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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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