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.

F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.

Team Penske wins fourth straight race; first time since 2012

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When Will Power took the checkered flag in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, he delivered Team Penske its fourth straight win in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

And although Penske has won three straight races multiple times in recent races, it hasn’t won four times in a row in more than five years.

Power’s win Sunday in Pocono followed Josef Newgarden’s wins at Mid-Ohio and Toronto, and Helio Castroneves’ win at Iowa, to give Penske eight total wins on the season (Power three, Newgarden three, Castroneves one, Simon Pagenaud one) – the same eight Chevrolet has achieved with one team, while Honda has won the other six races with all five of its teams.

The last time Penske pulled off four wins in a row in IndyCar was in the first four races of the 2012 season, the first four races when the base Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced.

Castroneves won the season opener at St. Petersburg, while Power won the next three races at Barber, Long Beach and Brazil.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Will Power of Australia drives the #12 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Twice last year, Penske won three in a row, when Pagenaud won at Long Beach, Barber and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then Power (Toronto), Pagenaud (Mid-Ohio) and Power (Pocono) completed a same three in a row run later in the year.

The last IndyCar team to win four races in a row in a season was Chip Ganassi Racing in 2013, when Scott Dixon went three-in-a-row at Pocono and Toronto’s two races, then Charlie Kimball won at Mid-Ohio.

Power is also the first driver in 24 Pocono IndyCar races to win back-to-back races at the track, and it’s also impressive considering how much better he’s gotten on ovals over the years.

“It seriously means a lot. I love racing on ovals. Every oval win I get, I really, really enjoy because we don’t have many of them,” he said. “Yeah, to come back and win it again in a very different way this year, it was a crazy race, exciting to me, but yeah, feels fantastic to go back-to-back.”

Castroneves (3), Newgarden (2) and Pagenaud (1). Photo: IndyCar

Penske will head to Gateway Motorsports Park for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a chance to win its fifth straight race.

The last time the team did that was in the team’s record-setting 1994 CART season, when Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy won an incredible seven races in a row from Round 2 that year in Phoenix through Round 8 in Cleveland.

Fittipaldi won Phoenix, Unser won three in a row at Long Beach, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Tracy won in Detroit and Unser won in Portland and Cleveland.

Jack Harvey confirmed for final two races with SPM

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Jack Harvey will make his return to Verizon IndyCar Series competition for the final two races of the year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, driving the No. 7 AutoNation SiriusXM SPM Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the team announced Monday morning.

The 24-year-old Englishman made his series debut in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in a Michael Shank Racing entry with Andretti Autosport, and his results (started 27th and finished 31st) did not do justice to the effort he turned in and consistent improvement he made throughout the month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Harvey was unlucky to get caught out by Conor Daly’s crash in Turn 3, with debris knocking his car into a spin and coming to a stop in the North Chute in-between Turns 3 and 4.

From that point, Harvey has been working tirelessly to get back in a car for further races, with Sonoma being the target point identified as early as the week after the Indianapolis 500 in Detroit.

Shank confirmed to NBC Sports last week that he wouldn’t be attending any further races beyond the remainder of his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with his Acura NSX GT3 program, thus removing the possibility of a Shank-crewed, extra Andretti Autosport IndyCar at Sonoma.

Meanwhile Harvey’s opportunity arose at SPM – a team he twice nearly won the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title with – following Mikhail Aleshin’s roller coaster of a season that has seen the Russian and the team go their separate ways.

Harvey stayed connected to SPM, where he made his first two IndyCar tests at Sonoma in 2015 and Mid-Ohio in 2016, and as the team’s Indy Lights driver coach last year. This year he has coached for Neil Alberico at Carlin in Indy Lights.

Rumors of Harvey’s arrival into the No. 7 SPM Honda have circulated over the last week or so and were initially reported Sunday by the Indianapolis Star, and now today’s confirmation sees the likable young driver have his first crack at a pair of road courses in an IndyCar. He won at Sonoma in Indy Lights in 2014.

“It’s obviously a really exciting time for me, and I’m really pleased to rejoin everyone here at SPM,” Harvey said. “We had a lot of success together in Indy Lights, and I’m excited to be back with so many familiar faces. I’m really looking forward to getting on track at Watkins Glen, and although I haven’t driven there, it’s definitely been a bucket list track and one that I’ve been looking forward to driving on even before I came to America.

“I’m really excited to continue this journey with AutoNation and Sirius XM – I wouldn’t be racing this season without them. I can’t thank them enough for their continued support and I hope to be able bring home two solid results for the end of the year.”

SPM general manager Piers Phillips added, “We are very pleased to welcome Jack back to the team for our final two events of the season. Jack’s done a great job for the team throughout his Indy Lights career, and we have been looking at ways of incorporating him into our IndyCar program, so it’s been wonderful to see it come to fruition. We look forward to finishing out the year with he and James and hopefully with some results up front.”

Harvey follows Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra and Robert Wickens as drivers of the No. 7 car this season. James Hinchcliffe, who has been in the team’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all season, told NBC Sports last week that the team has done an “incredible” job handling the adverse circumstances of frequent driver changes.