Charlotte, NC, July 26, 1997 A crowd of over 73,000 fans saw Buddy Lazier win the inaugural appearance of the Indy Racing League at the high-banked Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race began with pole sitter Tony Stewart running away and hiding...
Charlotte, NC, July 26, 1997
A crowd of over 73,000 fans saw Buddy Lazier win the inaugural appearance of the Indy Racing League at the high-banked Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The race began with pole sitter Tony Stewart running away and hiding for most of the first 75 laps, losing the lead only on lap 48 during the first round of pit stops. By lap 72, when the yellow came out for debris in Turn 2, Stewart had drawn out a lead of over 15 seconds on second place runner Lazier. Stewart pitted for fuel and four tires under yellow on lap 75, re-joining the field in fifth place behind Lazier, Billy Boat, Mark Dismore and Jimmy Kite. When the green flag came out on lap 77, Stewart wheeled his Menard/Glidden/Special G Force past Kite, but soon lost radio communication with his pits. Radio failure was fatal to Stewart's hopes; later in the race Team Menard chased handling problems in the wrong direction and fell out of contention for the win.
Lazier, in his Delta Faucet Cinergy Hemelgarn Racing Dallara, continued to lead until lap 93, when he pitted for four tires and fuel, turning the lead over to Boat. Midget ace Boat headed the field for the next eight laps, until the leaders pitted under the yellow after Mark Dismore's smoking Dallara coasted to a stop in turn 2 on lap 98. After pit stops, Roberto Guerrero (who did not pit) took command in his Pennzoil/Pagan Racing Dallara. Guerrero showed the way for 25 laps, until he pitted for fuel and tires on lap 130. He rejoined the fray in seventh place, with three cars on the lead lap: Boat, Kite and Lazier. On lap 140, Kite passed Boat on the low side on the front straightaway, for his first lead lap in IRL competition.
The third yellow of the day came out on lap 144 when Davey Hamilton and Roberto Guerrero tangled turn 2, while running sixth and seventh a lap behind the leaders. Hamilton, whose car was not working well at the time, entered turn 1 on the high side. Guerrero, running faster on his way back toward the front, went under Hamilton. Hamilton apparently did not see Guerrero, and the two ran out of racing room. After wheel-to-wheel contact, both cars spun, hit the outside wall, then slid down the banking where they collected Eliseo Salazar. Salazar was able to continue, finishing tenth, but the day was done for the pilots of the AJ Foyt Power Team Racing G Force and the Pennzoil/Pagan Racing Dallara, who were credited with 16th and 17th place. Both drivers were unhurt, and viewed the incident as a racing mishap.
The green came out again on lap 155, with Foyt's Billy Boat leading Hemelgarn's Buddy Lazier by fractions of a second and Jimmy Kite lurking a few seconds behind. Kite's ride came to an untimely end on lap 164 when his Scandia Dallara kissed the concrete in the trioval, yielding a firey (but injury-free) ride of several hundred feet along the front stretch wall.
When the green came out for good on lap 171, the stage was set for a classic battle between Lazier and Boat, with third-place Scott Goodyear just shy of one lap down. Goodyear, who was protecting his lead-lap status, demonstrated how wide a G Force can be. Lazier showed that track width is not limited to the pavement when he took to the grass on lap 181 in an unsuccessful attempt to put the Canadian a lap down. As all three cars worked their way through traffic, Boat remained from tenths of a second to a few seconds behind Lazier. Boat took the lead on lap 196 in a thrilling three-wide encounter with John Paul Jr. in Turn 3, only to be re-taken by Lazier at the start-finish line on lap 197. Lazier finally put Goodyear a lap down on lap 200, and ultimately stretched his lead over Boat to 3.3 seconds by the checkered at 208 laps. During his final run, Lazier turned a lap at over 210 mph. Earlier in the race, both Lazier and Boat had recorded race laps faster than their qualifying speeds.
After the race, Buddy Lazier, who is a big Winston Cup fan and had seen many NASCAR telecasts from Charlotte Motor Speedway, had trouble finding Victory Lane. Once there, he credited his crew for putting him where he needed to be for the victory. After falling a lap behind early in the race, they dialed his car in through the evening as the track changed, and did a fuel-only final pit stop. He felt the turning point was on lap 120, when he regained the lead lap by passing Roberto Guerrero as they split around Sam Schmidt on the backstretch.
Second place Billy Boat and third place Scott Goodyear talked about the race, Charlotte and the fans. Boat's car began pushing toward the end, and he did not feel that he had much left for Lazier. Of the 24 degree banking, Goodyear said it "feels like you're on a ferris wheel". Night racing did not appear to be a problem for either of them. When asked about the outage of one bank of lights on the front stretch, Goodyear said he did not notice, and Boat said that it seemed like turn 1 at Hanford, California. Both drivers remarked at how enthusiastic the fans were.
Alfonso Giaffone was "really happy" with his fourth place finish in the General Motors of Brazil Chitwood Dallara. His crew for this race included famed NASCAR fuel man Danny "Chocolate" Myers, who enjoyed working with Joie Chitwood Jr and the IRL. Giaffone's car carries the number 17, the same number that appeared on on the Wolfe Special driven by the "Chief", Joie Chitwood Sr, in the 1950 Indianapolis 500.
Fifth place Kenny Brack, in the Monsoon Galles Racing International G Force, felt that he ran well. He was hampered by wrong shock aborber adjustments, which the team did not have time to fix in the pits.
Further back, Phoenix winner Jim Guthrie in the Jacussi Armor Golf Odyssey Golf ERTL Collectables Dallara said that his twelfth place finish "is like a victory". Still recovering from bruises sustained at Pike's Peak, his shoulders and hands fell asleep during the race. Working through that and back pain, he completed 197 laps and was running at the end.
The LP Racing crew overcame their earlier difficulties to put driver Sam Schmidt and the HOPE Prepaid Fuel Card Racing Special into the race. Earlier in the week, LP Racing owner Larry Nash was seen with his arm shoulder deep in the team's Dallara, fixing the gremlins that struck before qualifying. Schmidt ran well until succumbing to engine problems on lap 114. He was credited with 18th place.
Credited with 23rd place was Dr. Jack Miller in the AMS/Crest Racing Dallara. Miller had brushed the wall in the final pre-race practice session, damaging the bodywork and left side suspension. The AMS/Crest crew's work following the incident was hampered by mud picked up from the soggy trackside ground the car spun through. They repaired the car in time for the race, but fell out after 12 laps with engine problems.
Promoter Humpy Wheeler and track owner Bruton Smith were delighted with the race. The turnout of 73,039 was more than they had expected, and Wheeler felt that they would draw over 100,000 next year. Wheeler said that he did not see anybody leaving during the race, and that most stayed to walk through the garage area, which was opened to the fans after the race. When asked about the IRL's future at Charlotte, Wheeler said that they will definitely be back next year, probably on the same weekend. He felt that the IRL race would now be the fourth major event of the season at Charlotte. He did not see Charlotte or any track, other than perhaps Texas Motor Speedway, hosting more than one IRL event per season. They are looking at having an IRL race in Atlanta.
Wheeler talked of IRL's "fearless, excellent race drivers" and the "25 wrecks that did not happen tonight". "In my opinion, they have the premier open wheel series". When asked about the size of tonight's field, he said that in the future, as IRL grows, he'd like to see them start 33 or 36 cars.
Wheeler and Smith were asked about Charlotte's tradition of always having some race tickets available at $20, and whether that might change as racing grows in popularity. They felt that a race fan who earns six or seven dollars an hour should be able to afford a ticket at their track, and they were adamant that they would always have $20 seats.
Ken Plotkin - Motorsport News International