Better late than never for Lazier

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INDIANAPOLIS -- When Buddy Lazier set out on his final qualification attempt on Bump Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, he epitomized what the Indianapolis 500 is all about.

The 1996 Indy 500 winner set aside his previous troubles as he drove his IndyCar faster than it had gone all month as qualifications for the 2008 500-mile race were coming to a close. In doing so, Lazier became last driver to make the 33-car starting lineup for Sunday's 92nd Indianapolis 500.

Lazier knows all about overcoming obstacles. He had to deal with dyslexia as a youth, but that didn't keep him from becoming a competitive downhill ski racer. He also won the '96 Indianapolis 500 with a broken back, suffered in a crash at Phoenix International Raceway six weeks earlier.

Lazier was bumped out of this year's race earlier on Sunday when his four-lap qualification average of 217.939 miles per hour from Saturday did not hold up after Marty Roth, who was bumped out by A.J. Foyt IV, came back to bump Lazier out with a four-lap run at 218.965 mph.

So Lazier and his Hemelgarn Racing team had to find more speed out of the car as the clock ticked toward 6 p.m.

It was an emotional time for everyone in the Lazier family.

"It's been a very stressful weekend," said Lazier's wife, Kara. "He hasn't gotten up to that speed since he got in the car three days ago. But that's Buddy.

"It took the guys trying to figure it out. They got up to a certain speed earlier in the day and then they couldn't get back to it. They went back to the garage and they put something on it; it wasn't fast enough so they made a few adjustments."

As the final 40 minutes approached, several drivers took their attempts to bump themselves into the field. Lazier, still strapped in his car while his crew took out wing angle on his race car to get it to go even faster, suddenly had another face lean into his cockpit.

It was fellow driver Dan Wheldon, who will start in the middle of the front row for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing when the green flag drops to start the Indy 500 on Sunday.

"I'm blessed to have friends," Lazier said about his conversation with the '05 Indy winner. "We just talked about what the car was doing and he helped reaffirm what I needed to do. We were already on our way to ripping downforce off the car.

"When you've raced here, there are guys on that crew that I think a lot of, too. His engineer was my engineer at Panther Racing and we had a lot of success there. And Dan is a class act. He is a previous winner and he was just trying to see if he could help and I really appreciate that."

But in a moment of truth, when it comes to driving a car beyond its limits just to make the highly-competitive field in the Indy 500, a driver has to flip down his visor, put his right foot down on the accelerator and drive four of the most intense laps of his career in a 10-mile run against the clock.

And that is what made Lazier's final effort so impressive as he ran a four-lap average of 219.015 mph -- nearly 2 mph faster than that car had run all weekend.

The driver from Vail, Colo. thanked his crew members for making some quick calculations on pit lane before his run.

"They ripped off and counterbalanced it in five minutes, and that is experience for you," Lazier said. "It was a hairy run, do doubt. Our biggest problem is we got such a late start. We didn't start until Friday and we are the only ones that started that late and it really hurt. But it was all about those guys making good decisions."

Lazier may be one of the most humble drivers ever to win the Indy 500, a quality never more evident than on Sunday.

"I reached deep," Lazier admitted. "It's my 16th start, and when I first started I had cars that were last-minute shoestring deals and we missed a few races. I know that feeling.

"I really feel bad for those guys who are with very good race teams and very good race drivers that just feel short. I feel bad for those guys right now, I really do.

"But it is such a special race and so important to be in it. If you have a smoking-fast car, you feel emotional because you get all you can out of that car and you finish in the top three. Well, I think the emotions are the same when you get everything out of what you have on a given day and it's just enough to make the Indy 500."

That's a different feeling Lazier had than when he first won the 500 in '96, the first year of the split in which teams from CART boycotted the Indianapolis 500 over the creation of the Indy Racing League.

"It means a lot," Lazier said. "A lot of the race teams that are coming back that are new, I drove for a lot of those guys -- people like Dale Coyne. I know a lot of them and I've always felt both sides of the fence are together and a lot of those guys I drove for in my early days in CART.

Lazier spent most of his career with Hemelgarn Racing before the two split in '04. Since that time, neither the team nor the driver have experienced success, so being back together makes this year's Indy 500 even more special.

"It seems right," Lazier said. "I was with Hemelgarn for 12 years, and those were great years. We experienced a lot together. There is always something very special about that team and those people."

As Lazier and his team were posing for pictures after being awarded a $50,000 check from Firestone for being the last driver to make the 33-car starting lineup, Lazier's wife stood to the side watching with pride and happiness after her husband displayed what the Indianapolis 500 is all about -- courage, bravery and human emotion.

"That car reminds me of all the good times," Kara said. "I'm proud of him."

Chuck Buckman, the Indy 500 chief mechanic who was injured when Danica Patrick's IndyCar hit him in pit lane during a Friday practice session, was released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis last Tuesday.

Buckman suffered a traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage and a skull fracture, but has recovered to the point where he can continue convalescence at home. Buckman is the chief mechanic for Mario Moraes at Dale Coyne Racing.

"The only problem I am having right now is a case of vertigo when I sit or stand up," Buckman said. "Besides that, my right arm is bruised all over. I have a fracture in my skull, my face is scraped and I have to wear a neck brace for a month.

"Other than that, I feel fine and want to get back to work."

Patrick, who became the first female driver ever to win a race in a major, closed-course racing series when she drove to victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 20, has been absolved of any wrongdoing for the pit lane incident.

Patrick was pulling her car into her pit area when Buckman walked in front of her car. The contact sent Buckman flying about four-feet into the air before landing on his face and head, which rendered him unconscious.

He was later revived and sent to the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital before he was moved to a private room on Sunday.

"All I remember at this point was walking down pit lane to get my jacket, and I stopped off to talk with someone from Marco Andretti's crew then everything after that is blank," Buckman said. "I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It was not Danica's fault and I do not hold her to blame for what happened. In my 35 years in auto racing, this is the first time anything this bad has happened to me. I'm just thankful that I'm still alive."

Team owner Dale Coyne has hired Gilbert Lage to work with the team while chief mechanic Buckman recovers from injuries suffered in a pit road accident last Friday when he was hit by Danica Patrick's car.

"(Lage) has been here a long time with Dick Simon and lots of teams in the past," Coyne said. "He's an experienced guy, so we were able to grab him and get him on that car. You know, we've got some depth. We've picked up some guys for the month here. It was an unfortunate situation with Chuck the other day, to lose a quality guy like that. But we're working at it; we're getting through it."

Mario Dominguez was another driver who was desperate to qualify on Bump Day. With two minutes left before the starter's pistol was fired to conclude qualifications for 2008, Dominguez took to the track after running a first lap of 219.780 mph.

Dominguez appeared to be on his way to bumping himself back into the race, but as he entered the first turn on his second lap, the car broke loose, did a half-spin almost simultaneously with the firing of the gun to close the track. The car slammed into the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1 and Dominguez's hopes ended in a crumpled mess.

"I feel terrible for me, for my sponsors and for the team," Dominguez said. "The only thing that makes me feel good is that we tried until the end. We tried as hard as we could. And that's the only thing that makes me feel good.

"At the end, we just trimmed the car out, and the car didn't take that downforce and I lost it. I feel terrible I could not qualify for this race."

A little more than a month ago, Sarah Fisher was living her dream as she unveiled her own IndyCar team that would debut at the 92nd Indianapolis 500. The team was a true "Mom and Pop" operation, involving Fisher, her husband Andy O'Gara and her father-in-law, longtime IndyCar mechanic Johnny O'Gara. The team purchased all the necessary equipment, including a Dallara race car and a Honda engine with the hope of making the most of sponsor dollars promised by an energy drink, ResQ.

Fisher estimated it costs close to $1 million to make her IndyCar effort happen, a figure that looms much larger when the sponsor bailed on sending in the money.

"Yeah, dudes, I'm broke," Fisher said with a laugh after qualifying for her seventh Indianapolis 500 on Saturday with a four-lap average of 221.246 miles per hour.

That is good enough for a spot inside of the eighth row on race day next Sunday, with or without a sponsor.

"A lot of stress and a lot of hours went into this," Fisher said. "I qualified MY car today, and it is MY car. I have a feeling of pride being able to do that. As far as taking out aggression on sponsorship contracts that didn't come to fruition, a lot of boxing has come into play for that."

It's been quite a struggle for Fisher and her family just to get to this point, expecting a check to arrive or money to be transferred into her account only to discover it hadn't happened.

"My husband and I haven't filed for divorce yet," Fisher said. "Not that we will. It's just been stressful on both of us because we've put all of our efforts and energies into this project. We've had our moments, and that is more stressful than anything.

"When a sponsor says they are going to do something and they don't, and [there's] a husband and wife effort, that puts a strain on your relationship. But we're through it and today was a very proud day for both Andy and me."

Though the team is in the red, Fisher maintains she won't stop racing.

"It is what it is; I love racing and I don't care," Fisher said. "I've been at Ground Zero before and I've had to start all over and I'm not afraid to do it again. No, I haven't gotten a straight answer from them and I don't think we ever will. The only answer I've gotten from them is that it's still coming. I can't talk about what I'm doing legally but it's going to get intense.

"Right now I'm focused 110 percent on this effort during the month of May and we will focus on what we are going to do later. Regardless of them coming through, we are qualified."

Fisher has been able to put together a small collection of associate sponsors that have helped fund her team and has had fans come up to her in the garage area and give her cash and checks to help her make the race.

"We came in with a splash for the media and were able to support it on track," Fisher said. "We've stuck to the basics. We've been able to get above $5,000 from fans. Every time somebody gives me something, I hand it off to either my dad or Johnny O (O'Gara) and say here is more petty cash. Now we can afford water this week.

"It's amazing that people do that. A couple people have walked up and written checks for $1,000 and said this is out of their personal savings account, they love what I do and they want to help. It makes me pretty emotional that I have a fan base that would want to do that."

Common sense dictates that the fuel cap should always be tightened before starting up a vehicle and heading down the road.

Someone forgot to do that on A.J. Foyt IV's IndyCar and the result was a fiery crash into the third turn wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

Foyt, who had bumped his way into the 33-car starting lineup when Sunday's Bump Day began for the 92nd Indianapolis 500, was returning to the race track to practice his car under race conditions. As he exited the pit warm-up lane, the fuel "buckeye" that covers the fuel tank flew off the car and sparked the crash.

Because an IndyCar competes on both oval race tracks and road and street courses, there are openings on either side of the fuel tank to fuel the car with Ethanol. With the cars at the Indy 500 under oval track configuration, the opening on the right side of the car is covered with a "buckeye" that is bolted over the opening and then covered with a small piece of carbon fiber bodywork.

After Foyt made the field with a four-lap average of 219.184 miles per hour after qualifications began at noon, his race car had to pass technical inspection, which meant the fuel is pumped out of the fuel tank before it is weighed. The easiest way to do that is through the right side of the car because the left-side is fitted for refueling in the oval configuration.

When the cover was placed back on the fuel tank opening, a crew member never bolted the part onto the car so when Foyt left the pit exit lane, it flew off the car without Foyt seeing it.

As Foyt got up to speed on the backstretch, the highly-flammable fuel splashed out of the opening onto the rear tires of Foyt's car. It ignited into a fireball of orange flame. The slick fuel caused Foyt to lose control of his race car and slam hard into the third turn wall.

"They just didn't put it on good," Foyt said of the cover after he was treated and released from the infield care center. The crew member at Vision Racing responsible for making sure that cover was tightened has been fired, according to Foyt.

"The guy pretty much didn't put it on, pretty much simple as that," Foyt said. "You've got to bolt it on, tighten it up. He just pretty much didn't do it. After you roll through and get fuel before you go out on pit lane, he just basically forgot to put it back on and he doesn't work for us anymore.

"Unfortunately, I like the guy."

After the mistake was made, Foyt went on his wild ride.

"I came out of the pits, came out of Turn 3 and didn't feel anything, it just snapped loose," Foyt said. "It was a weird deal. It singed some of the hair off the back of my neck.

"I guess now I have to get a haircut."

When young Jay Penske arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for last year's Indianapolis 500 as a team owner for the first time, he was ushering in the next generation of Penske excellence at the world's greatest race.

As the driving force of Luczo Dragon Racing, a team he owns with Internet entrepreneur Steve Luczo, Penske oversaw an effort that culminated with Ryan Briscoe's fifth-place finish in last year's Indy 500.

Some of the key personnel on the team were on loan from his father's team, which was a big help considering Roger Penske is the all-time winningest team owner in Indy 500 history with 14 victories.

Luczo Dragon Racing is back and when Tomas Scheckter qualified 11th on Pole Day, it was the only non-full-time IndyCar Series team to make the field on Pole Day with a four-lap average at 223.496 miles per hour.

It was the next step in young Penske's desire to put together a full-time team for the 2009 season, one that will compete against his father's team in every race on the schedule.

"That is certainly the goal, to have a full-time team," Penske said. "Where we started last year was to get ourselves familiar with the biggest speedway and this year we are taking the next step to have a full-season ride. We've got a good driver; the team is slowly jelling. We've pulled some people together and have some great guys and next year the hope is to have the full season."

And unlike last year, the 29-year-old Penske has put together his own team, not the satellite effort from last year that earned the nickname "Sputnik."

"Last year we had the benefit of so much time and the guys we worked with at Penske were so helpful," Penske said. "The guys we worked with were so helpful. It was really pretty much a Penske setup. This year we started from where everyone else starts. We got the chassis delivered from Dallara and we went to work. The only guys on the team that are the same are the Luczo and the Dragon (Penske).

"We know this year is going to be a lot more difficult. We want to keep it on the track for the full race day."