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TACH Special: NorthernLight IRL: Lazier Starts Last, Finishes First

20 March 2000

By David Treffer
Contributing Editor, The Auto Channel
PHOENIX, AZ: Buddy Lazier must feel like the King of the World today. In Sundays Indy Racing League MCI Worldcom Indy 200 at Phoenix, Lazier displayed a driving bravado that was straight out of a Hollywood fantasy script. You know the story. Great driver faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge throws out conventional wisdom, gambles on an untested car and wins the race. And as a final backdrop, the venue is a place that severely injured the leading hero some four years ago. They only do that in the movies. Well yesterday Hollywood met reality.

Laziers Hemelgarn team could not find the right set-up for his primary Riley & Scott Mk VII. It did not seem to matter what adjustments that the team made to the car-nothing worked. Lazier even commented "We couldnt do anything with the primary car, I have to tell you I was frightened in the car, and I dont normally frighten easily."

The decision to switch to the back-up car was not made easily. Owner Ron Hemelgarn ultimately made the determination to switch to the back-up car. The decision meant that the crew would be forced to work through the night to prepare the back-up car. The decision also meant that Lazier would be forced to start from last (26th) place and that the amount of seat-time in the "new" car would be limited to Sunday morning warm-up. This race truly should have been held in Las Vegas. In effect Hemelgarn and Lazier were, metaphorically speaking, going with a roll of the dice.

The box score from the race will reveal that Lazier led two times during the race. However, what the box score will not reveal is that Lazier displayed the patience and coolness in the early laps like that of a leading star hero. Maybe Lazier was just getting comfortable in the "new" car. Whatever the reason, Lazier and the Hemelgarn team attacked the track with the fortitude of a seasoned veteran. Lazier acquired the lead the first time from Al Unser, Jr. who had pitted on lap150, Lazier held the top spot until the next to last caution period was brought out by Sam Hornish, Jr. on lap 155.

The nine cars on the lead lap pitted. Lazier emerged from the pits in third place. The process of climbing back through the field must have seemed like a cakewalk compared to what had been overcome. Prior to that, Lazier was dodging and weaving his way around five caution periods. The team was also utilizing the caution periods to work on the cars set-up. On lap 161, Lazier grabbed the lead for good from Robbie Buhl. Ironically it was Buhl who Lazier had battled during the closing laps at Disney World just six weeks ago. In that race, Buhl had started from 22nd place. On that week-end Buhl won. On this afternoon, it was Lazier who emerged as the winner from dead last and became the first driver in the IRL to complete the feat.

It is doubtful that anyone from Hollywood will write a script based on this race. None the less if they were handing out Oscars to race car teams the following awards would be presented. Best Performance by a Driver-Buddy Lazier. Best Director-Ron Hemelgarn. Best Supporting Crew-The entire team. Now the question will be..."What do you do for an encore?"

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.