That’s because earlier this week Jacques Villeneuve was confirmed for an Indy-only ride with Sam Schmidt’s operation.
This means the 1995 champion (Villeneuve) and 1996 winner (Lazier) could, potentially, square off in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The year 1995, of course, is significant. To some (many?), this was the last great Indianapolis 500 and, maybe more to the point, the last great season of open-wheel racing in this country.
That season, the landscape included well-known drivers, plentiful car counts (at least 26 starters in most races), several chassis (Lola, Reynard, Penske) and engine (Mercedes, Ford, Honda) manufacturers, two tire choices and 17 different venues covering high-speed ovals, short ovals, natural-terrain road courses.
This year we’ll have 18 events – that’s counting double-headers at Detroit, Houston, Toronto and the two events at Indianapolis. Five of these will be on network television – none after June 1.
One other note about 1995: There were two feeder series (Toyota Atlantic and Indy Lights), each with some future race winners and champions. Toyota Atlantic had Richie Hearn, Patrick Carpentier and Felipe Giaffone , while Indy Lights had Greg Moore, Robbie Buhl, Buzz Calkins and Jeff Ward.
Villeneuve’s Indianapolis 500 win and subsequent driver’s championship propelled him to Formula One. He wasn’t around for the calamity the 1996 season – and the next decades – wrought to open-wheel racing in this country in general and to the 500 in particular.
I won’t rehash “The Split” here; suffice to say IndyCar racing remains on a slow climb back to relevance in the sporting landscape – both in the U.S. and globally.
Lazier drove a heady, gutty race to claim the 1996 Indianapolis 500 against a field lacking in star power and overall ability. In 1995, remember, the field was so competitive that neither of the Team Penske drivers - Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi (the two previous 500 winners) – qualified.
Lazier never has been accorded the respect of other 500 champions, and probably won’t unless he can pull off another win. Which is a shame, because he’s a bulldog on ovals. I’ve talked with the likable Lazier a few times over the years, and he’s convinced that he was just as fast as Juan Pablo Montoya on the track during the 2000 race and that the faster pit work by Montoya’s team was the difference.
That’s debatable, of course. From where I sat in Turn 4 that day, it looked like Montoya toyed with the field, and if he needed to up the speed, he was certainly capable of doing so. In any event, with Montoya’s return to the series with Penske, Lazier might get another crack at him.
One more thing about Lazier: His qualifying run in 2008, when he used all his experience, desire and attachments to will a reluctant car into the field, merits the respect of all racing fans.
Hopefully everything comes together because it would be nice to see these two former Indy champions who represent the two sides of the split finally compete in the same Indianapolis 500.
Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway