Lazier Shows Grit With Phoenix Win

Buddy Lazier battled his demons at Phoenix International Raceway on March 19 and won the MCI WorldCom Indy 200.

Despite his fears stemming from a practice crash in 1996 that left him with a broken back. Despite his poor performance in qualifying due to his unfamiliarity with the new Riley & Scott chassis and the Hemelgarn Racing team's desperation to prepare a back-up car in time for the race. And despite a bout with stomach flu the Saturday before the MCI WorldCom Indy 200, that left him feeling weak and puny, Lazier became the first driver in Indy Racing Northern Light Series history to come from the final starting position (26th) and win.

"We had no expectations of coming in and being a contender for this race," said Lazier, who beat Scott Goodyear to the line by 4.191 seconds for his first Indy Racing victory since July 1997.

The team scrapped its primary car and went to a back-up at Phoenix. Lazier, still under the throes of the flu, was unaware the second car on the truck was also a Riley & Scott that had been delivered to the shop only 10 days earlier.

"I thought it was last year's Dallara, and I started to argue with them that wasn't the way to go," Lazier said. "It turned out that was the brand new Riley & Scott that we had intended on running until Indianapolis. We wanted to make sure it wasn't a universal problem. Once I realized what is was, I was very happy to see what we did.

"We threw a lot at it after the morning warm-up session. We changed springs, ride height, we changed wing angles, we changed wickers, shock settings, just about everything you could change in that amount of time. We threw a lot at it and we were confident with what we made, but we had no expectations."

Hemelgarn Racing abandoned its Dallara chassis program in the off-season, opting to go with the Indianapolis-based Riley & Scott, who teamed up with Reynard last year. Lazier still hasn't acclimated to the new chassis, but insists it's just a matter of time.

"We started the season with pretty high expectations going to the new Riley & Scott chassis," Lazier said. "But we were all very nervous because the car came very late. We only had about a week with it before the Orlando test -- and that was just the tub -- there were no pieces with it. We thought we could make the open test, but it turned out it was about a week after that when we were finally ready. We've felt like we've been playing catch up from the very beginning."

Lazier describes his inability to control the car as frightening. While preparing for the Phoenix event, he continued to make corrections during practice, trying to establish a comfort zone.

"The problem we were having, in the middle of the corners, the car felt like it wanted to steer itself. There is an issue in this car that I know Riley & Scott are going to work very hard on between now and Las Vegas to fix. We were able to put enough downforce and enough issues to be able to drive through the condition that we had. This condition really doesn't sneak in until you get down into the last five-percent of what the car is capable of doing."

If struggling with the car wasn't enough at Phoenix, Lazier continued to be haunted by a crash at the track that could have ended his career four years.

"Every time I go through Turn 1 and 2 there, I really do get a little tingle in my back," Lazier said. "I hurt myself so bad coming out of Turn 2 in 1996, that it does make me feel like I did come back and conquer my demons.

"That was an awful hard accident and it was just wonderful to win on Sunday. To do this in Phoenix where I was injured, to come back from being so sick and to come in a race car that was frightening me -- and I don't frighten very easy. To go from where we started to where we finished was just fantastic for us."

Lazier assumed a 12-point lead in the standings over Robbie Buhl with his win at Phoenix, the third of his career and the first for Riley & Scott. The IRL Series returns to action on April 22 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Las Vegas 500. Lazier is looking forward to returning to the desert after time spent testing at Las Vegas.

"I think we were fifth-quick, but we weren't happy with that. Our car will be better when we come back. It was our first test with the Riley & Scott on anything other than a one-mile oval.

"The facility there is absolutely awesome. It is a desert type race, which the air is drier and it effects the handling in different ways. It's a good warm-up race for the Indy 500, in that the surfaces are kind of slick," Lazier added.

"Certainly, everybody this time of the year is starting to look towards May and a lot of testing is going to be taking place for the Indianapolis 500. Every race in this series counts for the championship and Las Vegas is a very important race to be competitive at. It shows a lot of what your car's capability will be on all these one-and-a-half-mile ovals."

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