Like his father before him, Al Unser III is getting his racing education in the Toyota Atlantic Championship, beginning this weekend at Portland International Raceway where the ladder series will put on two contests in support of the Champ Car...
Like his father before him, Al Unser III is getting his racing education in the Toyota Atlantic Championship, beginning this weekend at Portland International Raceway where the ladder series will put on two contests in support of the Champ Car World Series.
Unser, 22, has been bouncing between the Toyota Atlantic Championship and the Menards Infiniti Pro Series over the past season or so, getting the seat time needed to race on a competitive level. He's decided to stick with this championship, which operates on road and street courses for the balance of the season, joining Brooks Associates Racing as teammate to German Andreas Wirth, the 2004 Formula BMW USA champion.
Among Unser's rationales for joining Brooks' operation is the continued affiliation with engineer Peter Jacobs, with whom Unser enjoyed his best Toyota Atlantic finish last year, taking eighth in Montreal. Unser raced in only four of the 12 2004 Atlantic contests in 2004 and, working with Jacobs on three of them was an incentive to return.
Sponsorship for the #10 Toyota/Swift 008.i/Yokohama entry comes from two sources: BOSpoker.net (an entertainment only gaming site hosted by BETonSPORTS PLC) and PKV Racing, which also supports Long Beach Atlantic winner Katherine Legge.
"I'm very excited about this opportunity," Unser admitted. "I can't wait to start working with Peter Jacobs again. He's extremely smart and we mesh well together. And I'm extremely pleased to start at Portland, where my dad won his first Champ Car race in 1984."
Former Toyota Atlantic driver turned owner John Brooks applauded "this homecoming for Al. He did three of his four races with us last year and divided his seat time. We approached Al about driving on Peter's car and he snapped it up. We're nice and comfortable having Al back on the team."
There was a time when Unser used to roller-blade around the 1.969-mile Portland circuit but he's looking forward to driving it this weekend. "Portland is a very special place for me and my family, and I remember the huge floats of flowers in the Rose Festival. The city is behind this race and I'm glad to see GI Joe's is still sponsoring the Champ Car race," Unser said.
Sponsor BoSPOKER makes its series debut this weekend as Unser's sponsor while its primary online poker website - BOSPoker.com - serves as presenting sponsor in Portland, at Cleveland next week, in Denver and at the Atlantic's Road America round.
"BoSPOKER.com is excited to partner with a great young driver like Al Unser III and we look forward to being part of his continuing the family success in open wheel racing," declared CEO David Carruthers. "Partnering with Al, Champ Car and various charities over the balance of the 2005 season will be a great experience for us and for race fans alike."
Unser noted the company wanted "prime coverage so we came onboard" to aid delivery for BETonSPORTS PLC, a publicly traded company on the London Stock Exchange. Unser chose to concentrate on the Atlantic series "because it's a proven entity with Atlantic champions winning in other [big car] series. The cars have limited horsepower but a whole lot of downforce that gives good entry speed. That's something you can use when you get into the bigger Champ cars," he related.
Right now the Albuquerque native has committed to the full Atlantic season, "but if an opportunity in the Pro series turns up on a non-conflicting weekend, we'd take a look at it," he confirmed.
When he was younger - and smaller - Al Unser III was known as "mini Al" but when he got to be about 12 or 13, Unser retold, "The Penske mechanics told me I wasn't 'mini' anymore and asked what I want to be called from then on? I told them to call me Al, just Al, so another nickname was born."
Unser III takes advice from his grandfather Al, who has four Indianapolis 500 wins and from his father Al Unser Jr, whose mug is imbedded twice on the Borg Warner Trophy. "I think my driving style is closer to my gramps', but I've taken advice from both of them. They tell me to be consistent and move to the front and that's what I try to do."
While his father doesn't come to the tracks terribly often, "he does help out. We're always on the phone discussing things but you can only use advice to a certain extent. It's me in the car, not them."
Unser faces a big challenge coming into the Atlantic series after two races have already been run. "The mechanics at Brooks Racing might not always know what I mean but Peter and I can communicate really well so I think we'll be okay. When I tested, I was only a couple of tenths off Andreas' time so we're pretty quick. John has expertise as a driver turned owner and he's placed an emphasis on hiring good personnel," Unser declared.
Brooks is very excited to have Unser back after he went from series to series looking for a niche. "There may have been too much diversity for Al in 2004 and into this season but we're excited now that we have him in a consistent program and there's no more jumping back and forth. We have very high hopes to get Al to the front and see him improve through the season."
Whether Toyota will continue with this series next year is still under discussion, but Brooks has put the faith of his 11-year-old team in Champ Car's ownership and expects to be back in 2006 with a two-car squad. "Champ Car wants to continue providing a viable series and they are looking at a bunch of different options," Brooks explained.
"We would like to see more horsepower and an improved TV package and the owners understand our needs. I believe that's the way it will go," Brooks suggested. "Dick Eidswick and Tony Cotman have my full support. They want to get the best people, cars and drivers to showcase in a good competitive series," he offered.
Unser, of course is looking beyond the Toyota Atlantic Championship and hopes to raise funds to race in the season-closing Mexico City Champ Car race. I'd like to do a full season of Toyota Atlantic next year with two or three Champ Car races and race full-time in Champ cars in 2007," he said.
The brace of Toyota Atlantic Championship races set for this weekend will be shown delayed on Speed Channel, with an expected air time of June 25th at 2PM EDT. This schedule is subject to change and viewers are advised to check local listings.