A little more than one month ago, only the most ardent of IndyCar observers had heard of, or really paid attention to, Andretti Autosport Indianapolis 500 rookie Carlos Munoz.
Now, mere days before the 97th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Colombian is probably the month of May’s biggest surprise.
Munoz really came on towards the end of last Indy Lights season driving for Andretti, posting a pair of wins in Edmonton and Fontana. He’s a championship favorite this season, with wins already at Barber and Long Beach and searching for his third in a row Friday in the Firestone Freedom 100.
Oh, and he starts second in the 500 on Sunday. It’s the same accomplishment as his countryman, Juan Pablo Montoya, achieved in 2000 – Montoya went on to win the race.
Munoz is the fourth driver to race in both IndyCar and Indy Lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same month. He had his first IndyCar test at Texas in March, and described his preparation for the month of May during the Long Beach weekend.
“I had had a really good day (in Texas), and I got very comfortable in the car,” Munoz told me at Long Beach. “I knew we had to go step-by-step; learn the track, learn the car and everything. We got faster and faster but I knew we had a really good car for the Indy 500.”
Easy for him to say at the time, but him following through in reality was a tough ask. So far, Munoz has passed with flying colors.
Running an aggressive line through Turn 1, Munoz has flirted with disaster with entering late and then diving underneath the white line. But it appears to be working. He’s stepped into a car, the No. 26 Unistraw Chevrolet, that has been among – if not the – quickest of the five-car Andretti armada this month.
“In the beginning, I was really nervous about it. But once I was in the car, everything was clear,” Munoz said after qualifying for the 500. “It seems easier on the TV. For four laps you have to be really precise each lap. If you turn a little bit later or a little bit earlier, the whole car is different.”
Thursday marked the first time this month Munoz shifted back to his regular car in Indy Lights. He qualified second there, as well, behind Sage Karam. The focus Friday shifts solely to Lights, even though there’s Carb Day practice for IndyCar beforehand.
“We had so much fun last year in that race because we were overtaking all the time,” Munoz said Thursday. “But I am going one-by-one. I am focusing first with Indy Lights – then I will focus on the Indy 500.”
In 20 years since 1996 win, Buddy Lazier has lived Indy’s evolution
INDIANAPOLIS – At 48 years old, Buddy Lazier isn’t just the oldest driver set to compete in this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
He’s the link to several generations past, and link to the future for both himself and his family-operated team’s future goals.
And he still loves the hell out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A BRIEF PRIMER ON LAZIER’S INDY PRESENCE
When Lazier first attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 (a mere month before I was born, and yes, I’m dating myself here), more than a third of this year’s field (12 drivers: Josef Newgarden, Carlos Munoz, Alexander Rossi, Gabby Chaves, Max Chilton, Sage Karam, Conor Daly, Matthew Brabham, Bryan Clauson, Spencer Pigot, Stefan Wilson and Jack Hawksworth) weren’t even born yet. Karam, pictured above, is in his third straight ‘500 at age 21, and the youngest driver in the field as he and Lazier ran side by side.
The first year he made the field in 1991, 25 years ago, the field included 10 present or eventual Indianapolis 500 winners: Rick Mears (who won his fourth that year), Arie Luyendyk, Al Unser Jr., Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal, A.J. Foyt and Eddie Cheever Jr. It even had Brabham’s dad Geoff, too. Michael Andretti, of course, famously finished second that year; Lazier was first out after a second lap accident and ended 33rd.
Lazier has been a part of this race for parts of four decades and he’s celebrating the 20-year anniversary of his 1996 win this week and this year.
The desire to outperform the older, less powerful machinery at his disposal was a skill instilled in him that first year, building to his actual first time he made the race in 1991 to now as he prepares for his 19th start in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in his No. 4 Lazier/Burns Racing Chevrolet. The chassis began its life as the Lotus engine test mule in late 2011 and was run by Fan Force United for Jean Alesi, and parked early, in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
“I got my break after winning the old American IndyCar Series,” Lazier reflected to NBC Sports. “When you did that, Machinist Union, the sponsors, gave you some old equipment. So I had an ’87 March with two Cosworth motors. We took them with a voluntary crew to pass a rookie test in 1989. They weren’t very good, but that’s how I came up; it’s the only way we know how. I felt that was my next step. I had won in sports car and wanted to break into IndyCar.
“I think there’s a little bit of carrying that legacy to today. That is a factor. But I still feel, given that, in any race car I can run as good as any driver at the speedway.”
A BETTER MONTH OF MAY THUS FAR
Call them bold words but there’s a reason you don’t see many 48-year-olds still active in IndyCar today – they don’t have the fitness or training regimen needed to keep up the effort.
And Lazier, more than in any of his three previous runs the last three years with his family-operated team and additional investment from Thom Burns, has had his best – and longest – week of practice. A full 217 laps and a best speed of 227.002 mph in the pre-qualifying warmup speak volumes of how far this team has come.
This from a team that barely has made it out until late in the week each of the last three years and failed to qualify a year ago.
“When you come to Indy, you want to come with cannons… not pea shooters,” Lazier laughed. “Certainly having a larger team would make it an easier effort on the driver. It adds to the challenge. For me it’s about making the absolute best of what I have. We want to build it to the next class, to be in the ‘unlimited’ class. Right now, the goal is to be first in the budget class and build the effort.
“Thom Burns has been huge to come join us, with his resources and partners. And then Larry Curry as team manager, he’s been sort of the head of the technical side this year. He’s done a remarkable job. In a small team, driver and owner, managers, we all wear multiple hats. It’s not like everyone else you’re racing against is wearing multiple hats. It’s a very serious deep field. It’s phenomenal that we can do what we are. We’re gaining momentum.
“The 227 lap – that was warmup session for qualifying. We made one change to try to make it better… then we qualify 222! I can tell you we know what went wrong. To make it better, we inadvertently did something that killed us.
“But my small team is doing an incredible job. The fact you can run 227… that would be first third of the field, within reach. We’re getting it. It is difficult as a single-car, small team but we are right there.”
BUT THE 1996 WIN LOOMS LARGER THIS YEAR
Those 1989 and 1991 years built the confidence that Lazier could hone his skills even if the machinery he had at his disposal wasn’t the best.
So it took five years, and a run through a number of Buick (later Menard) V6 engines, before Lazier finally had race-winning caliber machinery at Hemelgarn Racing with a 1995 Reynard chassis and a Ford Cosworth XB engine for 1996. The CART-IRL split was just beginning and so it lessened the “names” at Indy, but it didn’t lessen Lazier’s desire to be there, or his hopes of victory.
There was one slight problem for Lazier going into May, 1996. His back was broken from an accident in Phoenix, and he was in agony.
But that would not defeat him or his chances.
“Obviously it was a devastating injury and accident. But the first thing for me was just to get comfortable in the car,” Lazier explained. “I was in an enormous amount of pain for two-three weeks. But they had a medical jet where I could leave St. Anthony’s (hospital) in Phoenix and fly back to my hometown of Vail, Col., and be under the care of surgeons in Vail, near the ski industry. We did all kinds of crazy things to heal faster.
“By the time you get to Indianapolis, it was basically that I didn’t know if I would be back in a car that could win. But damn, I was gonna make the most of what I have.
“Literally when we get there at the beginning of the month I had the crutch and a back brace. The bones were healed enough. We all thought it would be safe. I had to make sure I could do compression tests. Don’t put anyone at risk. But it was healing through the month. As practice went on it got better and better. I didn’t need the cane and rarely used the back brace.
“It’s a long race. Three hours and change. Pace ourselves and stay in the hunt. You’re spending so much time adjusting to the track conditions, that you don’t have much time to think about anything else.
“But by the end of the race, my back was definitely in a pretty painful state.”
PUSHING THROUGH THE PAIN, AND PAST THE ILLMOR
It wasn’t the back pain that Lazier was worried about when trying to win the race in that memorable purple and yellow, No. 91 Delta Faucet entry for Ron Hemelgarn. It was the lone Mercedes-Illmor engine in the field, driven by Davy Jones, entered by past ‘500 race-winning owner Rick Galles.
Galles didn’t have much more than a snowball’s chance of winning the conflicting U.S. 500 at Michigan for CART with rookie Eddie Lawson – although Lawson finished a surprise, career-best sixth there – but he had one of the few good bullets to win in Indy with Jones, a veteran, and the special lump in the back that was on par with the Ford.
“It was a very special Lola (chassis) they had, and we had a special Reynard,” Lazier explained. “It was Illmor against Cosworth. Goodyear against Firestone.
“All honesty, it really went down exactly according to plan. We were concerned because it was a special Illmor motor.
“When we ran at the end of the race – for the win – I thought our cars would hang in there better with the (Firestone) tires. And it did.”
MEMORIES FROM THE LAZIER FAMILY
Lazier’s win stands in Indy annals as the first of the IRL era but from a human and emotional drama standpoint, that 1996 year gave several of his family members and current Lazier/Burns Racing crew members their best ever Indy memories.
Courtesy of veteran PR rep Linda Mansfield in a fantastic release, here’s the memories from Buddy’s father Bob and future and current wife Kara Lazier about 1996:
“My favorite story at the Indianapolis 500 has nothing to do with myself, Buddy, or the team.
“In 1996 Buddy was in an accident in Phoenix and broke his back in many places. This was nine weeks before Indy. The doctor said there is no way he can run Indy; there’s no way he’ll even be out of bed. He was 28 and unmarried. We bought a hospital bed and set it up in the middle of our living room. I watched him struggle his way to the bathroom, which was tough. But he set up a mechanical device of cords and pulleys so he could exercise his upper body to stay in shape. It was unbelievable the amount of drive and determination he had.
“But that’s not the story either.
“All of his competition had been at Indy while he was in bed, as they had test sessions in April and early May. They were all practicing, because it was the first year of the IRL.
“Only one time before that year did Buddy have a race car that was competitive, but that year he had a car that was among the best. Even with the accident and the pain he was determined to stay in perfect shape, focused on his goal.
“He got to Indy on Monday, three days after the track opened. He could not walk with a cane; he needed crutches. The team basically was trying to figure out how to be discreet about how to put him in the car, because he couldn’t stand up by himself.
“We took a golf cart and put it up against the pit wall. Ten minutes later, he had made it out of the golf cart and gotten onto the pit wall. Then he carefully made it onto the sidepod of the car. Then four or five minutes later, he was finally in the car. We were all very discreet, trying to keep it under the radar, but it took him 10 or 15 minutes just to get in.
“Buddy always clears his mind for 4 or 5 minutes before he starts. He finally went out on the track, but then it took him 5 or 6 minutes to go around the first time. We thought he got lost! But racing is mental, and he was preparing himself for the challenge.
“The lap after that was double what it should be, but then he got a little faster. People were running 232s that year. The fourth lap at speed was even faster, and the fifth lap at speed he turned a 228 and change. They brought him back to the pits, made a few adjustments to the car, and he went back out and did a high 229, just 2 miles per hour and change off the pace. It was absolutely unbelievable!
“But that too is not the story.
“The story is that when he was going through his process, all of the competitors were pulling for him. When he first got on the track, it was a beehive of activity; everyone was trying to get that extra bit of speed. But when he was back in the car for the first time, they were all subconsciously or consciously watching and pulling for him, and they were happy for him.
“In a sport that’s all about ‘me,’ that day it was all about him. After he turned that 229, it went back to being a beehive again. So for my favorite Indy 500 memory, the competitors were the story, not Buddy. What a great group of drivers we have at Indy! That is the story, and I’ve never told that to anyone before.”
“The things you least expect are always the most emotional, but of course my favorite Indy memory was 20 years ago this month. We’d just gotten engaged on May 1 on the top of Vail Mountain, but Buddy couldn’t walk without crutches due to the Phoenix crash. We took the chair lift up to the top. He proposed, and a week later we were at Indy for the month of May. His crew said, ‘Well, you better win this race to pay off that engagement ring!’
“When we arrived Dr. Bock reviewed his X-rays that he brought from the Phoenix hospital, and requested that he go to Methodist and have his back X-rayed again, and meet with their doctors. At that point they reviewed the new X-rays and said his back still looked like a hard-boiled egg that had been dropped on the ground. His sacrum was completely shattered.
“At that point the doctors said they weren’t going to tell him he couldn’t race, but if he had another accident now, he could become paralyzed.
“Nowadays they would never let a driver make that call, but the doctors let Buddy make the call to race. He took the chance because he knew he had a great car. He says Dr. Bock is one of his heroes because he gave him the chance to make the choice.
“I wasn’t thinking about winning the race that day; I just wanted him to get through it safely. When he passed Davy Jones for the lead, it happened right in front of our pits, and I started crying. Other than having our two children, it was the most surreal event I’ve ever experienced, and that’s definitely my favorite Indy 500 memory.”
SO WHAT CAN BUDDY AND THIS CREW SHOOT FOR IN 2016?
In realistic terms, the first finish for Lazier here since 2008 must be the first goal. But he’s got a car that’s he’s comfortable with in traffic and a desire to still give it his all behind the wheel.
That second element is something that hasn’t changed in 27 years, in 19 starts.
“For me, this car is far more similar to the Reynard era compared to the previous Dallara,” he said. “With the aero changes, we’ve been able to get a handle on it. The car in traffic is quite good. On Monday, we didn’t get the running we wanted. My car is quite a bit stronger than 221-222 (mph) we ran.
“There’s something very special about threading the needle wide open, going through 1 and 2. Going through 1 at speed is unbelievable. Same thing in 2. You have to be so on your game here.
“When that car is right, I really enjoy Indianapolis from a challenge. It’s the man and machine combination. You’re in corners for such a long period of time.
“There’s no place to hide. You’re either getting with it, or you’re not. It’s such a special place.”
“INDYCAR filed suit to enforce its rights under the agreement with Boston Grand Prix and to cause them to meet their obligation to refund the ticket revenue to INDYCAR fans who purchased tickets to the event.”
The polesitter for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, James Hinchcliffe, checked in with Dave Briggs and Parker Kligerman on Tuesday’s episode of NASCAR AMERICA to recap his incredible comeback and his amazing qualifying run courtesy of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team.
If she hadn’t of achieved success in drag racing, legendary Shirley Muldowney would have made one hell of a fighter.
After all, it was in her genes.
If they had tangled in a ring, Ronda Rousey would have had nothing on Muldowney in her prime.
Muldowney’s father, Belgium Benedict Roque – nicknamed “Tex Rock” – was a taxi driver by day and a semi-pro boxer of note at night in and around Shirley’s hometown of Schenectady, New York.
It was almost prophetic that on an otherwise nondescript June night in 1940, Belgium would win his next-to-last fight by TKO, rushed home to pick up wife Mae, and a short time later in a local hospital, Shirley would enter the world.
And from that point, not only was a drag racing legend born, her reputation as an oftentimes hard-headed fighter of a different kind was born. She would go on to fight bullies in school, drag racing officials and opponents who looked down upon her with disdain because she was a woman in a “man’s sport,” and even race fans who were obviously no fans of hers that would call her every vile, disgusting, sexist and profane word in the book.
All because she was “a girl.”
All Muldowney ever wanted was a chance to prove herself, that she was every bit as good as any male drag racer. And you know what? She did just that, becoming the first woman to earn a professional drag racing license, the first woman to win a national event, the first woman to win a major racing championship and the first woman to win three NHRA Top Fuel titles (and a fourth in the rival American Hot Rod Association).
Muldowney raced until her retirement at the end of the 2003 season, a career that spanned more than four decades, perhaps as much as a million miles of barnstorming to grudge match races in the U.S. and Canada, and overcame a near-fatal crash in 1984.
They even made a movie about her life, the still popular “Heart Like A Wheel.”
Now, Shirley is in the biggest fight yet of her life – and it will be fought not on four wheels, but on a surgical bed.
Early Wednesday morning at a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital, the 75-year-old Muldowney will don a hospital gown, be rolled into an operating room, will be anesthetized and wake up more than five hours later – minus her right lung.
Muldowney has Stage 2 lung cancer, discovered only recently. According to various online research studies, Stage 2 cancer victims only have about a 30 percent chance of still being alive five years after surgery.
But this is not just another cancer statistic or unlucky victim. This is Shirley Roque Muldowney. All her fighting over the last seven decades has been just a warm-up for the bout she is about to undergo.
Yet knowing Shirley as I have for more than 30 years, she’s going into this next journey of her life in the same way she’s described herself to me over the years: “a tough broad.”
She has to be scared – even the most fearless shudder when the “C” word is mentioned – but I’ve never, ever seen Muldowney let her guard down and show fear. (Well, once, which I’ll get to shortly.)
Ironically, when I first met her in 1983 at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis – which began a 15-year stint as USA Today’s first NHRA drag racing writer – it was I who was scared.
Growing up on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side and being in more than my share of fights (I was usually the one picked upon, much like Muldowney), I also learned not to be afraid of anything.
But Muldowney’s reputation indeed scared me. I heard she was not only tough with fellow racers, but also with the media.
When Shirley’s PR person, Francine Lippsman, approached me to interview her, I was apprehensive but still went along.
Within five minutes of meeting Muldowney, all the rumors and stories of her being this quarter-mile ogre were quickly dispelled. She couldn’t have been more pleasant, more accommodating, more patient.
That day was the start of a long friendship. As a reporter, you’re supposed to be objective, but I can honestly say that of all the thousands of athletes across all varieties of sports that I’ve covered and interviewed over the last 35-plus years, I would count those that made the biggest impression upon me on one hand.
There’d be the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, racers Tony Stewart and John Force … and Shirley Muldowney.
I fondly remember all the years and countless interviews I had with Shirley. I remember even more instances where we just shot the bull, not for publication. I remember how she never was politically correct – she ALWAYS said what was on her mind, good or bad, in gentile language or interspersed with more than a few expletives.
I remember how, when she was at her fiery best, she told numerous competitors and even NHRA officials – both behind their back and to their face – to “(eff) off.” I remember when she was so fed up with the NHRA and its politics, even after her three championships, that she pulled up stakes and spent several years racing in the rival International Hot Rod Association.
I can’t count the number of female drag racers over the years that have considered Shirley as either their role model or mentor. Reigning two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders, Pro Stock Motorcycle star Angelle Sampey and even Brittany and John Force – daughters of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force – all cite Muldowney as having a profound impact on their careers.
Behind the wheel of her hot pink dragster, Muldowney blazed the path for all female drag racers, and they have not overlooked or underscored the fact that had it not been for what she went through in her career, they might not be doing what they are today in their own careers.
On a more light note, and even though she has a grown son, I also fondly remember Shirley’s “baby,” her pride and joy, a little mixed breed dog named “Skippy,” who followed her from track to track for more than 15 years.
I admit, since hearing of Shirley’s condition and pending surgery earlier today, I’ve been thinking non-stop of her. I’m praying for her like I would pray for a close relative.
Which leads me to a story that only three people really know: Shirley, fellow drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and myself. Please indulge me to tell it to you now.
It was January 25, 1994. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was eight days after the terrible Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley area, which killed nearly 60 people and injured over 8,500.
I had been scheduled to interview Prudhomme at his shop a few miles south of Northridge. I admit, having been in the 5.5 magnitude aftershock of the Whittier, California earthquake in 1987, I really was hesitant to go back out the West Coast. But I put away my fear, flew out there and found my way to Snake’s shop that morning.
When I arrived at Prudhomme’s shop, I recall seeing a building maybe 500 feet away that was missing a roof and 1 ½ walls. It was leaning precariously. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s shop had just minimal damage. Go figure.
After more than an hour of interviewing him, Prudhomme asked if I’d like to take a ride. He wanted to show me the devastation wrought by the earthquake.
We drove for about 20 minutes or so. I was astounded, never having seen such destruction before. It looked as if a proverbial bomb had gone off.
As we passed by the heavily damaged Northridge Fashion Center and Cal State Northridge University, Prudhomme suggested we stop at a little non-descript house less than a block from the campus.
“Let’s go see Shirley,” Prudhomme said with a smile on his face. A few minutes later and unannounced, we rang her doorbell and she answered. While she was happy to see us and greeted us warmly, I could see something was wrong. Shirley just wasn’t Shirley.
Finally, she said something to the effect of “I’m scared s***less. I want to go back to (her adopted state of) Michigan. I can’t stand it here. I’ve gotta get out of California. I’m really afraid that there’s going to be another earthquake. If that wasn’t the ‘big one,’ it sure as hell was pretty damn close.”
After all that she had to endure in her life, for all the put-downs and beat-downs and insults, she still managed to go on to become one of the greatest drag racers in history.
But at this particular moment, one thing was very, very clear.
For the first time in her life, Shirley Muldowney was really, truly scared.
She not just showed fear, she was essentially petrified. It was so uncharacteristic of her usual in-control-of-everything personality.
She admitted she hadn’t slept well the last seven nights – especially after she was knocked out of bed at 4:30 a.m. PT when the quake first hit on Jan. 17, 1994.
I still recall how Muldowney shook slightly when she showed some of the structural damage her house sustained in the quake. I can guarantee it wasn’t exactly the kind of tour of her house that she was used to giving.
Just a few months later, Muldowney stayed true to her word: she was on her way back to the Wolverine State. She put California in her rearview mirror and she went back to having the “no fear” aura that made her famous.
Hell, if the only thing in life that had ever scared her was an earthquake, then given Shirley’s makeup, cancer doesn’t stand a chance with the self-described “tough broad.”
She’ll not only kick cancer’s ass, she’ll beat it too, just like she did with virtually every driver who ever dared challenge her for supremacy of the quarter-mile.
When she is wheeled into that operating room Wednesday, Muldowney will once again take the gloves off, ready to fight for herself once again – just like she’s done her whole life.