Lazier Burns Racing Members Share Their Favorite Indy 500 Memories
INDIANAPOLIS, May 24 — Lazier Burns Racing is one of the smallest teams entered in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it’s made up of experienced racers — including one former winner — who share a common passion for the world’s most famous auto race.
Lazier Burns Racing doesn’t have a primary sponsor. Its participation in the race this year is made possible in large part by Thom Burns, an Indianapolis-based contractor. Other support has come from OnLine Transport, Daniel’s Family Winery, Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, the Harding Group, Brewer Custom Floors and More, Fatheadz, KECO Coatings, BCB Beverage, Ambassador Healthcare and two restaurants near the track — Dawson’s on Main and Barbecue and Bourbon.
These companies understand how special it is to be involved in the Indianapolis 500. It’s a memory-maker every year, and since it’s the 100th anniversary of the race it’s especially memorable this time.
It’s also the 20th anniversary of Buddy Lazier’s Indy 500 victory, making it even more special to Lazier Burns Racing.
We asked some members of the team to share their favorite Indy 500 memories. There were no restrictions on how they could answer the question. They could choose well-known things that occurred on the track, or more personal recollections.
In several cases there were tears in the speaker’s eyes by the end of their story, because the Indianapolis 500 always generates a lot of emotions among passionate racers.
Everyone involved tries to produce their best efforts here, because it’s Indy.
For the drivers, participation is an entry on their Wikipedia page at the very least. For the winner, it’s a date he’ll go down in racing history.
Everyone who participates in any way or just watches the Indy 500 in person or on TV has a story, and the stories are as varied as the people.
On Sunday, for the 100th time, the attention of the world will center on Indianapolis, the Crossroads of America. Indiana and its capital city will once again host the United States’ biggest party to honor its military on Memorial Day weekend and unofficially kick off summer. And another chapter will be written in the history of one of the world’s most revered sporting events at a world-famous tabernacle of speed.
What is your favorite Indy 500 memory?
Thom Burns (Indianapolis, team co-owner): “It’s very simple, and it goes way back.
“Growing up I was always involved in athletics at school, and through that I was always involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Mel Kenyon was involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes too, and I wanted to meet him. My grandfather had raced sprints and midgets. I had an interest in racing, and I really wanted to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to meet Mel Kenyon.
“I don’t remember what year it was, but I decided to get a job selling The Indianapolis Star at the track in order to meet Mel Kenyon. I picked up my bundle of papers downtown at 4 a.m., and that would get me into the track for free. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet.
“When I got here off the bus, they let us into the track and the guys were hustling for the best spots to sell papers. I didn’t care where the best spots were for that; I just wanted to get near the garages so I could finally meet Mel Kenyon and get his autograph. So I got a spot near the garages and I waited and I waited and I waited.
“Finally the cars came out. Mel was part of Lindsey Hopkins’ team. The drivers were Mel, Roger McCluskey and Wally Dallenbach. It must have been 1967 or something like that.
“I had my autograph book, and I thought it would be real simple. Finally I saw them getting ready to go out on the track. I put my papers down and jumped the fence.
“Well, a Yellow Shirt caught me and nailed me.
“‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he said.
“‘I’m going to get Mel Kenyon’s autograph.’
“‘No you’re not. You’re going out the gate on 16th Street.’
“‘But I can’t! I bought all these newspapers!’
“Well, I got kicked out.
“I thought, ‘This wasn’t such a good idea.’ We didn’t have cell phones in those days. I had no money to get home, and they kept my newspapers too.
“I told the Yellow Shirt, ‘Someday….someday….’
“I didn’t say, ‘Someday I’m going to be here as a car owner,’ just ‘Someday….someday.’
“And there I sat on 16th Street, just listening to the cars. I had to wait for the Star’s truck to take us all back downtown. I remember being really hungry when I got home.
“I had raced go-karts, and then when I was older I wanted to run midgets. Somebody said ‘See the Kenyons.’
“And that’s how I finally met the Kenyons. Most people don’t get to meet their heroes, let alone become friends with them. But Mel and Don Kenyon were both groomsmen at my wedding, and Johnny Parsons Jr. was sitting in the first row.
“I bought the midget that Mel drove when he won his last national championship. I drove it for five years, and the Kenyons always maintained it. And Mel would always tell me stories about Indy.
“I put the car away, but Mel has had the car for the last two months to restore it. It’ll be just like it was when he won his last championship in it. I’ll pick it up in another three weeks, and it will mean more to me than any other race car I have.
“So that’s my Indy 500 memory. And now I’m a car owner, the driver I wanted to get an autograph from is my friend, and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world.”
Jeff Matthews (Speedway, Ind., team director and marketing): “The year was 1998. That was my very first year in IndyCar. I was given a one-day opportunity to hang out with PDM Racing. My sister arranged it. She rented a small house near were A.J. Watson and PDM Racing were located.
“I was told to be at the track at 8 a.m. I got here at 6.
“I was given the job of wheel cleaner and gopher and overall stooge.
“I was asked to come back the next day, and then the next day, and then the next.
“That year we had Jack Hewitt, and race morning we were out on the grid. I’d always been familiar with the pageantry because I was raised across the street from the track, but I’d never stood on the track as part of a team on Race Day morning.
“As the cars were being lined up and the festivities were going on and Jim Nabors was singing the song, I remember [Paul] Diatlovich said ‘Just look up at the stands.’
“That’s when it hit me how big it was. That was a pretty good moment, and that’s how I think about it today.”
Larry Curry (Avon, Ind., team manager/engineer/strategist): “I would probably say it was in qualifying in 1996 when I was running Scott Brayton and Tony Stewart. Scotty went out in qualifying and he was fourth or fifth, and he was very disappointed. What he didn’t know was I qualified him in his backup car.
“I needed Arie [Luyendyk] to post a time, because I thought he was our biggest competition that day. But when he qualified, he didn’t run as fast as I thought he would.
“I had changed our car numbers around. I told Scotty that this car in line is faster than the car he ran. But I also told him that withdrawing the first car was risky, because back then the rules were that the car was done if I withdrew it.
“I had fans yelling at me, criticizing me for taking a car that had just qualified fourth out of the race.
“Scotty went out, and Tom Carnegie was still alive and he came out with that ‘It’s a new track record!’ and we went on to win the pole.
“It ended up being the highest of highs and the lowest of lows all rolled into one because Scotty was killed a few days later, but that’s how exciting qualifying used to be. It was more of a gamble than it is today. Back then, you had to live with the choices you made. If it was wrong, you were out. It was a very exciting time, and it worked out.
“With the crazy dynamics of it, when Scotty went out we thought we were bumping Arie for the pole, but his car failed tech so we were really bumping our teammate, Tony Stewart, off the pole.”
Bob Lazier (Vail, Colo., team co-owner and Buddy’s father): “My favorite story at the Indianapolis 500 has nothing to do with myself, Buddy, or the team.
“In 1996 Buddy was in an accident in Phoenix and broke his back in many places. This was nine weeks before Indy. The doctor said there is no way he can run Indy; there’s no way he’ll even be out of bed. He was 28 and unmarried. We bought a hospital bed and set it up in the middle of our living room. I watched him struggle his way to the bathroom, which was tough. But he set up a mechanical device of cords and pulleys so he could exercise his upper body to stay in shape. It was unbelievable the amount of drive and determination he had.
“But that’s not the story either.
“All of his competition had been at Indy while he was in bed, as they had test sessions in April and early May. They were all practicing, because it was the first year of the IRL.
“Only one time before that year did Buddy have a race car that was competitive, but that year he had a car that was among the best. Even with the accident and the pain he was determined to stay in perfect shape, focused on his goal.
“He got to Indy on Monday, three days after the track opened. He could not walk with a cane; he needed crutches. The team basically was trying to figure out how to be discreet about how to put him in the car, because he couldn’t stand up by himself.
“We took a golf cart and put it up against the pit wall. Ten minutes later, he had made it out of the golf cart and gotten onto the pit wall. Then he carefully made it onto the sidepod of the car. Then four or five minutes later, he was finally in the car. We were all very discreet, trying to keep it under the radar, but it took him 10 or 15 minutes just to get in.
“Buddy always clears his mind for 4 or 5 minutes before he starts. He finally went out on the track, but then it took him 5 or 6 minutes to go around the first time. We thought he got lost! But racing is mental, and he was preparing himself for the challenge.
“The lap after that was double what it should be, but then he got a little faster. People were running 232s that year. The fourth lap at speed was even faster, and the fifth lap at speed he turned a 228 and change. They brought him back to the pits, made a few adjustments to the car, and he went back out and did a high 229, just 2 miles per hour and change off the pace. It was absolutely unbelievable!
“But that too is not the story.
“The story is that when he was going through his process, all of the competitors were pulling for him. When he first got on the track, it was a beehive of activity; everyone was trying to get that extra bit of speed. But when he was back in the car for the first time, they were all subconsciously or consciously watching and pulling for him, and they were happy for him.
“In a sport that’s all about ‘me,’ that day it was all about him. After he turned that 229, it went back to being a beehive again. So for my favorite Indy 500 memory, the competitors were the story, not Buddy. What a great group of drivers we have at Indy! That is the story, and I’ve never told that to anyone before.”
Kara Lazier (Vail, Colo., Buddy’s wife): “The things you least expect are always the most emotional, but of course my favorite Indy memory was 20 years ago this month. We’d just gotten engaged on May 1 on the top of Vail Mountain, but Buddy couldn’t walk without crutches due to the Phoenix crash. We took the chair lift up to the top. He proposed, and a week later we were at Indy for the month of May. His crew said, ‘Well, you better win this race to pay off that engagement ring!’
“When we arrived Dr. Bock reviewed his X-rays that he brought from the Phoenix hospital, and requested that he go to Methodist and have his back X-rayed again, and meet with their doctors. At that point they reviewed the new X-rays and said his back still looked like a hard-boiled egg that had been dropped on the ground. His sacrum was completely shattered.
“At that point the doctors said they weren’t going to tell him he couldn’t race, but if he had another accident now, he could become paralyzed.
“Nowadays they would never let a driver make that call, but the doctors let Buddy make the call to race. He took the chance because he knew he had a great car. He says Dr. Bock is one of his heroes because he gave him the chance to make the choice.
“I wasn’t thinking about winning the race that day; I just wanted him to get through it safely. When he passed Davy Jones for the lead, it happened right in front of our pits, and I started crying. Other than having our two children, it was the most surreal event I’ve ever experienced, and that’s definitely my favorite Indy 500 memory.”
Buddy Lazier (Vail, Colo., driver): “It’s hard to beat winning! Going around in the pace car afterwards was fun; victory lane was great; getting the big check; they’re all great memories.
“I got a car and a boat. I didn’t know I was going to get the boat. That was a nice surprise!”
Jaques Lazier (Alta Loma, Calif., seven-time Indy 500 starter, marketing): “I’m sure that my favorite Indy 500 moment is the same as any other driver out here. It was the first time I qualified for the Indy 500.
“It was 2000 with Truscelli Racing. We were running the 1999 chassis, and we were doing laps at 219 miles an hour without a tow. We needed a 220 to make the field.
“John Biddlecombe of G Force/Panoz said that the fastest we could go would be a 218.5.
“Thanks to a joint effort with Team Xtreme, we were able to lease a new chassis, and we had 18 laps before we went out to qualify.
“We ran a 221.8 and that was enough to put us in the show as a rookie.
“It was just magical the way everything came together. I don’t think you’ll ever see days like that again. I know teams are willing to help other teams with a part or two these days, but not a whole car. That was just a really neat thing to be a part of.
“Being in the race was a lot of fun and a life-long dream. We went on to finish 11th. We should have been Rookie of the Year, but there was some other kid that won the race that got the award because it was his first 500 too. That was Juan Pablo Montoya.”
Bill Lefeber (Indianapolis, electronics): “I guess my most memorable moment at the Indy 500 was in 2012. I was working with Rahal, and at the end [Takuma] Sato went into the Turn 1 wall going for the win. We were so close…. It was just one of those things. Yes, he crashed, but there wasn’t anyone on our team telling him to slow down.
“It was definitely an Indy 500 moment. They use it a lot on the race promos on TV.”
Kyle Lefeber (Bill’s son, Indianapolis, general assistance): “This is my first year with a team, but I always come to the 500. My dad always worked with a team, and I’ve always wanted to work with a team. This was my best opportunity to do that, and I want to do my best. I always wondered what it was like to be involved in the madness. It’s pretty exciting.
“Basically ever since my dad was involved in racing, I got the chance to gain knowledge about the sport. It’s something that I can do with my dad, and it definitely has brought me closer to him. So for me, the family aspect is always going to be an important Indy memory.”
George Giles (Destin, Fla., Turn 3 spotter): “This is my 25th year of racing and my 12th time spotting for the 500. I was founder of CBR Cobb Racing in 1998, and I’ve represented drivers, teams and sponsors in many different forms of racing.
“My favorite Indy 500 memory occurred in 2006. I was spotting for Thiago Medeiros for PDM. It was at the Rookie Orientation spotters meeting, and in that room in a little tiny garage were A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr., Al Unser Jr., Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti and Arie Luyendyk Sr.
“Try to add up how many Indy 500 wins were in that little tiny meeting room at the same time! I looked over to the spotter next to me, Trevor Mitchener, and said ‘Just look around this room!’
“I never get star struck, but that was just awesome.”
Lew Parks (Glen Aubrey, N.Y., tires): “This is my 46th Indy 500. The most memorable moment for me was walking through the gates for the first time. I was 32. I ended up working for MVM Racers and driver Ronnie Bucknum. In those days there were only three or four guys on a crew.
“I came in cold, and I just did whatever they wanted done.
“I started in stock cars and then progressed to modifieds and then into sprint cars. I met Billy Puterbaugh through sprint cars, and I asked him if I came out to Indy, did he think he could get me onto a team. When I showed up at the gate, he had a real surprised look on his face. I guess he didn’t think I’d ever come. But Billy was my introduction to the Speedway, and he got me a job.
“In 1971, 1972 and 1973 I was here, but our driver, Larry McCoy, wasn’t eligible to run. Then he was going to run the Milwaukee champ car race, but the trailer broke down enroute.
“I was part of a team again in 1974, and I’ve been on a team ever since with the exception of 1977 when my son was born on qualifying weekend. For 17 of those years I was with Foyt.
“Still to this day, every time I come through the gates I get a twinge. Another moment I really like is when they play ‘Taps,’ and then when they sing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ It’s not the same without Jim Nabors, but if that doesn’t get your blood flow going at that point, they better put you in the ground.
“To try to capture all of my stories, we wrote a book. It’s called ‘Win from the Back: Memories of a Racecar Mechanic.’ You’ll have to read the book to understand the title. My daughter did the writing. I have three children, and they all added their take on it. I never thought anyone would be interested in it, but we published it through Author House and you can get it on Amazon.”
Jeff Parks (Lew’s son, Jacksonville, Fla., general assistance): “This year is the first time I could take a whole month off to be part of a team, but I’ve been coming to the Indy 500 from 1970 on.
“My best moment was when we won here in 1999 with Kenny Brack with Foyt. Mom was here and my wife was here, and it was great when he took the checkered flag.
“The second-best part was being with the crew in the garage afterwards.
“My mother has since passed away, but she was a big part of Dad being able to be here all those years.”
Jess Chen (Indianapolis, mechanic): “Working with Foyt. I just enjoyed him. He is such a legend here.”
Dwayne Hemmelgarn* (St. Henry, Ohio, pit crew manager): “Probably going to the races with my family, especially in 1996 when Buddy won the 500 for my cousin Ron. It was my immediate family; we went as a family trip.
“We were just in regular seating, but we got to go into the garage after the race. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wanted to be involved. My cousin helped get me involved with the Laziers.
“I’m 28, and I think my first 500 was 1995. I didn’t go to the race itself that year, but we went to time trials.
“In 1996, we were all in the stands rooting for Buddy. He took the lead for the first time around lap seven or eight, and we couldn’t believe it! I’ll never forget that day. There is nothing like the Indy 500.”
* He spells his surname differently than does his cousin, Ron Hemelgarn, the winning team owner at Indy with Buddy Lazier in 1996.