During Bob Lazier’s 81 years of living, there were many ways to imagine him dying.
Such as behind the wheel of a race car, which he drove at the Indianapolis 500 in 1981 and during a career that spanned five decades.
Or in the cockpit of old Navy jets, which he fixed up like they were hot rods and flew at speeds exceeding 500 mph.
Or in scuba diving gear, which he wore when he plunged into the murky water of the Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts in search of sunken treasure.
Or on snow skis, on which he barreled down the slopes in Vail, Colorado.
Bob Lazier, right, celebrates after winning the “Indy Legends” Pro-Am in 2015 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the age of 76. (Photo: William Ray)
In fact, Lazier had been cruising on downhill runs at Vail Ski Resort in March the week before he was taken to the hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19 and soon after was put on a ventilator.
He died on April 18, leaving behind three children, three grandchildren and his wife, Diane. He was 81.
“This is the craziest thing in the world,’’ Diane Lazier said. “Who would’ve guessed that a 6-2, strong man would be the one that would get it?"
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In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed other beloved and notable athletes, including:
► Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher who won a World Series ring with the New York Mets in 1969 and three Cy Young Awards in his career. He died at the age of 75.
► Tom Dempsey, the placekicker who was born with no toes on his right foot yet made a 63-yard field goal that remained an NFL record for more than 40 years. He died at the age of 73.
► Steve Dalkowski, the wild, flame-throwing minor league pitcher who inspired the character Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins in the film “Bull Durham.’’ He died at the age of 80.
Lazier was a character, too.
At the race track, he sometimes subsisted on Diet Pepsi and peanut butter. Greeted people with his signature salutation, “Easy Money.’’ Earned the nickname “Borrowing Bob’’ because he was always asking to borrow parts and tools on pit row. And almost always was on the move.
“He ate faster than any human than I’ve ever seen,’’ said Pete Feistmann, who was Lazier’s longtime crew chief. “For Lazier to spend 30 minutes at a dinner table would have been a record worth writing about.’’
But in the high-speed sport, Lazier also took the slow road.
He was 42 when he finally qualified for the Indianapolis 500 in 1981, largely because it took the once-broke driver that long as a commercial builder to fund his own racing career and gain the attention of big-time sponsors.
He was 76 when he finally won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, teaming up with an amateur driver in the 2015 “Indy Legends” Pro-Am at the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.
But he’d put the brakes on racing again because he was busy with a project — construction of a 98,000-square foot residential and parking complex in Vail.
“I think he had another 10 great years in him,’’ said Lazier’s oldest son, Buddy, who won the 1996 Indianapolis 500. “He stuffed more into those 81 years than most people do in five lifetimes.’’
Born in Minnesota the year before World War II broke out, Lazier started life a few laps down. He lived in an orphanage until he was 9. At the time he was adopted, he could not read or write.
It turned out Lazier had dyslexia, and a lot of determination.
He managed to get accepted to the University of Minnesota, where he met his wife at a car racing club. After college they traveled across the country and settled in Vail, where they were running out of money and fell in love with the newly opened ski resort.
Lazier, who was among the first commercial builders in Vail, built a boutique hotel where he and his family lived on the top floor. They called it the Tivoli Lodge. And, as Lazier liked to point out, Tivoli spelled backwards is “I lov iT.”
No one loved life more than Bob Lazier, who started working on race cars in the garage under the hotel. One day he caught the attention of a young ski bum, Chip Ganassi, who went on to become a Hall of Fame car owner.
“Bob flipped me my first copy of Autoweek magazine, and that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship,’’ Ganassi said.
On ski trips, Ganassi and his family were among many of the friends Lazier made in racing who stayed at the Tivoli, where Lazier was as much of a host as owner.
On the track, his breakthrough came in 1981. He qualified for the Indy 500 at the age of 42 after securing sponsorship from Montgomery Ward.
A blown engine forced him out of the race after 154 laps and he finished 19th overall in the 33-car field. Still, he was the 1981 CART Rookie of the Year, with three top-five finishes during the 11-race, IndyCar series.
The next year, Montgomery Ward pulled its sponsorship. That, along with a fatal crash involving one of Lazier’s friends during qualifying at the Indy 500 and work obligations in Vail led him to give up IndyCar racing.
Instead he raced at Daytona International Speedway and was a member of teams that won the GT3 class in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1987 and 1988. Soon after that, however, he stopped car racing again.
But there were still risks — downhill skiing, jet flying and scuba diving with a team that in 1984 found the Whydah Gally, a pirate ship that had sunk off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717.
“He was my sidekick through the whole thing,’’ said Barry Clifford, the underseas explorer credited with finding the ship and its sunken remains that are on display in a Cape Cope museum Clifford and Lazier built.
After mentoring his two race car driving sons — Buddy won 2000 Indy Racing League and Jaques won an IndyCar Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in 2001 — Lazier was lured back to the track. And in 2015, he joined Buddy as the second Lazier to drink celebratory milk on Victory Lane after Lazier and teammate Jim Caudle won the "Indy Legends" Pro-Am race by 48.9 seconds in a 1969 Corvette.
In April, Lazier’s family thought he might pull out an even more improbable triumph. After three weeks in the hospital, he was taken off the ventilator.
“We all talked in the morning and things were going well,’’ Jaques Lazier said. “Around noon, the nurse had called and said he had taken a turn for the worse, and if my Mom wanted to say goodbye to him it had to be real quick.’’
The nurse turned Bob Lazier’s hospital bed so the sun shone as his face before Diane Lazier called to say her final goodbyes.
Bob Lazier, who had suffered a collapsed lung and had previously undiagnosed diabetes, died within an hour.
He was cremated and the remains were buried not far from the Tivoli Lodge. The epitaph on his headstone reads, “He raced life as a grand adventure.’’
He is one of more than 300,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 complications.
“It’s already been seven months since he’s been gone and I still don’t believe it,'' Diane Lazier said. “When you think of it, Bob is one out of all of those hundreds of thousands of people now who are dead because of a little, tiny bug."
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