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.

Marvin Musquin’s Indy win may have come too late

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Marvin Musquin answered one question at Indianapolis last week, but the biggest one may well plague him for the next six weeks.

Musquin has won a battle, but can he win the war?

After standing on the podium in eight of the first 10 races, Musquin finally showed the field he was capable of winning in Indy when he grabbed the holeshot and led every lap on the way to Victory Lane. He was never seriously challenged and it was the Musquin that Supercross fans expected to see all season.

It was a long time coming. Musquin must have felt like victory was just around the corner after finishing second in the overall standings in Anaheim II’s Triple Crown race. He was third in the first Main that night and second in the last two Mains.

As it turned out, that single race defined his season until last week. Musquin stood on the podium all night, but he finished two spots behind Cooper Webb in the first Main and was one spot back in the second. It was only as time ran out that he was able to beat Webb by a single spot in the third Main. If Musquin had won either of the first two Mains, he would have had the overall victory – denying Webb his first career win in the process.

Webb’s Anaheim win revitalized the rider and gave him the confidence to rattle off four more wins in the next seven races.

Meanwhile, Musquin scored podium finishes in the next seven races, making him almost perfect. In another season, a record like that would have been enough to give him a comfortable points lead. In 2019, he sit 14 markers out of first, which is the points’ equivalent of the difference between first and 11th in one race. In other words, Webb cannot lose the points lead at Seattle unless he finishes outside the top 10 while his teammate wins.

Looking at the numbers another way the scenario is not quite as hopeless. Musquin needs to shave only 2.3 points off Webb’s lead each week to win the championship. Three points separate first and second. Five points differentiates first from third, which is where Webb finished in Indianapolis. Webb is vulnerable as his 10th-place finish at Glendale and an eighth at San Diego attest.

Those bobbles came early and Webb seems to have forgotten how to make a mistake.

A third-place is Webb’s worst finish in the last six weeks and since Anaheim II when Musquin started his impressive string of podium finishes, Webb has recorded an average finish of 2.2. That came with a worst finish of eighth on an extremely muddy and heavy track in San Diego. Musquin has a worst finish of only sixth, but his average of 2.8 still lags behind Webb.

Worse still, since Anaheim II Musquin has finished behind Webb in every race except for the outlier of San Diego.

It is no longer a question of keeping pressure on Webb. Musquin cannot expect his teammate to make a mistake; he has to find a way to pass him on the track. If Webb adds only two points to his lead at Seattle, Musquin’s fate would no longer be in his hands. He would need to gain 3.2 points per race. With that scenario, Webb could finish one spot behind Musquin every week and still win the championship.