Eliseo Salazar, by Bruce Martin

For most of his Indy car career, Eliseo Salazar has been much maligned and suffered a good deal of poor luck, but one exception to his general bad fortune is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Eliseo Salazar, by Bruce Martin

In his first Indianapolis 500 in 1995, he started 24th and finished fourth. The memorable sight after the race was Salazar running down the pit lane waving the flag of his native Chile.

"This series is bigger in Chile than it is in the United States," Salazar said.

The following year - the first Indianapolis 500 that was part of the Indy Racing League - Salazar started on the outside of the front row and was one of the contenders for the victory. But he was involved in two major controversies throughout the event.

Salazar was ready to quit racing. But IRL team owner A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 as a driver, rescued him from obscurity.

"I was going to quit Indy cars," Salazar said. "I believe I had the talent to win, but this series is so competitive if you are not with a good team, you are not going to win. If I wasn't with Kelley, Menard or Foyt, then I was going to leave and probably run in either American Le Mans or the Trans Am Series.

"The day A.J. Foyt called me and told me I was his driver, I told him I was going to do whatever he said. He won 67 races and I haven't even races in 67 races! I'm going to be just a good boy and do whatever he says."

The 44-year-old native of Santiago, Chile has been competitive in all three Indy Racing Northern Light Series races this season, and was battling for the lead at Las Vegas on April 22 before Sarah Fisher spun out in front of him sending both cars to the fourth turn wall. Prior to that, he finished fifth at Walt Disney World and fourth at Phoenix.

He came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year with Foyt and has been one of the fastest drivers throughout the month. Salazar will start on the outside of the front row for the second time in his career in Sunday's 84th Indianapolis 500.

"This front row is a lot different than 1996," Salazar said. "I didn't have the experience I have now and I wasn't with A.J. Foyt, who has given me so much inside information. In a way, it is very much different.

"I feel I have the experience now to get the win."

When Foyt hired Salazar to join his two-car operation in the IRL this season, some of the old-school racers thought the American-flag waving defender of the grass-roots American driver had sold out.

After all, what kind of grass roots experience did Salazar - a former Formula One driver - have?

"I read a lot of articles criticising the decision," Salazar said. "I feel that I deserve the chance. I have worked hard on this and have come back from accidents that were not my fault. Everybody says Salazar has a lot of accidents, but I've had three and two of them were not my fault, they were mechanical failures.

"I was a bit pissed off at that. I talked to A.J. at the open test at Disney and I told him to give me a chance and I'll do whatever he says. I have tried to respond to that. We have had a very good start of the season. I feel really comfortable now."

Salazar is hoping with the additional experienced he has gained from running in four Indianapolis 500s, he will be a serious contender for victory this Sunday.

"Dick Simon taught me the line when I was here the first year," Salazar said. "I got to like this track from the very beginning. I was running third with 11 laps to go in 1995 when I was behind Scott Goodyear and Jacques Villeneuve before Goodyear went by the pace car. I had to brake hard to keep from hitting Jacques. I finished fourth and I felt it was unbelievable to have a chance to win here in my very first Indianapolis 500. I would be stupid to think this would be easy.

"The following year, I was in the front row but I didn't have the experienced that I needed. I fully believe you need to be here four or five times before you can really get the experience. I was really anxious that year because I was coming back from a serious accident" - Salazar had suffered serious leg injuries in the first-ever IRL race at Walt Disney World Speedway in 1996.

"It was a very emotional time for me to come back and start on the front row in 1996," Salazar said. "I made a couple of mistakes getting out of the pits. Arie Luyendyk was in the lead and I put too much power and the turbocharger kicked in and I was an idiot. That is a big moment that I regret.

"I felt like I had a chance that year, but I got too excited."

Salazar will start alongside another famous driver from South American, CART champion Juan Montoya of Colombia.

"I never met him before, but we talked a lot during the front row picture on Sunday morning," Salazar said. "We were talking in Spanish and Greg Ray said, `Hey guys, you should be speaking English here.' I said, `We can't because we're talking about you.'

"He is a nice kid. When you watch him on TV, he is very arrogant and cocky. But I got a much different impression talking to him. I think he is a kid that enjoys racing a lot. He doesn't feel all the myths that surround this place. That's because he is new around here. I think he will be tough because to him, it's not the big deal that we have created about this race."

Salazar believes Foyt's well-financed race team has given him all the tools that are needed to win the biggest race in the world.

"You don't have to worry about things other than driving," Salazar said. "A.J. has everything under control. He has so much experience and all of his guys know what to do. For me, it lets me focus on my driving.

"To come to the Indianapolis 500 with A.J. Foyt, there is going to be a lot of pressure. But if you are going to be a champion, you have to withstand the pressure and show you are able to cope with it. There will be a lot of pressure on me because of all the people in Chile watching this, because of A.J. Foyt, because of starting on the front row with the IRL champion and the CART champion and me. It could be very interesting."

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