Sixteen Indianapolis 500 races. An incredible, injury-defying 500 victory in 1996. Runner-up on two different occasions, and in the Top 5 in two other Indy efforts. Add to that that one more Top 10, and you have an Indy 500 résumé just about any driver would be understandably proud of.
That’s Buddy Lazier’s career stat line at Indianapolis, but it’s perhaps more remarkable for all the items it doesn’t show. The fact that he somehow kept coming back for more after a practice crash during his first year at Indy, and not qualifying in his second. The spirited runs that came close to granting him another 500 victory. The fact that he expertly, sometimes amazingly, qualified entries that had no business creaking along on the track. The fact that even in his last effort, in 2009, in a car that was clearly too old and outclassed to make the field, resulted in the fan in the stands still thinking, “If anyone can do it, it’s him...”
Looking at Buddy Lazier’s time in Indy, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. He had his share of DNFs, though in the interests of fairness one should point out only one of those (2002) was chalked up to an accident, the others being mechanical. As one would expect in a career somehow touching four different decades at Indianapolis, there were some ups and downs. But the perception of Lazier as the enduring 500 champion, as the clutch last-minute driver, is the one most fans see.
Maybe this year will be different. It’s a team that’s not completely assembled, with sponsorships not entirely worked out, working on a single chassis, without a backup, trying to beat established experienced DW12 teams and find a way into the race, or perhaps even a decent qualification result. That’s a tall order for any driver and team, even a 500 champion.
But let’s ask this: Given a minimal amount of time to practice at Indianapolis, with a small team, no backup car, and the odds stacked against your effort, which driver would you rather have to jump in the car and somehow, beyond all reason or laws of physics, pull together four laps fast enough to make the show? If that list has any names in front of Buddy Lazier’s, I bet there aren’t many.
Throw five IndyCar and Indy 500 fans in a room, ask them who the greatest drivers at Indy were, and you’ll come back an hour late to five fans with black eyes and a few loose teeth. Buddy Lazier’s stats aren’t in the realm of Rick Mears, but he does have a claim to inclusion in a pretty exclusive club. He was listed in IMS’s Greatest 100 Indy 500 drivers during the Centennial Celebration. He ranks 8th all-time in laps completed. Yet again, we have to go to intangibles to see what makes Lazier’s return to Indy such a popular one. He has often been referred to as a “bulldog” on the track, or as one of my fellow J-Standers is fond of saying, “there’s no quit in him”. He’s not just a former 500 winner, he’s a former winner that shrugged off a broken back to get his victory, has endured from the nastiest days of the split to the earliest days of reunification, and has never seemed to have lost the hunger and fire for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
I don’t know how Buddy Lazier’s return to the Indianapolis 500 will go this month. We're not even sure yet what Bump Day will look like. I hope I look back on this article next month and can point to another amazing effort by Lazier to make a qualification run stick. Perhaps the comeback story ends before Bump Day even begins. I’m not sure. But whether he finishes 3rd or 33rd, I won’t fail to include Lazier on my list of all-time Indy Legends. As long as the #91 is on track, there’s a chance that legacy will be added to. Whatever the circumstances, Buddy Lazier can’t be counted out.