LAS VEGAS/PHOENIX, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000 -- Race driver Eliseo Salazar is a sports superstar in his native Chile. Salazar just returned from a trip to his hometown of Santiago, and he now knows how much it means at age 45 to be driving...
LAS VEGAS/PHOENIX, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000 -- Race driver Eliseo Salazar is a sports superstar in his native Chile. Salazar just returned from a trip to his hometown of Santiago, and he now knows how much it means at age 45 to be driving for auto racing's "Super Tex," A.J. Foyt, for the first time. "They are very excited," Salazar said of his homeland fans. "They want me to win every race." Salazar joined the A.J. Foyt Racing as a teammate to Jeff Ward shortly before last month's Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway. With no pre-race testing, he drove to fifth place. Salazar said he made a couple of mistakes or he might have had a shot at winning. For Salazar, it was just what he expected when he signed to drive for the legend from Houston. The next Northern Light Indy Racing Series races are the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 on March 19 at Phoenix International Raceway and the Las Vegas 500 on April 22 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But two preparation sessions, the "Test in the West," will precede the two races in the desert Southwest. Testing will take place Feb. 21-22 at Vegas and follow this with a similar two days of testing Feb. 25-26 at Phoenix. Salazar, who lives in Hollywood, Fla., when he isn't in Chile, said the team may miss the Las Vegas test because the team is awaiting delivery of some superspeedway parts for his Rio A.J. Foyt Racing G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone machine. But he said he definitely will be in the car at the Phoenix session. "I like my chances for the championship," Salazar said. "I would say this is the best chance I've ever had. I'm doing everything I can to use it. "What I like about this opportunity is that I have the experience to put it to use. Sometimes when you get an opportunity like this you are too young to take advantage of it." Salazar is training hard. He visits a park near his home and rides 20 miles on his bicycle everyday. The Chilean, who celebrated his 25th anniversary in racing last year, has driven in 22 Indy Racing League events, winning in 1997 at Las Vegas. Also, he -- like Foyt -- has battled back from serious racing injuries to extend his career. He had talked with Foyt a number of times through the years but never expected to drive for him. All of this changed at the end of last season when drivers Kenny Brack and Billy Boat left the team. After Ward was hired to replace Brack, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, in the No. 14 car, negotiations began between Salazar and Foyt for the seat in the No. 11 machine. "I went to the open test at Orlando (in January) and then to Houston," Salazar said. "I find him to be a very straightforward and open guy. I like that." With just one race under his belt, Salazar has learned a lot already about how the Foyt team operates. He noted that he hadn't run a lap before practice began at the Delphi Indy 200, but chief mechanic Bill Spencer made quick changes that made the car competitive. "It's very gratifying to work for him," Salazar said of Foyt. "Having him there relaxes you. He doesn't say a lot (on the radio), but he tells you a few things. They are very useful. I know I have a great team when A.J. Foyt is behind me." During his career that stretches back to 1974, Salazar has competed in the top level of the sport since 1981. In Formula One, he drove for Morris Nunn and has competed everywhere from Indy to Monaco to Le Mans. He was the first Chilean to race at each of those world-famous venues. Driving for a multidriver team is not new to Salazar. One year at Indy when he drove for Scandia and Dick Simon, there were seven drivers on the team. "I drove for the biggest team of them all," he said with a laugh. "We all know how Dick is an extrovert and so outgoing. A.J. is more calmer." So far, he admits he hasn't seen the famous bombastic side of Foyt. Salazar said he likes Ward very much. He noted that in racing a driver becomes close only with four or five other drivers and that Ward was part of his group. This could be Salazar's final good shot at winning Indy. He has a commendable record there in four previous races. He claimed a fourth as a rookie in 1995, returned the next year to qualify for the outside of the front row and drive to sixth. He placed 24th in 1997 after qualifying ninth, missed the '98 race and was forced out by an accident in 33rd last May. There wasn't any hesitation when asked if driving for Foyt makes winning the world's most historic race possible. "Absolutely," he said. "There are so many factors that have to come into being. This is a big deal for me."
'TEST IN THE WEST' NOTEBOOK
Schedule: Testing will take place from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. (local time) each of the days of the "Test in the West" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Gates open: The grandstands at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be open to the public, free of charge, Feb. 21-22 during the "Test in the West." The stands at Phoenix International Raceway will be open during testing, free of charge, Feb. 26.