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Indianapolis 500

On The Outside

Hopeful drivers wear out shoes strolling from pit row to Gasoline

May 17, 2009|Michael Marot | Marot writes for the Associated Press.

INDIANAPOLIS — Jaques Lazier shows up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway almost every May looking for a job.

He goes through the regular routine -- logging miles by foot strolling from pit row to Gasoline Alley to the hospitality tents and back. His cellphone is always there and by month's end, Lazier has greeted dozens of old friends.

For Lazier and others, this is life in the unemployment lane at the Indianapolis 500.

"I need Firestone to get me some new rubber -- on these shoes," he said, lifting his foot and cracking a smile. "I would say a safe guess is that I walk about eight miles a day, so I probably walk half the race before the race. It's a continuous, vicious circle."

Sometimes hoofing it works, sometimes it doesn't.

But Lazier insists he can drive, if given the chance, and if he's going to drive anywhere it will be Indianapolis.

It's not as if Lazier is an unknown commodity on the IndyCar circuit.

He has started here six times since 2000, led two laps in his last appearance, in 2007, and was the relief driver for Robby Gordon in 2004 when it rained. His best finish: 13th in 2000. His older brother, Buddy, won the race here in 1996.

This year, Lazier needs to do an even better sales job.

Other drivers who spent the first week at the historic 2.5-mile oval looking for rides were Bruno Junqueira, the 2002 pole winner who has two top-five finishes at Indy; Jeff Simmons, who started four of the last five 500s, with a best finish of 11th in 2007; and Darren Manning, who drove for Target Chip Ganassi and finished ninth with A.J. Foyt's team last year.

For them, this is a month filled with cold calls, long waits and endless stares at starting grids, practice speeds and the entries list. They pace the same turf, chat with the same teams and vie for the same precious chance.

"I should be in a car trying to get the pole, like I did in previous years," said Junqueira, a Brazilian. "But this year I'm trying to get a car to race. I'm talking to pretty much every single team in the paddock. With my experience here, I think I can win starting from the back."

It's not as if these drivers waited until May to begin the search; it's just that Indianapolis is different.

With two weeks of qualifying, a whole month of work and the traditional 33 starting spots to be filled, opportunities are usually more plentiful here. Sponsors are willing to spend money on the series' marquee race because it draws the biggest crowd and television audience of the season, and race officials always expect a full field to start.

Normally these factors work in the drivers' favor, but this year has been different.

Rather than waiting until the second week of qualifying to pull out the extra cars, 33 driver-car combinations had already been announced before qualifying began last weekend. Bobby Rahal made it 34 last week when he put Spanish driver Oriol Servia in the No. 17 car.

That's one less chance for hopefuls.

Lazier and his colleagues could still get lucky. There is speculation a few more deals could be made before the last of four qualifying days ends Sunday, and there have been rumors that drivers who haven't exceeded 220 mph might be replaced.

So Lazier begins his stroll from the garages to pit row by answering a phone call. No job offer.

Then he stops to view the television monitors, reading and rereading the numbers while shaking his head in disbelief he's not up there. He continues to Foyt's pit, a team that has traditionally added cars late in the month, and chats with crew members, slapping hands with some driving by on a golf cart before moving to the Dreyer & Reinbold pits.

"We might need a driver," one crew member blurts out.

"Yeah, what's going on?" Lazier asks.

"He's in the hospital," the crew member says, referring to rookie Mike Conway, who bruised his lungs and suffered a mild concussion in a hard practice crash last Sunday.

Unfortunately for Lazier, Manning may already have the backup spot.

"I got the call to kind of be on standby," Manning said later. "I'm fortunate that they've got all my seats and everything, and I'm available for it, but I don't think that's going to be needed. I think Mike's going to be absolutely fine."

For Lazier, it is yet another disappointment in a week full of them.

After coming here with what he thought was the essential ingredient to landing a job, sponsorship money, the deal fell through at the last minute.

"A typical Indy story," he said.

So the questions and tension continue.

Will Foyt add another car since his grandson, A.J. IV, is four spots behind the slowest qualifier of the first weekend? Will Dale Coyne Racing add a car now that England's Justin Wilson is safely in the field? Maybe Canadian Marty Roth will find a buyer for his car, giving Lazier a chance. Those answers may not come until the weekend, and if it rains Saturday, maybe not until just hours before qualifying ends.

Lazier checks out every rumor.

"It's tough," he said. "You've got to meet up with them a little early. You need to know who's looking at the possibility of putting in another car. You've got to find out when they're not running and try to meet up with them. It is frustrating."

If the 38-year-old Lazier fails this year, there's a good chance he'll back in 2010.

All he needs is some money -- and a new pair of walking shoes.

"I love this place," he said. "It is frustrating at some times, but it's impossible to get away from it because I love to come back so much."

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