The 36-year-old former IRL and Indy 500 champ hopes to turn a one-race deal into better things.
By wire services
Published May 29, 2004
INDIANAPOLIS - Buddy Lazier says he didn't realize how bad he had it.
"I'm somebody who's always thankful for what I have, and I try to make the most out of what's given to me," the driver from Vail, Colo., said while preparing for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.
Lazier won the 1996 Indy 500 and the 2000 Indy Racing League championship with Hemelgarn Racing, once considered the IRL's premier team. But Lazier and team owner Ron Hemelgarn had a messy breakup late last season, after the one-time International Race of Champions winner became an also-ran with diminishing resources supplied by the Indianapolis-based team.
"We had an unpleasant end to last season," Lazier said of Hemelgarn, who is only competing in the IRL's support series this year and could not be reached for comment. "The level of what you need to do to stay competitive has stepped up dramatically over the past two years. And Hemelgarn didn't step up."
Lazier has not started this season, but will make his 10th consecutive Indy 500 start and 12th overall Sunday, this one with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Dreyer & Reinbold signed Lazier a week after 26 drivers, including Felipe Giaffone of Dreyer & Reinbold, had made the 33-car field.
"I see now, with this race team, how little we were competing in terms of resources last year," Lazier said. "D&R is not the largest resource team, but they are so much better off than Hemelgarn was."
Lazier starts 28th Sunday, three spots behind Giaffone. But Lazier might be better equipped for the race than Giaffone. Lazier's qualifying speed of 215.110 mph ranks 24th, despite having just two practice sessions. He stood 15th on the speed charts during Thursday's Carburetion Day, the final practice. Giaffone was 23rd.
"We were very surprised at Buddy's quick success on the first day," said team co-owner Dennis Reinbold, who used some of Hemelgarn's sponsors and crew members to help his effort. "The fourth lap he was at 214, and he instantly gave us feedback. We advanced our position as a team as soon as he got in the car. We already had a good car with Felipe, but when Buddy got in the second day we kept going forward. It's been a great scenario."
Lazier's deal is just for Indy, but he is optimistic he will prove himself with sufficient resources.
"I never lost my confidence," said Lazier, who ran second at Indy in 1998 and 2000 and was second to Sam Hornish in the 2001 IRL championship.
Lazier sought a ride from several teams. Owner Bobby Rahal, who qualified three cars, including pole-sitter Buddy Rice, said he reluctantly turned down Lazier.
"It's not a judgment on Buddy that he isn't with us, in the sense of his talent," Rahal said, adding there were contractual issues. "But I'm glad he got this deal with Reinbold. Buddy never has had to prove his bravery to me. Even when he was running cars and not in the best cars, you could tell he was a racer.
"But I know what he went through. When all the teams were together (before the CART-IRL split in 1996), Ron Hemelgarn's teams never were one of the best. Second-tier at best. That's not a slam on him. ... But when you've got Carl Haas, Penske, Ganassi, ourselves, those resources aren't usually enough."
Lazier, 36, said he wants to drive well into his 40s. He said the emphasis that owners place on youth and the recent retirements of Robbie Buhl, who co-owns the Dreyer & Reinbold team, and 2003 Indy winner Gil de Ferran have hurt his chances to catch on with a good team.
"What makes me angry is when one or two guys retire because they aren't liking what they did, and all of a sudden the average retirement age slides down by 10 years," he said. "A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti raced into their 60s. Don't tell me that 45 is old. I can win races and championships at 45 because my heart's going to be in it."
Lazier promises that his heart will be pumping Sunday.
"This is the best race team I've had for many, many years, maybe since back to 1996," he said. "My eyes are open to the possibility of continuing with this team. You can't just go to two cars with a one-car team budget.
"But we're all working for the future and it's exciting."