Buddy Lazier Deserves Better

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It really makes me feel my age when I stop to think that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Buddy Lazier’s first appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, Buddy failed to qualify in his first two years. Lazier finally made the field in 1991 in a third entry from Ron Hemelgarn, joining veteran teammates Gordon Johncock and Stan Fox.

It rained hard the night before the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Lots of sediment had washed down from the banking onto the apron, which was still there back then. Lazier was starting 23rd, which was pretty respectable for a rookie in this field. This was an impressive crop starting this race, led by the legendary front row of Mears, Foyt and Mario Andretti.

As the green flag dropped and the field roared down the main straightaway, another longtime veteran made a rookie mistake. Gary Bettenhausen was the fastest qualifier, but was starting in row five since he qualified on the second day. Heading into turn one, he foolishly dove for the apron trying to get a jump on slower traffic. When he hit the sediment, it might as well have been ice. His car skidded sideways, slowly presenting his Glidden sidepods to the field behind him. While most carefully avoided the skidding Bettenhausen, here came Buddy.

Heading into the first turn of the first lap of his first Indy 500, Lazier was faced with a skidding car. His inexperience showed, when he locked his brakes and sent himself into a 360 spin and hit the turn-one wall head-on, shearing off the nose of his car. His race was done in about ten seconds, fortunately without injury.

The next year showed a little more promise as Buddy got his under-funded Leader Card entry solidly into the field and he held on for a fourteenth place showing. Things turned sour however, as he missed the race over the next two years. In 1995, he qualified an unspectacular 23rd, as his Menard teammates, Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyk, occupied the top two starting positions. He drove a forgettable race until a fuel pump failed on lap 45, and he settled for 27th.

When the split came in 1996, Lazier again teamed with Hemelgarn and won what was actually a pretty good race, comparatively speaking of course. Even the most ardent IRL defenders would have to admit that the talent level dropped considerably in 1996. Still there were some good teams and decent drivers, yet Lazier beat them all. He held off Davy Jones at the end, after Jones’s car became one of Eliseo Salazar’s many victims that day. With a broken back sustained in a crash earlier at Phoenix, Lazier gingerly stood in his cockpit in Victory Lane and just took it all in—almost as if in disbelief.

He followed up that win with a solid fourth-place finish in 1997 and was charging hard, right on the heels of Eddie Cheever in 1998 before Cheever eventually won and Buddy settled for second. Cheever would later say that there was no one that you hated to see in your mirrors more than Buddy Lazier. 1999 produced another solid run with a seventh-place finish.

In 2000, Chip Ganassi was the first major team from CART to “cross over”, when he brought his Target team of Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya to Indy. Few cars could match Montoya’s dominance, but Buddy Lazier stayed within striking distance all day and finished with another impressive second-place. Lazier would also go on to win the IRL Championship that year.

Lazier and Hemelgarn were both at the peak of their game. In a five-year span, they had won the Indy 500, an IRL Championship and three other top-5 finishes at Indy. Then things began to unravel. It can be argued that as Ganassi, Penske and other top CART teams started migrating to the IRL, that they were simply overmatched and back in their place. Others will argue that they just grew stagnant with each other. Whatever the reason, Lazier and Hemelgarn parted ways midway through the 2004 season.

Buddy had no full-time ride for the 2005 season, but snagged a third seat with Panther Racing alongside Tomas Scheckter and Tomas Enge, as teammates. Lazier ran well all month and finished a strong fifth. The following years were not as successful as he scrounged for rides with Dreyer & Reinbold, Sam Schmidt and finally back to Hemelgarn.

He has partnered with Hemelgarn again for 2009, his third stint with the team since 1991. Except for those “dark days” of Indy (1996-2000), Hemelgarn’s team has been a perennial bottom-feeder. Ron Hemelgarn has become an institution at Indy. He is a fine man, a great competitor and is highly respected—but his team is laughable. You have to wonder why Buddy was never able to latch on with a premier team. He is a nice guy, great with fans and an excellent driver. Based on my knowledge of him though, I think he is probably not great with corporate schmoozing. I think he would rather discuss car set-up, instead of potential sponsorship packages and is more comfortable at the shop than at a cocktail party.

Ride-buying is nothing new. It has been going on for years. But drivers like Buddy Lazier, that bring little or no money—only tons of talent, generally find themselves with teams like Hemelgarn. It’s a shame. Buddy Lazier has survived and flourished from the back of the pack. He is 41 now, with very few 500’s left in him. It sure would be great to see a top team put him in a car for Indy one year. It won’t happen, but he has earned it. He deserves better than where he has ended up.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Buddy Lazier Deserves Better”

  1. Bill Hill Says:

    I agree totally. Although when the track got better today, he seemed to go backwards. Buddy has far too much talent for that.

    Ask to name a race driver in 1990 and people would say Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears and maybe Petty. But after Mansell appearance, the F1 drivers came over in droves, displacing the American drivers to a low percentage in the 1995 Indy. One of the reasons for IRL was to provide a racing venue for American drivers.

    The died in the wools did nothing but criticize IRL and much ink was wasted bashing open wheel racing. The average fan saw a bunch of furrin drivers in CART who meant nothing to them. But NASCAR was full of American drivers and the fans started to drift over.

    Well, look at the Americans in the starting lineup, one in row 2, one in row 3, one in row 4, one in row 6, three in row 7, two in row 8, one in row 10, one in row 11. Only one third are American in this great American race. With most of them in struggling or one time teams.

    As you say, what if Buddy had a ride in a Penske quality car? And how many other great American drivers are watching from the sidelines? As long as the competition is dominated by ‘furrin’ drivers, how does the Indy and IRL expect to recoup their popularity. Being the Indy 500 brings the crowds, not name like Doornbos, Viso, Mutoh, Matos.

    Some of these drivers have developed a following, with the leader Castroneves who has a fantastic personality and exposure from Dancin with Stars.

    I have been involved with racing long enough to know that checkbook wins out over skill…… and checkbook often compensates for a lack of skill. Unfortunatly, the American system doesn’t bring drivers to the car owners with big wads of cash like the furriners do.

    In NASCAR, I’m rooting for my locals, Biffle and Kahne to win. In IRL racing do I care if a New Zealander beats an Englishman.

    IRL has to first learn WHO their Audience is and what they want…. as NASCAR has. Until they do, they will always play second fiddle to NASCAR, which saddens me as I love open wheel racing, being a former Formula Atlantic driver….. and a person who has kept lap charts from every Indy race since 1954.

    Buddy and many other American drivers deserve a quality ride.

    Bill

  2. I’ve seen each and every of Buddy’s drives at Indy and have followed his entire open wheel career. All I can say is that without a doubt he is one hell of an oval driver and he is a master at Indy (and by the way he’s still capable if someone would just give him a legitimate shot) He always made the most with what he had. Any real fan of Indy knows that if we had seen Buddy in a Penske car all these years, he would likely be a 3 or 4 time winner. Buddy was and is a class act and a great (and under-rated driver) Thanks Buddy for all the good memories, you deserved so much more but many of us fans still appreciate and recognize what you gave. You’re forever a champion!!!!

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