Lazier Loves Being In The Action
July 28, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
And the way this season’s points standings have been, a "minute" may be right.
Because no driver has won more than once this season, Lazier’s three runner-up finishes have helped him take the Northern Light Cup points lead. He took second place in the season-opening Delphi Indy 200 in January at Walt Disney World Speedway, at the Indianapolis 500 in May and at the Midas 500 Classic earlier this month at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Coming so close to winning might frustrate some drivers, but Lazier sees the finishes as a positive step along the road to a championship for Hemelgarn Racing.
"It was frustrating at Indianapolis, but it’s been satisfying everywhere else," said Lazier. "When you’re going for a championship, you have to be a team. And you are only as strong as your weakest link, and my guys and I have jelled so well as a team because we have been together for so long."
Lazier took the Indy Racing Northern Light Series points lead for the first time in 2000 when he won the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 in March at Phoenix.
Even then, when he drove his Hemelgarn Racing car into victory lane, he knew there still was a long way to go before earning the Northern Light Cup.
"I had said to a few people, 'This is great, we’re leading with two down and seven to go, I just hope we are leading with seven down and two to go,'" said Lazier, the 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner.
Fast forward to late July. Now, that’s Lazier’s exact position. He owns a 208-185 lead over second-place Eddie Cheever Jr. entering the next race, The Belterra Resort Indy 300 on Aug. 27 at Kentucky Speedway.
Still, Lazier remains ever vigilant of that lead. He’s taking nothing for granted.
"If we go to Kentucky and finish seventh, still have a top 10, and Eddie wins the race or one of the other close pursuers, they are going to take over the championship lead," said Lazier. "It (the lead) seems like a lot, and it feels good, but the reality of it is we can’t sit back on our feet whatsoever. "We’ve got to charge forward, and we’ve got to have two strong races. We can ’t afford to drop out of one of them."
With a little more than a month to think about the race at Kentucky, Lazier will prepare himself for The Belterra Resorts Indy 300 much like he would for the Indianapolis 500.
"We’re going to be testing at Kentucky early in the second week of August, and we may even test there a second time," said Lazier. "You can do a lot of things focusing around one racetrack. We know that Kentucky is a flat, 1.5-mile oval. There is a lot of training on my behalf focusing on just that one event, just like we usually focus quite a bit of effort just on Indianapolis."
A Riley & Scott chassis took Lazier to victory lane on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix, but Hemelgarn Racing decided to return to the Dallara chassis a few weeks before practice opened for the 84th Indianapolis 500 in May. Hemelgarn had used a Dallara from 1997-99, and the team found more speed in that car for longer tracks. The return to the Dallara created plenty of work for the Hemelgarn crew. And Lazier appreciates that work possibly more than anyone.
"My guys are the unsung heroes this season, they’ve really been battling hard for me," said Lazier. "They’ve built five or six cars because we started off with a different car manufacturer with the Riley and Scott, and now we are with the Dallara.
"They’ve just spent so much effort, and this break will let them catch up mechanically. It’s not like we have a month break, they are still working 15-hour days everyday with just one thing in mind, which is performing strong at Kentucky."
Lazier has driven for Hemelgarn Racing since the Indy Racing League started in 1996 and has finished in the top eight in points each of the last three years. He was winless in 1998 and 1999 but scored four combined top-three finishes during that span. But Lazier is focused on more than podium finishes and victories these days. He wants to help bring the Northern Light Cup to Hemelgarn Racing.
"I really want a championship; it’s something that would mean a lot," said Lazier. "It’s been a major goal of mine, but by no means do we have this championship won. Eddie, Little Al (Unser Jr.), Scott Sharp, Scott Goodyear, everyone is right there. But I would not change my position for anyone."
Like thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby, the competitors in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series are coming down the homestretch with Lazier in the lead. Now it’s just a matter of who will stay strong through the end.