position for a woman in an Indy-style race.
"It was a great comback," Fisher said, "but first of all I want to congratulate Jaques Lazier. He did a tremendous job, and the Sam Schmidt team has worked really hard this year. So it's great to see them doing so well."
Returning to her own performance, Fisher credited the team. "Walker Racing did a tremendous job after yesterday. You know, I had the little spin in turn 2, and it got a couple of parts in the car, but they did an excellent job of putting the car back together and giving me an even better car."
Eddie Cheever continues to show the power of the Infiniti engine, putting his car into third place at a speed of 159.202 mph. Cheever's day was not all fun, with a spin and wall contact in practice as he was simulating a qualifying run. The team repaired the damage in time for qualifying.
"My crew did a great job of putting the car back together for qualifying," Cheever said afterwards. "The track is a bit slippery, but it's a lot of fun. With our cars on the track, it's like flying a fighter plane inside a gymnasium. This place is tough...I can understand why they call it the 'Action Track' because you're really busy. It's like playing chess at 160 mph."
A factor in today's qualifying was the condition of the track, which was coated with rubber from USAC Silver Crown practice. Several drivers, including Al Unser Jr., elected to skip their original early spots and take one lap at the end, when the track would be better.
Jaques' brother Buddy Lazier elected to keep his mid-order position, and qualified fourth fastest, at 159.199 mph.
"There's a lot of rubber down from the USAC cars," Buddy said, "but it's the same for everybody. We have a really good car. I think it will be good for racing on Saturday. I saw Al pull out of line, and that may have been good strategy because the more cars that go out, the better the track's been getting."
The third row was filled by Airton Dare, who took one lap at the end, and Sam Hornish Jr., who took his assigned slot.
"The 1-800-BAR-NONE car did great this afternoon," Dare said. "We pulled to the back of the line because of the high temperatures and the track conditions. We had a little bit of push coming out of the turns, but other than that the car was great. Our strategy to go to the back definitely paid off."
Hornish was concentrating more on tomorrow's race than playing games with qualifying order. "Based on how dark the sealer is, the track gets really hot. We weren't expecting that, but that's racing. Any time you've got cooler conditions, the quicker you'll run. It's hard to say since we haven't run here yet." Referring to a change in schedule of final "happy hour" practice from this evening to tomorrow afternoon, he commented "You had better have a good setup from last night or you'll be in trouble."
Slick track conditions bit several drivers today. Greg Ray hit the turn 4 wall hard in the afternoon practice session. He was evaluated and released without injury. He was evaluated this afternoon and not cleared to drive, but will be re-evaluated tomorrow morning.
Prior to Ray's evaluation this afternoon, Team Menard withdrew from qualifying. "We made the decision as a group," Ray said. "We thought I could crawl in the race car and have a good qualifying run. But my left side lower back is very stiff. It's not worth the risk."
If Ray is cleared to drive, he will start tomorrow's race 21st. That is a very unusual starting position for Ray, who holds the Indy Racing record of 12 career poles.
Billy Boat, third out in qualifying, spun into the turn 4 outside wall on a warmup lap, damaging the left rear of the car. Boat climbed out, uninjured, and was cleared to drive after examination in the Infield Care Center. Boat refused to blame the USAC rubber for the incident. "It just jumped out on me. There was no indication at all. The track didn't feel that bad. I pushed it too hard, too quick. We didn't need that mistake."
Boat's crew will repair the car, and he will start 20th tomorrow.
Jeff Ward also met the wall during qualifying. He spun as he exited turn four on his qualifying lap, lightly contacting the wall past the start-finish line. He was uninjured, and damage to the car was minor. He is 17th in the field with his timed speed of 149.108 mph.
Because of delays today due to track cleanup and rain, the final practice scheduled for this evening was postponed to 3 pm tomorrow afternoon. With that practice in the heat of the day, and the race run to be run in the cool of the evening, teams are looking forward to an interesting time adjusting setups as the race progresses.
The Indy Racing cars will have a final half hour practice at 3 pm tomorrow. They will move to the grid at 7 pm, and the green will wave for the SunTrust Indy Challenge at 8 pm.