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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

IRL Title Can Further Illuminate Lazier's Career

October 13, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Buddy Lazier, a former ski champion from Vail, Colo., who won the 1996 Indianapolis 500 eight weeks after his back had been shattered in a racing accident, is on the verge of winning the Indy Racing League's Northern Lights Cup and its $1-million bonus.

All Lazier needs to do is finish 13th or better Sunday in the Excite 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Going into the final race, he leads Scott Goodyear by 38 points and Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner, by 41.

"The toughest part has been the waiting," said Lazier, 32. It has been six weeks since the last IRL race, which Lazier won at Sparta, Ky.

"Winning the championship is more important than winning the race. I wouldn't trade my position for anyone else's, but you can't take anything for granted."

In nine races, Lazier has twice finished worse than 13th, running 22nd at Las Vegas and 26th at Pikes Peak, where he lasted only one lap before his engine gave out. Besides his win at Kentucky, he also won at Phoenix.

Lazier was practicing early in 1996 at Phoenix International Raceway when a wing failure spun his car around, sending him backward into the wall at about 180 mph.

"I can't imagine hitting anything harder," he said. "Engineers told me it had a G-force impact of 99.6. I remember waking up in the hospital feeling lucky to be alive but wishing I wasn't because it hurt so much. I can't even describe the pain, it was so bad.

"My doctors told me I was crazy to even think about driving in the Indy 500, but I just had this feeling that good things were going to happen. It was kind of eerie, I was so calm about it."

On race day, car owner Ron Hemelgarn's crew cautiously helped Lazier into the cockpit. When he took the checkered flag ahead of Davy Jones and Richie Hearn, Lazier said he was so excited that he "couldn't feel any pain at all."

Yet, when he got out of the car, he was barely able to walk.

"Looking back, I can't believe it was only four years ago," he said. "Winning the 500 was my ultimate dream, but now if I can win the championship, that will rate right alongside it."

IRWINDALE SPEEDWAY

When the IRL separated its Indy car season from the U.S. Auto Club last year, it left the Silver Crown cars as USAC's top banana.

As a favor to sponsor Coors Light, the series was renamed Silver Bullet this year, but the cars' gnarly appearance has not changed. They are throwbacks to the days when Indy cars had front engines, the drivers sat upright in the cockpits and they raced equally hard on dirt or pavement.

USAC began the series in 1971 when the rear-engine revolution made the older cars obsolete for the Indianapolis 500. The list of Silver Crown champions includes A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Jack Hewitt and more recently, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jason Leffler.

The Silver Bullets, once known as "big cars," will make their lone Irwindale Speedway appearance of the year Saturday night with the championship very much at stake.

Dave Darland, the 1997 Silver Crown champion and last year's USAC sprint car champion, has a 20-point lead over Tracy Hines of New Castle, Ind. Only two races remain on the 14-race schedule, this weekend's at Irwindale and the finale at Memphis, Tenn., both on pavement.

"We're looking forward to them," said Darland, 34, of Kokomo, Ind. "Our pavement program has been good this year but it could be an interesting battle with Tracy."

Darland extended his lead with a victory on dirt last Saturday night at CalExpo State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. He outraced J.J. Yeley to Turn 1 on a late restart, then held off the Phoenix driver to the checkered flag. The race was stopped 17 laps short of its scheduled 100 because of a local curfew.

Leffler, 1998 Silver Crown champion from Long Beach and holder of the track 100-lap record of 91.314 mph, will be in Saturday night's race.

Sharing the card will be the final USAC Western Sprint Car race, a 40-lap main event featuring three drivers with shots at the championship--Todd Ellison of West Jordan, Utah; Burney Lamar of West Sacramento, and Tony Hunt of Fair Oaks, Calif. Ellison leads Lamar by 45 and Hunt by 53, with 72 points available Saturday night.

Davey Hamilton of Las Vegas, winner of the only previous USAC sprint car race at Irwindale this year, will miss the show because he is in Texas for Sunday's IRL race.

Rounding out a busy night at Irwindale will be the final race for Grand American modifieds. Rip Michels of Mission Hills has already been crowned track champion. The winner's share of the purse will be $1,000.

For comic relief, New Year's Day parade float builder Tom Estes of Duarte will make a "record run" with a six-ton float between races. One of Estes' creations, driven by Tom Gaffney, did a lap last year around Irwindale's half-mile at an average speed of 16.937 mph.

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