At some level, the one who would win the 80th Indianapolis 500 must have known that many would assign an asterisk to the victory.
The potential for embarrassment accompanied the field’s 33 drivers to the start on Sunday. Seventeen rookies surely would humiliate the Speedway, if it didn’t get them first.
The knowledge that a bitter feud had split their sport and weakened the Brickyard’s lineup rode with the drivers, an uninvited and domineering chaperone.
The absence of some of their decorated colleagues produced an omnipresent static during a month of trials and tragedy at the track. And a bad weather forecast seemed nature’s way of undermining the chance for a fine race and a safe spectacle.
Preliminary excitement stacked up about the same as it would for a Saints-Seahawks Super Bowl.
And the makings of a day of disillusionment piled up as high as the pitch of observers’ cynicism. I was predisposed to install a giant beside the name of this Indy 500 winner, except that I brake for courage.
Buddy Lazier, in winning history’s third-closest Indy 500, obliged his sport with a rescue mission that required an extraordinarily high pain threshold.
His heroics as he navigated his 1995 Reynard-Ford from a special orthopedic seat allowed race fans to forget the fight that sent CART drivers to Sunday’s U.S. 500 in Brooklyn, Mich. His bravery in lasting 200 laps, not to mention outdueling Davy Jones to win by .695 of a second, made Lazier the kind of champion that any event would be proud to add to its list.
So cancel that asterisk.
The crowd, estimated at its usual size of about 325,000, witnessed a moving triumph.
Lazier, his face creased with the effort to exit his car in Victory Lane on Sunday, crashed in March while practicing for a race in Phoenix. The 28-year-old from Vail, Colo., suffered 16 fractures in his back and pelvis. He needed a cane to make his way around the Speedway during a very hairy month of May. And now, he needs a nice rest.
“I think I was super-grouchy the whole month,” said Lazier, whose father, Bob, finished 19th in the 1981 Indy 500. “A month ago, I could barely walk on crutches.”
IndyCar racing limped into what traditionally has been its biggest day. The rift between the Indy Racing League, formed by Speedway president Tony George, and CART caused the kind of cheap shots that sap a sport of its good nature. The rivalry did nothing for fans’ dispositions, except perhaps to call to mind the way baseball owners and players polarized the game’s followers in 1994.
Fans want to be inspired by sports events, not forced to figure out their off-the-field malignancies. Fans want heroes who can stand up to tests of body and soul - even when they can’t stand up without the aid of a cane.
So Lazier gave the people that much on Sunday. After finishes of 33rd, 14th and 27th in his previous three Indy 500s, he had to be bold when it hurt like hell.
In analyzing his race, he said his pain actually might have helped him concentrate.
Lazier, who suffers from what he called a mild form of dyslexia, said he learned how to succeed despite obstacles. And he needed that capacity on Sunday. Just 10 seconds separated the first five cars with fewer than 20 laps left.
That final five also went some distance in restoring fractured faith that the Indy 500 had what it takes.
Lazier’s valor allowed the Indy 500 to stay intact and asterisk-free.