CONCORD, N.C. -- Buddy Lazier won the inaugural Indy Racing League event in the heart of NASCAR country. He's looking to make history again in the second annual VisionAire 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A victory in Saturday night's 500-kilometer event would make Lazier the first driver in the three-year history of the IRL to surpass $3 million in career winnings.
Heading into Charlotte, where qualifying is scheduled under the lights Thursday, Lazier has won $2,893,604.
"Enormous," said Lazier, whose victory last year at Charlotte was worth $152,700. "Wow. I wonder where it all went. I wish the driver got a bigger percentage than he does."
A major chunk of Lazier's IRL winnings has come in the Indianapolis 500, which he won in 1996 and followed with finishes of fourth and second. His combined winnings for the three events were $2,130,304.
Aside from the prestige of Indy, Lazier counts his 1997 triumph at Charlotte as one of the highlights of his career, mainly because it represented the IRL's first venture into a region long dominated by stock car racing.
The new circuit was embraced by the Charlotte region, as evidenced by the larger-than-expected crowd of more than 73,000. The competitors responded with plenty of side-by-side action on Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked trioval, including several instances when some drivers actually got their left tires onto the grassy infield to make passes at speeds approaching 220 mph.
Lazier fell one lap down early in the 208-lap race because of a poor pit stop, but worked his way back and overpowered Billy Boat for the victory.
"It's a physically demanding race with the banks, those bumps and the G-forces we're pulling," Lazier said. "I think as a race driver you need to be pretty tough."
Lazier is fifth in this year's driver standings, 59 points behind leader Scott Sharp, heading into this weekend's event.
This represents the only point in the 11-race 1998 schedule that the circuit is competing on consecutive weekends, and the wear and tear is taking a toll on the teams.
Lazier finished second to Sharp in Sunday's race at Dover, Del., but they were the only two drivers remaining on the lead lap. Of the 22 drivers who started the race, just 10 were still going at the end of the wreck-marred event.
After 23 cars ran in last year's VisionAire 500, IRL officials voiced hope of seeing the number of competitors grow to 28-30 for this year's event. But a number in the low 20s appears likely again for the second annual race, and most of them have had to work overtime to get ready.
Even though many of the IRL teams are based in Indianapolis, most elected against going home after the Dover race. They drove directly from Delaware to North Carolina and took advantage of Charlotte Motor Speedway's offer to use the track's garage area, starting Monday morning, to prepare for the VisionAire 500 activities.
"These guys are racers. I know they will regroup and put on a great event here at Charlotte," track president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said. "Next to the Indy 500, most in the series feel this is the biggest race on their schedule. In fact, some teams saved their primary superspeedway cars for the VisionAire 500."