Chris Nielsen, a 41-year-old stay-at-home dad from Omaha, stood in a garage Wednesday afternoon watching a mechanical crew fiddle with his new car.
So why, you might ask, was he recording the scene? Because this was no fix-it shop off West Center Road. It was Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 11 days before the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Outside, Nielsen could hear the fastest open-wheel machines in the world whirring around the track. Cars owned by icons like Andretti, Penske and Ganassi. But there in the garage, Nielsen was waiting to hear his engine for the first time. What started as a harebrained idea on Facebook a few years ago had materialized quickly over the past few months.
He was part-owner of an Indy 500 car.
A crew member from Chevy stood behind the car as others watched with fingers in their ears. Get ready. He triggered the starter, but nothing happened. Then again. Then again. Then Nielsen heard the roar. A voice let out a “Woo!”
In one of the most macho places in sports, Nielsen started crying.
“After you stand outside for 20 years and look inside the garage and see those special people walking around, standing there looking at it is a surreal experience,” Nielsen said. “I honestly can’t believe I’m here.”
In 1993, the Valley, Neb., native and UNO graduate attended his first Indy 500. He spent the next decade dreaming of driving an Indy car — he never made it further than the “A” feature at Sunset Speedway.
He got a job in finance. He and his wife, a physician’s assistant, started a family. He quit his job. But every year, he returned to the Brickyard. And every year, he tried to figure out how to get in those garages. To have a stake in the game.
Through Facebook, he met a like-minded open-wheel junkie named Jason Peters, who was living in Colorado. Peters happened to know the Lazier family in Vail. Bob had raced in the Indy 500 back in ’81. His sons, Buddy and Jaques, were also Indy car drivers. Buddy won in ’96.
In February 2012, Nielsen flew to Vail for a meeting. He, Peters, Lazier and a fourth partner hatched a plan to enter the Indy 500. Lazier, 73, had been down that road before and was interested in competing again.
The stranger from Omaha helped re-ignite him. They formed Lazier Partners Racing, with Buddy behind the wheel.
The 2000 IndyCar Series champion is one of the most decorated drivers ever at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Buddy has run the Indy 500 16 times, finishing five times in the top five.
So they had a plan and a driver. But in 2012, they couldn’t find a car. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, Nielsen thought.
Then this spring, Peters got wind of an available chassis outside Chicago. It was only a year old — Jean Alesi had raced it at the 2012 Indy 500. A new car would’ve cost them $400,000. Lazier Partners could buy this one for $250,000.
“It was just a good enough reason to do it,” Nielsen said.
Bob Lazier opened his Rolodex and started tapping his connections. In mid-April, they closed a deal on the car. Meanwhile, Nielsen and Peters went to work to find sponsors. It hasn’t been easy.
Nielsen estimated that the team had already invested a half million dollars. And prior to Wednesday, when a new sponsor came aboard, they were still worried if they’d have enough to buy tires — a new set costs $2,800, Nielsen said.
Sunday is qualifying Bump Day, and if the No. 91 car makes the field, Nielsen will be chasing investors all week. Even if the 91 runs well, Lazier Partners has no intention of joining the circuit and chasing the high-profile teams like Penske. However, it has set a goal to run in the Indy 500 the next five years.
Buddy Lazier is the oldest driver in the field at 45 and hasn’t run at Indy since 2008. Nor has he ever competed in this car. Bob Lazier isn’t worried.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” he said.
Nielsen is still on training wheels. He doesn’t have an Indy pedigree. He doesn’t have a fat wallet. He can’t fix an engine. He’s just a guy from Nebraska willing to take a chance.
“I don’t really have any business being here,” he said.
That might be the best part.
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