(Editor’s note: NBC Sports is marking the 25-year anniversary of the eventful 1996 Indy 500 – the first conducted after the IRL-CART split – through an oral history series this week, continuing today with race winner Buddy Lazier. Tomorrow: A look at the origins of IndyCar’s civil war and race days on both sides of the fence with the Indy 500 in Indianapolis and the ill-fated U.S. 500 in Michigan.)
INDIANAPOLIS – Two months and three days before the biggest victory of his life, Buddy Lazier wasn’t wondering if he would win the Indianapolis 500.
He was wondering if he would race again – or even walk — after shattering his back “in 40-some odd places” because of a March 23, 1996 practice crash at Phoenix Raceway.
“The crash at Phoenix really rocked my world,” Lazier told NBC Sports. “I was young and healed quickly and had a lot of things that went in my favor just to be able to get to that race healed to the extent that I was able to qualify. Really the way the race unfolded and be able to win was something unique. A lot of things had to go right for that to occur.”
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Everything went right on May 26, 1996 as Lazier won the 80th Indianapolis 500 and capped one of the more extraordinary comebacks in IndyCar history at the Brickyard. Lazier spent more than a week in intensive care recovering from injuries that took 2 inches off his frame. After returning to his hometown of Vail, Colorado, and rehabilitating for several weeks at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic (which is renowned for working with world-class skiers and athletes), Lazier made it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as practice began in the first week of May.
Using a cane for walking outside the car, his No. 91 Reynard-Ford Cosworth was equipped with a specially modified seat incorporating elements of technology used by Air Force pilots.
“It was some of the crazier two months that I’ve spent in my life,” Lazier said. “Talk about going from low of lows to high of highs. We had some very special people that helped me recover from that injury that just happened to be based in my hometown in Vail. There was no time to be wasted for sure in the process of healing.
“And it was great, too, that the team believed in me enough to keep the seat for me open. A lot of things went really right. Anytime you win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s a very special thing. But for me, it was an accumulation of a lot of years of hard work to get there. And then we had a really strong streak after that. So that win also helped me lengthen my career for quite a bit longer.”
In a recent interview this month with NBC Sports, Lazier discussed the turbulent events that preceded the biggest victory of his career, his fairy tale day the Brickyard and what he’s been doing since then:
After racing in CART from 1989-95 with a best finish of seventh in 55 starts, Lazier enjoyed great success after moving to the Indy Racing League. Driving primarily for Hemelgarn Racing over his final 104 starts, the 1996 Indy 500 was the first of eight IndyCar victories for Lazier, who also won the 2000 IRL championship. He finished in the top five of four more Indy 500s, including as runner-up in 1998 to Eddie Cheever and 2000 to Juan Pablo Montoya (whom Lazier believes he could have beaten).
Lazier: “I remember Montoya and I battling out for the win. And I really felt — I like the guy don’t get me wrong — I felt like I had him. I could see where his weakness was, and I was waiting to strike. But every time we pitted, we lost time and would reel him back in. I know what I was capable of, and we had a small team but had some very special engineering components that I knew how unique our package was.
“But I would have sworn back then when you win the race, you feel like you’ve unlocked this lock, and you have a key, and you get the feeling you can do it again. I had a lot of races that I feel like I could have won had just one little thing not gone wrong. It’s great to win, but what really you think about are the races you almost won. Because with just a slightly different change in strategy, those two runner-ups would be victories, and I’d be a three-time winner. So those are the things that haunt you.
“You don’t think much about when you won because that’s mission accomplished. But there’s so many other races that were so close, I feel like we could have won there. It’s such a special race. And such a special place. And it’s got so much history to it.
“They haunt you because, at one point, I calculated that 9 to 10 seconds over nine hours of racing, would have made me a three- or four-time winner as opposed to a one-time winner and runner-up. There were times we had it won and the yellow comes out. So many times I feel like we could have done it. And I think a lot of people are like that. So that’s why when you’re in a position to win that race, you can’t take it for granted, because you may never be back in that position in a lifetime of racing. It’s a very difficult place. It takes doing a lot of things right all day because of the length of the race. The flat nature of the racetrack. And the speed. There are so many things unique about that one particular racetrack. There are a lot of things that go into winning that that are different than winning other races.
“Today it’s a much more closed, tighter field and that much easier to have a really good day and win. You can have a small team and still win a race. Back then, that was prohibitive. It’s hard to describe because I’d raced IndyCar for seven years before the 1996 Indy 500, and I wasn’t in premium equipment. Back then what made up the field was not all new race cars. There were several race cars several years old with the smaller race teams. So when you’re a young driver trying to climb up the ranks, you’d literally mark a successful weekend or race by winning your class and beating all the cars that weren’t new. Or all the non-super teams.
“For seven years, I’d been struggling trying to get into a race car that could win. The year before that, I was in the Menards car and felt I could have won the race and would have won it believe it or not and would have been a real sleeper, because I went by Jacques Villeneuve like he was standing still with the Menards car. But they made a mistake and had not cleared the fuel filter from qualifying, so we had a fuel pump issue.
“But I felt like I was the quickest car on the racetrack at that time in ’95, so by ’96, I was excited to be in a car that could win (with team owner Ron Hemelgarn). I felt like really it was the first time in my career I could win after all those years before that in equipment that wasn’t capable when I stayed motivated by being best in class and kept moving forward on advancing my techniques and skillset. So one of the first times I was in a car that could win, I felt like I was able to execute.
“In a lot of ways, it justified the struggling years that you’re building technique and a lot of people would say, ‘Hey, why are you doing this? It’s a team that can’t win, your car can’t win.’ Well, we take victories from being the best in class and work toward the future to have a car that can win, so when you do win it’s very satisfying. I felt like I could measure up with equipment that could win. Even though there were some changes in IndyCar racing at that time, we’d been testing in the offseason with the IRL and CART teams, and we were most often quickest on the racetrack. So we felt very strong as far as putting aside what was happening in IndyCar racing. We were a very difficult team to beat that year, especially at the Speedway.”
Lazier’s crash at Phoenix happened when the carbon fiber delaminated on the endplate of his rear wing, which collapsed on the entry to Turn 1 while he was at full throttle. He was one of several drivers injured during the early years of the IRL.
Lazier: “I experienced a lot of pain from that injury. When it occurred, there was a question the first few weeks if I’d drive a race car again for the first few weeks. Or would I walk again? All these things you’re assimilating the possibilities. And what really happened was the best possible outcome from that injury. We were really hauling, and that was the tight end of the racetrack back then. They put a large iron plate in Turn 2 to contain the concrete because so many stock cars and other cars hit that. So unfortunately when I backed in there, my gearbox went right into that steel plate. I have pictures of the energy dispersing, and you can see all the way down the back straightaway the fencing glowing red from the energy. It’s a really interesting photograph. Back then, the gearbox would go right into the crankshaft of the race car, so the forces weren’t a crumbling race shaft. Basically, all the force went straight through the lower back. I paid the price but was very fortunate to survive that. To be able to return and win such a short time after that was a testament to being in the best shape of my life and all the hard work I’d done up until that point.
“I was using a cane for the first part of May and by the end, just a back brace. I certainly recovered more from practice to race day. The longer month back then was helpful. I had to pass a physical. That definitely took some acting and jumping on one leg and pretending it wasn’t hurting. But they weren’t going to do anything stupid. Dr. (Henry) Bock and others made sure they did their due diligence that I was healed enough. But yes, I was more than uncomfortable in the car, and it is a long race and is physical. We were pulling a lot of Gs in the Reynards at that time. Also that year, we were running very high speeds; 1996 was the quickest we’ve gone around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Twenty-five years have gone by, and the cars are far safer, but we still haven’t gotten back to those speeds. Now I think the cars can justify being at those speeds. But a lot of things happen when you’re going 262 mph at the end of the front straightaway and are wide open into Turn 1. It would have been great to have the level of safety we have today back then.
“It’s been a good evolution of sport that the cars are quite a bit safer. Every generation of race driver, engineer, manufacturer, the one thing that nobody argues about is improving safety, and I’ve seen amazing safety gains in the last 25 years. When I broke my back, it was 100 Gs on impact, and the duration of the Gs is what really hurts you or kills you. At the time, that was one of the longest duration of those level of Gs that had been survived. Today at 100Gs at that duration, 98 percent of the time, the driver walks away with no more than a bruise. So the difference in the way these cars are as well as how the energy-absorbing walls have improved the safety is immense. My injury wouldn’t have occurred. I lost 2 inches in height from that accident just the crushing in the lower back. There was a lot of improvement in safety into the ‘90s, so had I had that accident in the mid-80s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to walk away and recover in the ICU and win the race. Now 25 years later, you’d be able to walk away from that accident.”
During the 1996 Indy 500, Buddy Lazier was one of four drivers to lead more than 40 laps (Tony Stewart, Davy Jones and Roberto Guerrero were the others), but Lazier said he felt confident because of “a very special Reynard and Cosworth motor.” Because the rival CART series was racing the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway with big names such as Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi, there were 17 rookies in the field of the Brickyard. That prompted concerns of a wreckfest, but most of the attrition occurred through mechanical problems (aside from a wicked last-lap crash) while the U.S. 500 suffered a massive pileup just before the green flag.
Lazier: “The top couple of cars at (Indy) could have easily run at the front of any field. There were definitely opportunities given to drivers that hadn’t had those opportunities in the past. I was sort of breaking through on my own. There were plenty of big names in there if you look back at Tony Stewart, Arie Luyendyk and Roberto Guerrero. There were plenty that have won races whether a separation or not (of the series). But there was not a great deal of attrition from drivers making mistakes. It was actually a pretty interesting race.
“The reason I came back was I knew I could win before the race because I knew the equipment we had. We sat on pole (for the season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway. We set new track records at Phoenix in testing. And obviously, I raced the Indy 500 enough times, I felt I very much knew my way around that place and always felt comfortable there in particular. I was a test driver developing tires for Firestone, Bridgestone and Goodyear. So over the years, I’ve gotten so many miles there. It’s like money in the bank. That’s experience that’s hard to duplicate. So going into the race, I knew I had a very good chance of winning it and entered with a very distinct feeling I was going to win. During the race, I was very conscious of conserving and protecting my equipment. I felt I could have charged to the front and been leading any time I wanted. I did a lot of strategic driving and then when it came time to go, we were ready. Really the whole day went pretty much according to plan.
“And I prefer not to think of it as what was occurring in racing then. I just like to put that aside as history has sorted all that out. Right now, IndyCar racing is very competitive and a lot of what has occurred over that time has set the platform for how good it is today. I think the biggest days of IndyCar racing are still in the future. Really, it’s the most competitive open wheel racing series that’s ever existed. It’s a special series right now, and it’s very appealing to the younger generation with the technology and all the telemetry. The future is bright for IndyCar. There was a time in IndyCar you’d watch the race and often you’d know who was going to win before the race started 80 to 90 percent of the time. Now the fields are so much closer. Everyone is in the same race car, same basic motors. The level of competition has closed and really improved through those growing pains of the sport. Now it’s really a superior form of entertainment, which it needs to be to survive as times change and marketing budgets evolve. The sport has done a really good job of evolving as well to continue to improve the product. Race fans appreciate that watching now you never know who’s going to win the race. It’s really entertaining.”
Buddy Lazier made his final IndyCar start in the 2017 Indy 500 with a team that he co-owned with his late father, Bob, who also drove in CART and the 1981 Indy 500. Buddy Lazier, 53, is a lifelong resident of Colorado who was based throughout his career in Vail, where his family and wife, Kara, operates its businesses that include the Tivoli Lodge, which was rebuilt in 2006-07. It’s become a popular gathering spot for the IndyCar Series throughout the years. Buddy Lazier also is mentoring the career of his son, Flinn, a third-generation driver who has won a Formula Atlantic title and has been running this season in the Indy Pro 2000 Road To Indy.
Lazier: “It’s a five-star boutique hotel in downtown Vail that you can ski in and ski out, and over the years, we’ve had a lot of the IndyCar owners and drivers. We used to have a thing called the Championship Drivers Association, and then we used to have winter driver meetings up here in Vail, and we’d do snowmobile races and ski races. Even today, we often we get many IndyCar owners and drivers in the wintertime to have a ski vacation. And we enjoy sitting around and telling stories about racing and bench racing. It’s not just people I raced with, but the people racing today. It’s been a really great hub for entertaining. When you race for 20 to 30 years, all the people you race with become associates, and away from the racetrack you find these guys are pretty good guys. When you’re racing against them, they’re not so good (laughs), but when you’re not competing at that level in between race seasons, it’s great to get together. There’s something about motor racing and skiing. There’s a lot of passion that coexists back and forth. Both are momentum sports.
“Chip Ganassi has a very unique history here. When he was a teenager, his first race car that he saw was my father’s Super Vee here. Chip graduated college young because he’s a brilliant guy, and he was up here ski bumming after college, and I guess the story goes he saw the first race car of my father, and he got the bug. So we still see Chip most every year and many other guys like Bobby Rahal. I could go down the list. Every year, there are 10 to 15 different owners and drivers in town.
“My son’s a strong race car driver and had an Indy Lights test before COVID that was really good. He’s running various series, so I’m often with him at the racetrack. So we’re still chasing sponsors 30 years later. Nothing’s changed.
“To be honest, it was hard getting me out of the race car. It’s something I really enjoyed doing all these years. It’s one of the reasons that my father and I started our own IndyCar team for a number of years. We’re still very involved at a lot of different levels of the sport and have our ownership package together for that car. We’re still involved at both the IndyCar level trying to put a program together and also as participants on Road to Indy. We’ve all tried to absorb this pandemic, and it’s had a lot of effect on our businesses and everybody’s, and it’s great to see the sport sort of recovering from that, and the country recovering from that. We’re all recovering trying to get back to it.”