AL JR. GOES BACK TO THE FUTURE IN FIRST INDY RACING TEST
PHOENIX, Dec. 21, 1999 -- In 38 days, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. starts a dramatic new phase in an auto racing career that already has him headed toward the sport's Hall of Fame. On Jan. 29, Unser will make his Indy Racing League debut in the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway. He moves over to the Indy Racing League after competing in 273 CART races, winning 31 and earning more than $20 million in prize money. That kind of success could cause Unser to be a bit haughty about his Indy Racing debut. But that's not the case at all. After completing his first two days of testing in the new Galles ECR Racing G Force/Aurora/Firestone on Dec. 21 at Phoenix International Raceway, Unser jested about his soon-to-be first appearance with Indy Racing League regulars, including champion Greg Ray. "I just need everybody to know I'm a rookie and to be on the lookout for me," he said. Of course, that doesn't mean he's actually admitting that he'll perform like a neophyte. When asked about learning the driving styles of his new competitors, Unser said, "I'm hoping they're all in my rearview mirror and I don't have to study them at all." Unser did a lot of studying during his two-day session at the 1-mile desert oval where he has driven a CART car on many occasions. It was a learning session as Unser drove a normally aspirated Indy Racing car for the first time. The G Force chassis, the 3.5-liter engine and Firestone tires all are new to him, but the Galles ECR crew had the car ready to perform. "The first day felt really good," he said. "I had competitive times and the car ran flawlessly." Unser turned 205 laps during two days of testing in which the team focused on comfort and familiarity, not all-out speed. His best lap was 21.2 seconds, 169.811 mph. One advantage for Unser is there is not the necessary feeling-out period between driver and the owner and crew. Unser won the 1990 CART championship and the 1992 Indianapolis 500 driving for Galles and has worked with engineer Alan Mertens in the past, too. "It was like getting back on a bicycle," Unser said. Unser noted the first thing he learned about the Indy Racing car was that it seemed more trustworthy than the CART machine he tested there in 1997 with a smaller rear wing. In the Indy Racing car, Unser was able to run a high or low line through the corners. "You feel more security," he said. "Right in the middle of the corner, the CART car doesn't have much grip. This made it a single-line racetrack. With the IRL car, I could run a high line and have the car under me. It was not on the edge." Unser admits that a normally aspirated engine doesn't have the instant response of a turbo-charged car when exiting corners. "But once it gets up singing, it sings pretty good," Unser said. 1996 Indy 200 winner Buzz Calkins shared the private test session with Unser. Unser listed a variety of reasons for choosing Galles ECR Racing and the Indy Racing League over teams from other racing series that courted his services. Among the reasons was the less arduous racing schedule that allows him more time to spend with his family. He also was happy that he lives in the same city as the Galles ECR shop, Albuquerque, N.M., giving him the enjoyable opportunity to visit the shop everyday, talk to the mechanics and see the car evolve. And Unser knows the Indy Racing League is the best fit because he badly wants to return to the Indianapolis 500. "I have nothing to prove," he said about his stellar career. "Why I'm out there is I'm doing what I love most, driving race cars. "I've got a lot of personal issues to handle at the Indy 500. That's why I went with Rick. The last time I was there I didn't qualify (1995). I'm only thinking about making the show. If I make it, then I'll talk about the race." Unser's next plan is to participate in the league's second Open Test on Jan. 5-6 at Walt Disney World Speedway. Unser indicated that he and the team will be acclimated to the Indy Racing car by the Delphi Indy 200 showdown that kicks off major-league racing in the new millennium. "The team is top quality," he said. "Rick knows what it takes to be No. 1. He hasn't forgotten how to win."