ROBBY UNSER READY TO TAKE NEXT STEP AT SEASON OPENER INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 18, 1998 -- When Robby Unser scans the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League schedule, two dates pop out at him. The first is the Indianapolis 500 on May 30 at ...
ROBBY UNSER READY TO TAKE NEXT STEP AT SEASON OPENER
INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 18, 1998 -- When Robby Unser scans the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League schedule, two dates pop out at him. The first is the Indianapolis 500 on May 30 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where his father, uncle and cousin have all achieved the ultimate victory in professional motorsports. The second is the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 scheduled Jan. 24 at Walt Disney World Speedway, the opening round of the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League's coast-to-coast slate. Not only is it the first race on the league's schedule, but it's where the racing series staged its very first event in 1996. Walt Disney World Speedway is where this open-wheel tour was born, and that's important to drivers. "When you see a company like Disney supporting our event, that means a lot to us," said Unser, the 1998 Sprint PCS Pep Boys IRL Rookie of the Year. "Everybody takes this race to heart because Disney was one of the first major companies to step up and support the IRL." Unser didn't drive in the first IRL race at Indy, heck, he didn't take his first lap around the intriguing 1-mile oval until Dec. 11, when 14 teams began a weekend test session. It was love at first sight. "I can't stop smiling," said Unser, who drives for Team Cheever. "This is the most fun place I've ever been." The Unser family and Indy-style cars have had a long relationship. Robby's success speaks volumes about the oval-track series, which has opened the door for young, talented drivers to showcase their skills on the big-league level. This Unser is on the move in Pep Boys IRL. He won the prestigious rookie award driving a second car from the race shop of Eddie Cheever Jr., who captured this year's Indianapolis 500. In 1999, Unser will look for his first victory. Unser finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 - his debut in the series -- and scored a career-high second in the Lone Star 500 in September at Texas Motor Speedway. Going to Indy and making a statement as a rookie on the 2.5-mile course was something special for Unser, a 30-year-old from Santa Fe, N.M. "It was interesting, special and really beautiful," said Unser. "I had the opportunity to watch Al (Unser) Jr. his first few years there. To me Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a church. It's not a racetrack. It's holy ground. It gives me life. It's my place of spiritual growth." Unser had a big year as a rookie driver, but he defers praise to his team, which he describes as one of the best in the business. "Quite honestly, whoever was driving my car was going to win Rookie of the Year," said Unser, who won more than $500,000 in '98. "I think I did a good job for them. I tried to do what they said, but quite honestly, I don't think I did anything special. I have a very special team. If any of the other guys had my car, they would have won the award." Unser believes he has talent, but it's not because he was born an Unser. It's because he was born into a racing family. "Talent is what you've got in the brain," said Unser, a lanky 6-footer. "Why am I good? Because I was born an Unser? Well, as a kid all I did was hang around race cars. If all I had done was play baseball, I might be a good baseball player. I started racing when Olympic athletes start their training." Now he's prepared to take his team to the next level -- to victory lane. Unser said all the pieces are in place to start winning races. "We need to continue what we started last year," said Unser. "I need to develop my best and most open communication with the team. I need to be a team player. If those things happen and I can fit in to what I know this team can do, we can win races. "It's preparation, learning and education that keeps you up there all the time," he said. "I don't want to be the guy that wins one. I want to run up front all the time. That takes learning. That takes dedication and proper thought." Unser said his biggest asset right now is Team Cheever, including Owen Snyder. Snyder is Eddie Cheever Jr.'s crew chief. Cheever owns the race team. Snyder has been wrenching Indy-style cars for three decades. "Owen was Al's crew chief for a long time," Unser said about Snyder's work with Al Unser Jr. "I've known Owen forever. He's been kicking me around since I was 10 years old. There's a good history there. There's a lot of faith in me, and the driver needs that to feel confident." Armed with the rookie award and a team that doesn't understand the word "no," Unser is a win waiting to happen, and the driver hopes it happens here for the first time Jan. 24.