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.

Matty Brabham working towards IndyCar comeback

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Australian American young gun Matty Brabham is hoping to work towards a comeback in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Brabham, 23, was along with RC Enerson the two top young guns who raced a handful of 2016 races but didn’t get a proper encore in 2017. Brabham has instead specialized in racing in Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series, where he leads that championship and hopes to win it this weekend in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

While his PIRTEK Team Murray deal was announced two years ago in December in a technical partnership with KV Racing Technology for 2016, Brabham didn’t get the chance to build on that beyond the two races he did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Indianapolis 500 itself. An impressive qualifying run at the road course saw him nearly make Q2, while he fought an ill-handling race car in the ‘500 all month to finish his debut.

Being out of the cockpit hasn’t meant a lack of work, with Brabham having kept his face present at a number of IndyCar races working to put together meetings, occasionally driving two-seaters and then staying active in the trucks.

“All the racing stuff comes naturally as I’ve grown up in it around my dad (Geoff), and from my grandfather (the late Sir Jack) as well, that’s been the easy part,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “It’s the off-track stuff, finding sponsorship and the money to continue racing, that’s been the hardest battle to get into IndyCar or any motorsport.

“It’s been challenging but I’ve learned a lot on the business end. What a lot of people forget is that I went straight from high school straight into racing, so I don’t have a ton of business experience to learn about how to find sponsorship. It’s been a lot of learning as you go.

“Obviously you have to work on business deals and try to find companies. I’m involved with a lot of traveling, and I’ve been at a lot of the shows, PRI and SEMA and the main ones. The biggest thing is networking and talking to people, and learning from them, and go about doing it.”

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is riding a tidal wave of young talent gathering either part-time or full-time rides, Brabham is one of a handful that sticks out as being absent.

The 2018 field includes recent Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves – each of the last four champions – along with other drivers Max Chilton, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Jack Harvey who’ve all graduated within the last three years. That number could grow if either or both of Zachary Claman DeMelo and/or Santiago Urrutia find seats.

Brabham, Enerson and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, are probably the three drivers most deserving of a full-time IndyCar shot for 2018 with recent MRTI experience that hasn’t got it yet. None has driven more than 15 races in the series, Karam only having had a partial 2015 campaign with three other one-offs at the Indianapolis 500.

Seeing the success his counterparts from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have had hasn’t angered or frustrated Brabham, as it’s shown how capable the ladder is of preparing drivers for IndyCar. A switch to the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit next year is also key to note.

“When there’s a big change, you’re seeing guys with the guys I’m racing with in MRTI,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show what they could do next year. I’d love to be a part of it. Envious of the guys testing so far. Everyone’s said it’s like a real race car that’s a bit more challenging to drive.

“But it’s really cool to have that going along, and be a part of. For the young guys, it’s quite difficult for them to jump in for one race, and compete against veterans for some time. It takes them a couple years to show results and win races. There’s plenty of young guys who could do so with the right environment, step into the series.

“It’s great seeing Jack, Spencer, and all these guys I competed with on MRTI do well – and I won championships – so it’s a little frustrating, but it’s great to see them get in and do well because I feel I could do just as well.”

Brabham was close to stepping into the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda last year when Sebastien Bourdais was injured, but didn’t quite have the funding to make it happen. Such an opportunity would have seen him filling in for his 2016 teammate, who he had nothing but high praise for.

“I think there were a couple of us in conversation – but it’s a sad thing when it happens and you never want to see it; plus, Bourdais was my first teammate,” he said. “He was great and very helpful. You hate to see it. Lots of conversations went on in the background, certain people put my name forward and my name was in the mix.”

Alas, his talent is still there, and it’s worth remembering past Team USA Scholarship recipient Brabham beat Pigot to the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title when the two were teammates at Cape Motorsports and then he followed up with a crushing performance en route to the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

It’s a common story for young drivers that talent isn’t the lone qualifier for an opportunity, but Brabham is hopeful he hasn’t faded from the radar.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations and in constant talks with the team owners and with sponsors as well. There’s nothing set in stone but I am working towards things,” he said.

“I’m kind of right on the edge of getting in there, will just take that last little bit of funding – which is the same for everyone else. I just need the lucky break to get in there for a couple races, show what I can do. I’m hungry and will work extremely hard. I know I can do it – it’s just a matter of getting that chance.”