True Value IROC: Al Unser, Jr. Interview DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 4, 2002) -- The 2002 True Value IROC season will mark the 15th series appearance by Al Unser Jr. - a number exceeded only by Dale Earnhardt's record of 17 appearances. Below is a...
True Value IROC: Al Unser, Jr. Interview
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 4, 2002) -- The 2002 True Value IROC season will mark the 15th series appearance by Al Unser Jr. - a number exceeded only by Dale Earnhardt's record of 17 appearances. Below is a question and answer conducted with Unser from his office in Albuquerque, N.M.
Unser won the first of his two IROC series championships in his 1986 rookie season. He was 23 years old and remains the youngest champion in IROC history. His second championship was in 1988. He was also the third Unser to win the IROC championship. His uncle, Bobby Unser, won in 1975 and his father, Al, was the 1978 winner.
Little Al and Earnhardt share the record for most IROC wins at 11. One of Unser's 11 IROC wins came at the 1997 Daytona opener. He was the fifth and last open wheel racer to win on the famed 2.5-mile oval. The other four were: Bobby Unser (1975), Mario Andretti (1978), Al Unser (1986) and Scott Pruett (1991).
Unser and the 11 other invited drivers will kick off the 26th True Value IROC season, Friday, Feb. 15 at Daytona International Speedway in a 40-lap, 100-mile race. Race one will be broadcast on Saturday, Feb. 16 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time on ESPN.
Joining Unser, Jr. representing the Indy Racing League will be 2001 champion, Sam Hornish, Jr.; 2001 Indy 500 winner, Helio Castroneves; 2000 champion Buddy Lazier, and 1996 co-champion, Scott Sharp. Also competing are 2001 World of Outlaws champion, Danny Lasoski; 2001 NASCAR Busch Series champion, Kevin Harvick; 2001 NASCAR Truck Series champion, Jack Sprague and NASCAR Winston Cup drivers, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and 2001 True Value IROC champion, Bobby Labonte.
This will be your 15th season competing in the True Value IROC series, what are your general feelings in regards to the series?
First off, IROC has been around for quite some time. I watched my father and uncle Bobby race in IROC and as a kid I thought it would be really neat if someday I would get an opportunity to run IROC. And I was fortunate enough to have that day come in 1986 and what can I say. It's an honor to just be invited to IROC because of what it stands for and all of the great champions who have raced in the series since its inception. And then to win in IROC is icing on the cake, just makes it more special. Barbara and Jay Signore run a great outfit. And the mechanics have also been great to work with. You know, there are several mechanics who have been involved in all of the times I've run the series. They're just a wonderful group of people to be involved with and they make it fun. Anytime they've invited me to IROC, I accepted it because it's an honor to get out there and run these cars.
There have been 20 IROC races on the Daytona oval and a NASCAR driver has won all but five of those races. Though you were one of the five non-NASCAR drivers to win there, do you feel the open wheel racers have a disadvantage?
I guess we really don't have a disadvantage per se, the only thing is learning the draft because the draft is such a huge part of the racing on those big tracks. Drafting is not that critical in our single-seat open wheel carsit's therebut not nearly as much. You need to find a dancing partnerneed to find somebody out there to draft with and one who knows what they're doing. I always picked Dale, and if I could draft with Earnhardt then I knew I was doing good. If I couldn't draft with Dale, I would try to find a dancing partner who was a NASCAR boy and go from there. But once you've done it (draft) a couple of times then you understand it. Eddie Cheever knows what the draft is and so does all of the rest of them, once they've done it a few times.
Have you ever gotten the cold shoulder from a NASCAR driver when looking for a drafting partner?
I don't think that has ever happened, maybe it has. A couple of times they would say, okay we're going to go and give me a signal out of the window. I move out of line to go with them, but they don't go. So what do I do, I just get right back in line. There are a lot games being played out there amongst the drivers. But nobody has done anything to me that I haven't done to them.
Of the five non-NASCAR racers to win an IROC race on the Daytona oval, three have been Unsers, your dad, your uncle and you. Any thoughts or feelings on this?
My Dad seemed to do that place pretty goodhe was able to adapt to it quickly. Uncle Bobby did a great job too. Yes, it's special and we all feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to pull into victory lane there. It's always special to win at Daytona.
You have won two True Value IROC season championships, the last one coming in 1988. What would it mean to you to win a third championship?
I'll tell you this; it's been too long since the last one (1988) and to win it so many years later would mean everything to me.
Your thoughts about sharing the record with Dale Earnhardt for most IROC wins at 11?
I don't think about that record. We've had an awful lot of fun in IROC. What it's really all about is winning the IROC season championship. That's what you think about. On the way to winning the championship you need to win some races or at least do very well in the races. My main focus has always been to take one race at a time and do the best job I can do.
You raced 13 straight years in IROC -- 1986-1998. You came back last year as a substitute driver for Scott Goodyear. Did you notice or feel any major differences in the True Value IROC series?
Yes, the cars are faster than they were. My last full invitation with IROC was in 1998. When I came back last year to fill in for Scott Goodyear at Michigan, I was running around that track almost wide open all the way around. In 1998 and the years prior, there was no way you could run flatfooted in Michigan. Jay (Signore), the mechanics and test team have done a great job in making sure the cars are safe and set up equally.
Is there any driver or drivers who you feel will have an edge in this year's True Value IROC series?
No one guy stands out in IROC. Everyone who races in this series is tough because they're champions. When you get 12 champions together like that, all hell breaks loose.
Three of the four True Value IROC races this year are on tracks that IRL also competes on - California, Chicago and Indianapolis. Will this help the IRL drivers?
You would think so, but not really. IRL might race at three of the tracks, but when we race IROC it's a NASCAR weekend and not an IRL weekend -- that's the big difference. You know, I raced the Daytona 500 in 1993. I was down there in my stock car practicing, and once I was done practicing I would jump into the IROC car. I was right at home instantly, I knew the condition of the track, I've been drafting with these guys in practice and then I draft with them in the IROC car, I felt so much more at home. When you're not running NASCAR you spend the first couple of laps figuring out the conditions and the quickest way around the track. When you're there practicing in NASCAR you know all of that stuff before you even turn an IROC wheel.
Is there one IROC race you recall more than any other?
Gosh, winning at Daytona was very, very special, winning in Talladega was special. You know, when we used to run on road courses I was extremely fond of those (laugh). There have been a lot of special races, but the one I do recall was at Watkins Glen, the final race in 1987. I felt Geoff Bodine jumped me on the start and they still threw the green flag and I remember going up to Harold (former NASCAR flagman Harold Kinder) at the end of the race. I went up there and started to chew him a new one because I thought it was unfair they threw the flag. I finished second and Bodine finished first. Had I won the race I would have won the championship, but Bodine ended up winning it. I was hot and when I got back to the garage no one could believe that I'd gone up and chewed out Harold. I learned that was a big "no-no." Nobody did that, but I felt it was unfair and I told him so. Once I got to my motorhome and calmed down Harold came over and said he didn't think it was all that bad and was sorry I felt that way. We had a nice talk and buried the hatchet.
The next year we showed up at Watkins Glen in '88 it was the same thing. Bodine was on the pole and I started second. And I remember Earnhardt and all of the NASCAR boys were leaning on Geoff's car and I was leaning on my car so it was like all of the NASCAR guys against me. Earnhardt started to stir the pot by saying -- he's going to jump you just like he did last year. Earnhardt was really giving me a hard time about it and I said to myself there isn't any way Bodine is going to jump me again. It took three starts to get us off. This time I jumped him and won the race and the championship.