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1996 Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier motivated as ever despite generational shift

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“Come back as a 40-something and get experience.”

Those were words uttered from IndyCar’s “power teams” to a then 20-something Buddy Lazier from 1989 through 1991, as the Vail, Col. driver made his first few cracks at running the Indianapolis 500.

Now 46, and running with his Lazier Partners Racing family-organized effort, Lazier’s still the underdog… but he’s an older, wiser and, crucially, significantly more experienced one.

He’s also got 25-plus years of witnessing how the sport has evolved, between crews, teams, driver choices and schedules.

“This series is so poised,” the 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion told MotorSportsTalk. “In the sport, there’s been ebbs and flows, and people fighting each other. But I’ve never seen it as together as it is now, from a competitor’s perspective. We’ll all fight tooth and nail for an inch on track, but as a series, everyone’s pulling on the same rope. I enjoy being part of this event and this group.”

It’s one of the reasons why Lazier has come back, not just for his 2013 one-off, but for future Indianapolis 500 appearances.

Although this year’s effort was announced more than a month ago, and with a full year of preparation, Lazier admitted he isn’t where he wants to be yet with the program.

“To be honest, we did not make good use of that year,” said Lazier, who said he and the rest of his family focused on the highly rated Tivoli Lodge hotel and ski business in their hometown throughout the winter.

“We really got into our business and when winter was over, we had the plan to pick it up. We had sponsors we were growing, but we didn’t fully complete them until late in the game. There was a crew shortage, which we didn’t know. We’ve had a year, but we’re still really rushed. We’ve learned our lesson for ’15.”

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Lazier’s spot in Gasoline Alley. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Asked whether the condensed schedule was a reason for the shortage, Lazier responded with one word: “absolutely.” Still, for the fans, Lazier appreciates what the series is doing because it increases the exposure over a shorter time period.

But it’s more the lifestyle for crews – especially ones who live outside the sport’s home base of Indianapolis – that have been affected.

“Fans can get interested and captivated, but there is a price to pay,” he said. “This is hard on crews, and hard on families. Some of these guys, they hit the road and they’re gone for six months. It helps having the marquee event in Indy, but for those outside, it’s a challenge.”

And that’s meant that Lazier’s crew, led by new engineer David Cripps, formerly of Panther Racing, is a mix of veterans and 2013 holdovers only assembled after the dominos have fallen in the crew shortage situation.

“The crew shortage is something I’ve never experienced in 25 years,” Lazier said.

“It’s not uncommon for good mechanics to get laid off in the winter and rehired. After a while, guys get tired and choose a different industry. This offseason, I was not the only one. I called other owners, and they said, ‘Buddy, it’s not just you. Others are having the same problem.’”

It’s made staffing the cars, largely for a younger generation of drivers as at least 15 will be 30 years of age or less as of ‘500 race day, a challenge.

For Lazier, it’s a fascinating equation having moved from being the young guy – 21 at the time of his first ‘500 attempt in 1989 – to now at 46, the elder statesman on the grid.

“I’d had an impressive resume coming up, and team owners were saying, ‘It looks like you’ve done a great job, but these are half-million dollar race cars, and you’re a teenager,’” Lazier said. “So they wanted mature drivers with a lot of experience.

“Of course now I’m 40-something, with a lot of experience … and they want the young guys. Guess I’m always the opposite, but I still love this sport.”

Lazier spoke highly of the next generation, and called them all fairly gifted.

He’s also got a chance to make amends with a guy who he finished second to in the 2000 Indianapolis 500, Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian is back in the race for the first time since that dominant performance, but Lazier was the only one who threatened to enter his same zip code.

“I had that race. I had it won,” Lazier recalled. “I was behind him. He pitted only six or seven times; I pitted 12. We were on different strategies, but he had a flat at one point right when it went yellow. If he would have gone a lap down, it would have been my race. You always look back on decisions and what can change, but it was still a great fight and Juan’s a great driver.”

For his 2014 effort, the No. 91 Chevrolet will carry the colors of the University of Iowa’s Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research.

It’s a personal cause for Buddy, as his 12-year-old daughter Jacqueline was born with a rare eye disorder called Aniridia, which is characterized by a complete or partial absence of the colored part of the eye (the iris). Aniridia can cause reduction in visual acuity (sharpness) and increased sensitivity to light. The Aniridia, combined with glaucoma, has caused Jacqueline to lose vision in her right eye.

But the institute’s research is unparalleled in this field.

“They’re taking viruses and reengineering them as delivery system for genetic cure for rare eye diseases,” Lazier said. “It’s cutting edge, with really good people. They’ve already cured the incurable; they’re just not talking about it and instead they’re going onto the next one. And we’re gonna help promote that.”

Buddy Lazier may not be the favorite for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but as a past champion providing the sage experience and insight from 25-plus years, he’s still worth watching in his second go-‘round with the family racing business. He should begin practice this afternoon.

Hinchcliffe embraces ambassadorial role to help grow IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5  Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Those of us who remember the early James Hinchcliffe videos circa 2006 to 2008 – the brat video at Road America, the novelty size check, the spot-on Kimi Raikkonen imitation among others – knew then that the Canadian was never shy of being goofy to help promote not only himself, but his racing series that he competed in at the time. At that point, it was the Champ Car Atlantic series, where he spent three years before moving into Indy Lights for two years in 2009. These were the early days for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the head of his own fictional city.

Now though, into his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is busier than ever with other external commitments, but he’s never stopped being an ambassador for the sport.

If anything, he’s continued to grow in that department.

This year alone has been no exception. Hinchcliffe won the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, which made for a remarkable story in its own right, and also meant he’d be going through the ringer of the in-between week media tour to help promote the race.

Then there was Hinchcliffe’s role as one of five IndyCar drivers on an appearance of Celebrity Family Feud, along with Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, the surprisingly funny Will Power (those of us in the paddock know his humor, but probably not the national audience at large) and Hinchcliffe’s roommate and good friend Conor Daly.

Today, of course, Hinchcliffe has been named to the cast of the new season of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a move that sure, can grow his profile, but by default is also tasked with growing IndyCar’s, knowing how dedicated its smallish but hardcore group of fans are.

“For me personally, it’s a great opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and do something you probably don’t have the opportunity to do again,” he said during a conference call today. “After everything last year, it’s definitely given me a different approach to life and maybe given me a little bit more confidence to try things like this.

“But certainly getting one of our drivers out into some primetime, mainstream media and especially during the off-season, kind of keep IndyCar’s name out there a little bit. Again, we’re all assuming this is me making it past week one, so it’s already a bit of a bold statement. But for sure, it’s definitely got two sides to it.”

Couple all this with his outside business commitments – Hinchcliffe has been a race analyst for Champ Car races in the past, now hosts his own “Mayor on Air” podcast, is a co-founder of Speed Group, a driver development, management and social media/PR company and he’s a spokesperson for Honda Canada via a personal deal – and sometimes you wonder how the 29-year-old Canadian does it all.

One, he has a good group of people around him.

And two, he takes it seriously in terms of knowing what he needs to do to help promote the sport he’s been so blessed and fortunate to be a part of.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “From a young age, I was counseled that this is the world, this is the motorsports world that we live in, and I’ve always just prepared myself for that, and so I’ve not shied away from extra commitments.

“I’m a very driven person on track and off, whether it’s my racing or promoting the sport or outside business ventures I’m involved in. I like staying busy. I like staying active in that sense. This is a big part of our sport and is a huge help.

“This kind of thing, sure, it benefits me personally but it also benefits the sport, and I’ve always said from day one that anything that I can do outside of a race car to help grow the sport of IndyCar racing is something you can sign me up for because I’ve got such a passion for this sport.”

Hinchcliffe is in his sixth IndyCar season, but only fifth full-time after his injuries sustained last May at Indianapolis sidelined him for the rest of the year.

But like Castroneves – Hinchcliffe’s now “DWTS” compatriot and predecessor – his goal is to keep driving first and then tackle the rest of the to-do items later.

And looking at Castroneves provides him a window to do just that. The Brazilian is 41, but is in his 17th straight season with Team Penske, 19th overall since debuting as a rookie in CART driving for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998. Yet he’s still at the top of his game and in the top-five in points; Hinchcliffe is not too far behind him in eighth.

“I plan on being around it for a long time as a driver, for a long time after that, as well, and I just love the fact that we’ve got the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” Hinchcliffe said.

“You just try and help spread the word and show people that IndyCar racing is an incredible form of sport.”

On a lighter note, Hinchcliffe’s training and dancing schedule will mean that he’ll spend quite a bit of time away from his home in Indianapolis. Daly, his good friend, is also his roommate.

Hinchcliffe joked that that part of the preparation is underway.

“I have a tremendous concern. I’ve already set up a network of people that will be coming to check on him and the house in my absence,” he deadpanned, in classic “Hinch” form.

Sabres’ favorite to sing Canadian, American anthems for IndyCar race at Watkins Glen

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Don’t be surprised if some fans attending Saturday’s Indy Lights race or Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix at the Glen, both at Watkins Glen International, wear jerseys or jackets of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres’ beloved national anthem singer, Doug Allen, will sing both the Canadian and American Anthems prior to the start of both of this weekend’s races.

Known as “Anthem Guy,” Allen has gotten Sabres fans fired up before home games for over 20 years by singing “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Allen is also known for his charitable side, serving as Facilities Coordinator for the Buffalo City Mission and Worship director at his church, Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca, New York.

Sunday’s race is the second-to-last event on the 16-race IndyCar schedule. It replaces the originally scheduled race for this weekend, the inaugural event in Boston, which was subsequently cancelled.

Here’s an example of Allen and his stirring rendition of the anthems:

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Kevin Magnussen set to race Italian GP pending final check

during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.
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Following a series of checks both on-site in hospital at Verviers and further checks back home in Denmark, Kevin Magnnussen appears set to compete in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, barring any hiccups from a final check on Thursday from the FIA.

Renault Sport F1 Team released the following update on Tuesday:

During the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday 28 August Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Kevin Magnussen exited the track at high speed. After initial checks at the circuit’s medical centre, Kevin was referred to a local hospital in Verviers for further routine examinations.

Kevin had heavily bruised his left ankle but the tests showed no fracture or serious injury and he was released from hospital the same day and returned home to Denmark. He has since undergone further checks in Denmark that indicate he is able to race at the Italian Grand Prix in six days.

The FIA will confirm Kevin is fit to compete following a final assessment on Thursday in Monza.

Kevin commented, ‘I’m feeling much better, which is very good news. I’ve had several checks that show I am fit to race in Monza and I am sure I will be in the car this weekend. We were running in the top ten in Belgium and I’m very motivated to repeat this again in Italy.’

No further comment will be given.

Verizon’s “Lunch with Legends” returns at Watkins Glen

TORONTO - JULY 10:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara and Helio Castroneves of Brazil driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Honda chat before warm up for the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Toronto on July 10, 2011 in the streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Franchitti and Castroneves join Bobby Rahal for Verizon event on Friday. Photo: Getty Images
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This weekend at Watkins Glen International, Verizon will host another of its “Lunch with Legends” series – which have also occurred at a couple other events this year, notably at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America.

The Verizon IndyCar Series’ title sponsor works to bring fans access while also bringing together legends of the sport for a panel Q&A discussion, hosted by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller.

This week, it’ll be Bobby Rahal, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves having the discussion from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. Castroneves will be checking in after first practice; Franchitti serves as Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver advisor and coach while Rahal fields a singleton entry for Graham Rahal, the Texas race winner.

And while it’s usually members of the paddock that check this out, Verizon is also opening this up to fans. A note on how is below:

As part of the Verizon Inside Indy program that gives fans incredible access to the sport, we’re letting 10 Verizon customers (plus a guest) join us for the Lunch with Legends. We’ll be looking for the fans on Friday and upgrade them on the spot, similar to how we provide fans access to Verizon Pit View.

The event takes place in the Watkins Glen Media Center, on the Great Room, Second Floor.