PRUETT: Bob Lazier’s ageless passion

Dan R. Boyd/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Bob Lazier’s ageless passion

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PRUETT: Bob Lazier’s ageless passion

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We might not have known it before his death last week at the age of 81, but we all dream of living the life Bob Lazier led.

The rarest breed of racer has been lost with the passing of Indianapolis 500 racer and entrant. As a driver, Lazier was immensely gifted, and yet, despite earning the nickname “Easy,” according to Bobby Rahal, because “it just seemed everything came so natural to him,” it was the simple passion for driving that made the Minnesota native an example for the rest of us to follow.

Lazier was a hidden hero for the everyman. For those of us who dream of driving anything, anywhere, at any time, Bob is a role model. If you’ve spent countless hours at work in that cubicle, out on the farm, or on the highways earning a living, and allowed yourself to daydream about becoming a race car driver, you’re no different than Bob Lazier.

“You would go to a SCCA club racing weekend somewhere in Southern California in the early ’70s, and Bob would be there with three or four cars at a time, in different categories of racing — maybe a Formula Vee and then a Camaro and then something different, and then something different to that,” his friend Mike Hull told RACER.

“That was very much what Bob loved doing, which was racing as often as he could. One way to do it was to have his mechanic at the time, Wilbur Bunce, prepare a bunch of different cars for him to race in different sessions during the weekend. It really spoke to how much Bob just loved being behind the wheel of a motor racing vehicle. I thought it was the coolest thing. He did it because he could, and he raced in categories that were very, very difficult to race in. He did extremely well at it.”

Lazier’s boundless love for driving was matched by an enjoyment of the people he raced against. For those who think of rival drivers as enemies, Lazier proved it was possible to achieve success without holding negative views towards the opposition.

“It was the fact that he respected the people that he raced with, and he never viewed people as adversarial on the racetrack,” Hull added. “Whether he knew them or not, he raced against them in a friendly way, as a friend. He was genuinely that way. It wasn’t an act. He was that way.”

Lazier (left) battles with Gordon Johncock at Indy in 1981. Image by Motorsport Images

Robin Miller remembers the spirit Lazier showed on his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1981 at an age where most IndyCar drivers have led long careers and retired.

“He was 42 when he was a rookie coming to Indy, and it was like he couldn’t believe he was there,” Miller said. “He was the happiest guy you’d ever seen. Some guys are really appreciative of working hard to get to where they were, like Memo Gidley, and Bob was such a great surprise at Indy. He was real successful in business with real estate, but by the time he was ready to give Indy a try, he was a lot older than the rest of the rookies were. He qualified 13th. We didn’t know a lot about him when he got to Indy, but he was damn fast.”

Driving for the Patrick Racing-affiliated Fletcher Racing team, Lazier finished 19th in his first and only Indy 500. The more impressive performances came during the season-long CART IndyCar Series where the aged rookie placed ninth overall, ahead of Al Unser in 10th, and just seven points behind Bobby Unser in seventh.

Lazier would try and contest a second Indy 500 the following year, but the gruesome death of Gordon Smiley in qualifying led to an impassioned call to quit IndyCar racing. It’s here where Lazier’s highest-profile adventures in motor racing come to an end, but he by no means quit driving.

A chance meeting led to Lazier’s opportunity in this IMSA GTU Mazda. Image by Marshall Pruett archives

Earlier exploits in Can-Am, Trans Am, and IMSA piqued Lazier’s interest in sports car racing, and after stepping away from active pro racing for a few years, he returned in 1987 as part of Amos Johnson’s Highball Racing team at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Sharing a Mazda RX-7 with Johnson and Dennis Shaw in the wailing twin-rotor IMSA GTU car, Lazier’s friendly and humble ways were on display once again.

“We were out there skiing at Bob’s lodge in Colorado, and he said, ‘Look, if you ever need a veteran driver to help you run that 24-hour race, just give me a call,” Johnson said. “He told me, ‘All you have to do is feed me peanut butter and Diet Pepsi!’ And in the ’87 race, I had an open seat, so I called Bob and said, ‘Hey, you said you wanted to come drive. Are you ready?’ He said, ‘Just give me a chance. I’ll make a reservation. See you there.’

“So he came out and drove, and Bob was dyslexic, so we put a diagram of the shift pattern on the dashboard for him to look at to know where the five gears went. The first time he went out to practice, we had talked to him about ‘go here, go there, use this for RPMs’ and whatnot, and he came in after just a couple of laps, and he said, ‘Man, this car is really screaming on the straightaway. It wants to go 9,500 RPMs.’

“I said, ‘Bob…what gear are you in?’ And he said, ‘High gear.’ I went over to the shift pattern and I said, ‘Up here?’ and he said, ‘No, down here.’ He was running in fourth gear instead of fifth gear… After we got that fixed, he was an excellent veteran driver.”

With his fine run to ninth in the 1981 CART standings, Lazier won Rookie of the Year honors. Under a different spotlight, his success with Johnson and Shaw at Daytona in the Highball Mazda just might rank above the rest of Lazier’s professional accomplishments.

“We won with him in 1987 and then again in 1988,” Johnson added. “After the race was over, he went over and picked up the pay telephone, and called his wife Diane at home, and I’m just listening to his end of it, and he said, ‘Yeah. Oh yeah, we won.’ So he expected it then. We didn’t, but he expected it.

“He came back to Daytona with us in 1989 and we had a gearbox that needed to be changed in the race, and we wound up finishing third. So with Bob, we had a first, a first, and third, and that’s pretty damn good record. He was exactly what he advertised himself to be.”

Johnson also recalled how Lazier, like our Robin Miller, preferred to introduce water into his body through the same brand of soda. But Miller, it should be noted, only accepts the delivery through full-strength Pepsi.

“We were getting ready to fly home from one of our trips to Colorado to stay with Bob, Diane and (sons) Buddy and Jaques, and it was snowing quite heavily, so Bob offered to drive us to the airport,” he said. “There’s a truck outside, covered in snow, and Bob walked out — he had a six-pack of Diet Pepsi, peeled one of them off for himself and offered us one, but we said, ‘No thank you.’ So he threw them in the snow in the bed of the pickup truck in a spot like he wanted it to be in that specific location. We started the drive, he reaches back so that he could open the little slide window behind him and get himself another Diet Pepsi. Bob had the whole system down. He lived on that stuff!”

Well before Indy or IMSA, the depths of Lazier’s kindness struck Hull in a deeper way while visiting Bunce’s shop. If you fast forward to Bob’s Lazier Partners Racing team, which entered a no-frills Indy 500 effort for his son Buddy from 2013-2017, the kindness was often repaid as those he’d helped or befriended in the paddock did their best to assist when possible.

Who knows if more enthusiast-entrants like Lazier will follow at Indianapolis. He’s the last of his kind, for now, just as he stood out from the crowd when he arrived in IndyCar.

Buddy Lazier, his wife and proud dad with the Lazier Partners entry at Indy in 2014. Image by Dan R. Boyd/Motorsport Images

“There was a guy named Mark Bahner that had a fabrication shop, so I was over there because he was building some suspension for something I was working on,” Hull said. “I went over there to pick it up, and he had the alleyway in the back, and the doors were open, so I wandered out in the back to find Mark, and Wilbur Bunce was out there. Wilbur had taken delivery of a Lola Formula 5000 car for Bob to drive; this was in the mid-’70s.

“They were talking about loaning this brand-new F5000 car that Bob owned to Jody Scheckter (Ferrari’s future 1979 Formula 1 world champion) because Bob felt sorry for Jody, because Jody had written off two Trojan Formula 5000 cars the previous weekend and had no car for the next race. That was the kind of guy Bob was; here he is with this incredible new car, and before he’s even turned a wheel in it, he’s preparing to loan it to Scheckter so he can keep racing. Very much in fitting Bob’s personality, and it came back to him in later years. Just a tremendous guy.”

Driven by a love for racing, fueled by the camaraderie and friendships he was fostered on and off the track, Bob Lazier’s light will be sorely missed. For those who have a dream to drive and worry if too much time has passed, hold Bob, and the Lazier family, close to your heart. As he showed us, passion is ageless.

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