IRL: Al Unser Jr press conference, part I

Indy Racing League June 10, 2003 Part 1 of 2 Al Unser Jr. K. Miller: Al, we appreciate you taking time to join us, and we'd like to start with Jeff Simmons, the Infiniti Pro Series driver. He was on before you and said to make sure that we...

Indy Racing League
June 10, 2003

Part 1 of 2

Al Unser Jr.

K. Miller: Al, we appreciate you taking time to join us, and we'd like to start with Jeff Simmons, the Infiniti Pro Series driver. He was on before you and said to make sure that we passed on our congratulations on an outstanding victory, and I'm sure everyone on the call would echo that. Point zero-eight-one of a second was the margin of victory over Tony Kanaan. I know you've been asked this numerous times since the race, but for those of us on the call, walk us through that last lap yourself. Tell us what was going through your thoughts, obviously coming off of two very close finishes in the past couple of years. Are you thinking, 'I can't lose another photo finish?' Are you thinking, 'This is mine, I'm going to make sure I get this,' and what are your thoughts?

Unser: ell, first off I want to thank everybody for joining us today and, yes, it was one of those close calls. When we started and Tony Kanaan got next to me on the back straightaway, I was thinking, 'Oh no, chances of me winning this one are slim.' But you know, my Toyota engine pulled me through, and we came around and won the race. It was fantastic for Kelley Racing, for Corteco/Bryant Heating and Cooling, all my sponsors. A lot of hard work and it was great to finally win.

K. Miller: As I mentioned, two close finishes, most notably the exact same race last year at Texas, .011 of a second, you lost that race to Jeff Ward and then at Chicago, also last year, .0024 was the margin of victory for Sam Hornish, Jr. over you. Do you like those close finishes or really would you preferred to not have the stress and just run away with the win?

Unser: I think the close finishes are great for the fans, but for myself, no, I don't like those close finishes, and I guess Firestone gave me some bigger tires this time and we were able to win.

K. Miller: You're driving the No. 31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota/Firestone for Kelley Racing. This is the first year you've driven the No. 31 since your 1994 season, is that correct?

Unser: Yes, it is.

K. Miller: And I understand that is the season you were driving for Penske Racing, you won your second Indy 500, you won your second CART championship, you won eight of 16 races in the number 31 that year. Obviously, you're second in points and have a shot at the championship this year. Are you superstitious? Does the 31 have anything to do with it?

Unser: Well, the 31 car was the lucky car for me in '94. The 7 car I've run in the past. The 7 car I won my first race in, in 1984, it was the 7 Coors Light car, but I only won one race that year, and then every time I've had the 7, I haven't won or had a good season. The 31 car gave me a great year and so we went with that. I guess I am a little superstitious about that, and so the 31 car was the lucky car for me, and now it's turned out to be again a lucky car for me.

K. Miller: The point standings, as they stand now, Tony Kanaan, 177, you're in second with 151. Interesting stat I want to note for the journalists on the call, you're the oldest driver in the series at 41 years old. Your father won the 1983 CART championship at 44 and then came back and won the CART championship two years later at age 46. Do you feel like age doesn't matter? You certainly have a shot at the championship, 40, 30, 20 years old, it can be done?

Unser: It truly can be done and the reason why is because I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I love driving these cars. And as long as I enjoy it and I'm competitive, then we're going to keep doing it.

Q: Al, I just wanted to ask you about the sensation of racing at Richmond International Raceway, something that small at the speed that guys run, can you break down the thought processes as you make a lap, or if there is a thought process?

Unser: Well, most definitely Richmond is a little bullring. It is the smallest oval that we race on in the series, and it's got some banking to it and so it's an enjoyable racetrack. The cars run fast there. They run extremely close. And, you know, it being on a Saturday night, it truly is a Saturday-night fight because of how small it is and you end up rubbing wheels with people and so instead of, in our series instead of it being Darlington stripes, we call them Richmond stripes around there.

Q: It sounds like you take this all quite in stride, but are there any legitimate, you know, safety issues in putting open-wheel cars on a track that small?

Unser: No, not at all. I mean the cars that we run, the IRL does a great job as far as the safety of them and so, you know, as drivers, we get out there and we drive them as hard as we can, and we go racing in it. That's all there is to it.

Q: Hey, Al, how are you?

Unser: Doing great.

Q: Hey, first of all I wanted to get your thoughts on Pikes Peak. In the past this race is kind of been a sprint. Now that you have the superior engine in Toyota, I'm curious how important qualifying is going to be for you to get up front and obviously get in front of those Chevys and stay up there.

Unser: Well, based on last year's race, you know, you could throw a blanket over the top three finishers. The two Marlboro cars and Sam Hornish in the Pennzoil car were just nose to tail the entire race. And based on that, you know, that's the way I really see the race coming up, so qualifying is going to be important. Your pit stops are going to be very important because it is hard to pass when you get toward the front up there. So it's a race where the man who makes the least amount of mistakes is the one who's going to win.

Q: My second question, Al, I want to talk about the alcohol thing. How much is not having alcohol in your system helped you focus behind the wheel?

Unser: It helped me quite a bit. I mean, when I'm away from the racetrack it's really the most time that has helped me in, so my life is extremely good, and I'm enjoying it. And my performance on the track really hasn't changed all that much because I never had alcohol around me at the racetrack. But away from the racetrack my life is so much better. And then that has kind of been a snowball effect, I would say, as far as when I get to the racetrack, my mind is so much clearer, and then when I get out of the race car, I physically feel better and I'm mentally stronger at the end of the races.

Q: Well, do you think not having alcohol in your life anymore has helped you gain in the points? I mean, you're second in the points, do you think that's a direct a correlation there?

Unser: Yeah, it has definitely helped. You know, it just definitely helps. I mean, like I said, when I show up to the track I feel so much better, and then when I'm away from the track I feel a lot better so.

Q: Hi Al. I wanted you to, first of all, accept this with respect that I really mean this, but you're really in this championship hunt. As we go to the second half of the season, you've won at St. Louis, you've won, Chicago, we know how you ran there last year, Texas you've won at, the team has run extremely well at Nazareth. And the mile-and-a-half tracks that are left, I mean, you have fared pretty well on mile-and-a-half. Do you feel differently now about your chances to win this championship? Maybe, I'm sure you went into the season thinking you're going to. You like to compete, but you really, legitimately, are in this championship hunt.

Unser: I feel good about it. I guess that the most important thing that happened at Kelley Racing was over the wintertime. They brought Steve Newey on board. They've really gone into the next level, you know, they've brought on the Toyota engine, and (team owner) Tom (Kelley) himself has made a commitment, personally, to do whatever it takes to win this championship, and both myself and Scott Sharp were working really well together. The engineers are working really well together, and the whole team is pulling in the same direction and so, yes, we have been strong on the mile-and-a-half. And, you know, personally I've been looking at the next two races that are on the small ovals. If we can come away with a podium finish, then we're going to be really, really strong for winning this championship.

Q: And I guess I was making this point after the race, that your skills in the draft have always been such a big thing. I mean, obviously Dale Earnhardt always talked about you being kind of one of the guys in the IROC game that understood the draft. Do you feel like that's kind of been one of your difference makers on those big tracks?

Unser: I would hope to think so. I mean, all that I can say is that I've really enjoyed the mile-and-a-half. It is a drafting game. I would hope to think that during the IROC races that I run and understanding the draft and all that sort of thing has helped us. You know, another big help is my father's knowledge of the draft and what he has passed to me. So, we just enjoyed those mile-and-a-half races. The teams got a great setup for that and so that's the races that we do well at.

Q: Finally, have you, at some point in this season, decided that championship now is legitimately within reach, or like you said, maybe you have to come out of these next two races to know that?

Unser: If we can come out of the next two races, you know, because at Kelley Racing the little ovals are the ones that we tend to struggle at. Both Scott Sharp and myself have done testing, we've been working at it, and I feel confident going up to Pikes Peak because Scott has tested up there and he came away from there, from the test, feeling that we had a good setup on the car. And I've been able to drive Scott's set up and what he's found to be really good, and so I'm really looking forward to this coming up weekend.

Q: I got a feeling when I was watching you hoist that trophy up and almost turn in circles and show it to everybody, that in some respect you were saying to the world, "Hey, look, Al can still win races." In effect, were you saying that?

Unser: You know, the last two races that I had won, the first one I dedicated to my daughter, Cody, and the second one I dedicated to my son, little Joe, who had never been to victory lane. And so, the next race was dedicated to me, and really that's the way that I felt. You know, it has been a long time and with everything that I've been through, that was the race that I truly wanted for myself, and I'm just so happy that it came in Texas. I'm so happy that it came this early in the season. And now what we've got to do is take the Corteco/Bryant Special and go win the IRL championship.

Q: Does it make it a little better that it wasn't because you outwitted someone or a caution flag fell at the right time, but that you just flat-out drove to win?

Unser: I was fortunate that I had a great team and really that's the way I consider it. You know, I'm just one link in the chain that makes the win, and so my guys did it for me because they moved me up every time we came in the pits. They had awesome pit stops, and the way I feel about it is all I did was perform as well as they were performing and so I was just part of the team on the team win.

Q: Are you going to walk a little taller when you arrive at Pikes Peak?

Unser: Maybe for a little while until the first practice session. But, you know, it will all start over again ,and the IRL is very, very competitive, and there are a lot of drivers that are great race car drivers and great teams out there. And so we're going to have to work for everything we get.

-irl-

part II

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Tony Kanaan , Al Unser Sr. , Jeff Simmons , Sam Hornis
Teams Team Penske