Continued from part 1. Q: You talked about the heart and passion it takes to be in this sport. When did you start to have ... at what point did you start to question that was it for you? Unser: It really happened Sunday after the Richmond...
Continued from part 1.
Q: You talked about the heart and passion it takes to be in this sport. When did you start to have ... at what point did you start to question that was it for you?
Unser: It really happened Sunday after the Richmond race. You know, I was just thinking about it and thinking about my whole career. Just coming to a realization of, "Is your heart in it?" So I'm not going to ... Basically it was part of a talk that I had with my father. Basically my father had said when I talked to him on Sunday. He said, "If your heart's not in it, and you continue, the more you run, the lower everything gets for you." He was talking from his own experiences. A driver knows when it's time. I remember a quote from Rick Mears when he retired, I really didn't understand at that time. He put it very simple: The amount of commitment you have to have at this level racing, he was no longer willing to maintain that level. I guess that's exactly where I'm at. I'm no longer willing to maintain that level of sacrifice, of desire, of sheer drive and willing to put racing before everything in my life. There comes a time you realize this.
Q: In the clip before the news conference, when they put the wreath over you. You said, "You just don't know Indy or you don't understand Indy." Try to capture that now, what it is about Indy.
Unser: What I said is, "You just don't know what Indy means." And really what I was thinking was, it was my family. It was the pressure that was on me, that I had put on myself of coming here and doing well, you know, being compared to my father, who is just a great champion and a legend at Indianapolis. My father's led more laps than anybody in the history of Indy. He^Òs won it as many times as anybody else in history.
Just in my family, the Indianapolis 500 is the biggest thing in the world. And I grew up thinking that. I grew up with Indy 500 on my brain ever since my dad got that go kart for me and started teaching me the desire and the sacrifice, and the level of concentration, all that that you have to have to be a winner and to be a champion.
When I won Indy that first year, you know, and that wreath was going over me, all of a sudden there was a lot of pressure that was lifted off of me. I can compare that to my decision on Sunday when I made it and I had talked to Pat, I had talked with my father, the pressure had lifted off of me. I can compare it to that. Now I've closed a chapter in my life, and I'm opening a new one. That new one involves my son, Al, Little Al now, my children.
Q: Al, as one who entered the racing business early in life, what did success cost you emotionally?
Unser: Wow, that's a tough question. I mean, success, I guess what it taught me mostly was if you work hard enough, if you think about it long enough and have persistence, then whatever you dream of in life can come true. We^Òve worked very hard at everything we've done in my career, at all the races I've driven. If you believe in it and work hard enough at it, then your dreams can happen for you.
Q: I'm sitting here with Albert, Cody, a bunch of people here in Albuquerque. As you lost time with Albert, did your father start working with you a lot sooner than you were getting serious working with Albert?
Unser: As far as time with my son or my time that my father had with me, I started racing go karts when I was 9 years old. I never missed a summer of racing since that time, and that goes back to the early '70s that I've raced every summer since. With my son, Little Al, we started him in go karts when he was around 10 years old. Really, I think he felt a little bit of different pressure or what have you that at that time when he was that age, he really didn't seem to enjoy it. And so we as parents, his mother and myself, racing is something that you don't force on anybody. At that time, he wasn^Òt enjoying it, so we decided he^Òd be better off doing some other sports or something like that. And so he did quit racing at that time. He got back into racing right about the time that he turned 16 and he got a driver's license and started driving a car. Then he showed some interest about racing. We started sending him to some driving schools. I believe basically his career started right about that time when he was 16 or 17.
So now it's still very young. He's 21 years old, and he'll be debuting this weekend at Kansas. I'm extremely proud of Little Al, where his mind is today, and I^Òm going to be there for him.
Q: You crossed over with your dad. You raced for a few years with him. Are you going to regret the fact you're not going to be able to race on the same course at the same time with Albert?
Unser: I've thought about that. As a matter of fact, when I came with this decision, I was talking with Al, Al did mention that, you know, that he wanted to race against me. There's plenty of time for me and Little Al to race our snowmobiles and our motorcycles and our four wheelers and so on. But, you know, my father raced longer than I have, you know, my dad went into his 50s before he retired from racing. I started my career at the Indy 500 when I was 21, when I just turned 21. My dad went a little bit further than I have with Little Al. Also the other side of the coin, my racing started earlier than what Little Al has done. Maybe Al may regret not being able to race me, but I^Òll be there for him.
Q: Obviously on a day like today, you think a lot about Indy and Long Beach and Toronto, places like that. Have you had time over the last few days to reflect all the way back to the fun of going to Manzanita with a sprint car or Knoxville or places like that?
Unser: Sure, sure. I've thought a lot about all the racing that I've done, not just at Indianapolis. You know, Indianapolis is the top level, and it^Òs the pinnacle of my career. But the beginning of it was that go kart. And I can tell you, all the way back to those days when I'd come home from school on a Wednesday, my dad would already have the go kart loaded in the truck, the track was about a half a mile, a mile to our house. He say, "Hurry up, let's go." Have some trick fuel with nitrous in it, all this other stuff. We'd go up, and we'd unload the go kart. I'd make it out of the pits and about halfway down the straightaway, and it would blow up. We'd have to push it back to the truck, load it back up again and then go back to work on it. We had an engine, we got to find out why it did what it did. Those were the days that I was really taught about racing. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, and that was one of the things my dad told me when I did start racing. It's a lot of hard work and a lot of desire to do this business. You have to work hard at it.
Q: Could you briefly, if you could, talk about what impact racing at Manzanita had on your career?
Unser: The times that I had in Manzanita were they were fun times. I mean, driving those years driving sprint cars, you know, I was 16, 17, 18 years old. At the time, it was serious racing. Driving a sprint car is definitely serious, serious stuff. We had a lot of fun times at Manzanita. Little Al was born in Phoenix; I lived in Phoenix for a time in my life. Phoenix International Raceway was one of those places that I never seemed to crack. I ran second there many times, and it was one of those that eluded me from winning it at PIR. I had been going there since I was a kid, 6 or 7 years old. I guess I can fall back on I did win in Phoenix, and it was in Manzanita. I had a lot of fun nights there.
Q: You were one of the first people to come back to the IRL after the split. Could you talk a little bit about the decision why you did that and some of the heat you took for doing it?
Unser: Sure. I didn't ^Å First off, I didn't take any heat for doing it. The reason why I did it is, simply put, I wanted to get back to the Indy 500. I wanted to get back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There was something missing. There was a hole in my chest from not being here.
So that particular year, my contract was up or ended with Roger Penske and it was simply put, are you going to race the Indy 500 the next year? He said no. I did not want go another year not racing here at Indy. I had already given up five years. I couldn't give up another one.
You know, there were things that were on my mind. What on my mind for those five years was the last laps I did here at the Speedway were failing to qualify for the '95 race. I never got the opportunity to come back here and test, nothing. Those were the last laps I had run. So I wanted to get back to the 500 and go and prove that I could qualify for this race. It was just a fluke thing that happened to the team that year. And so I came back, and it was a great day, because it was driving for Rick Galles who brought me to Indy for the first time and in his car I came back in 2000, and I don^Òt know, redeemed myself and my family name.
King: Does a future without being able to strap into a race car, does it intimidate you or scare you?
Unser: What scares me is going to Kansas this weekend and watching Little Al get out there and run wheel to wheel with these guys. I mean, he's got a big thing in front of him, and I'm just very, very proud that I can go there and devote my entire knowledge and so on to helping Little Al win. Hopefully he'll follow in my footsteps and his grandfather's footsteps and eventually come to Indy and qualify for the 500. That's a dream in itself, a very special dream. To be able to pull out in that race track in a single-seat open wheel car, run over 200 mph and qualify for the Indianapolis 500. That truly is a dream in itself. You^Òve got to be in it to win it.
Q: Is your son feeling the same pressure?
Unser: I'm sure he is. No doubt that he^Òs feeling it. I'm sure on that same note that Michael Andretti's son Marco, he^Òs feeling the same pressures that both Michael and myself have felt our entire careers. Both of us had great teachers, and we can Michael feels the same way, that we can pass this along to our children the way our children did to us.
Q: Are you shutting the doors to everything, sports cars, everything, when you walk out?
Unser: I don't know. I can't answer that one. I don't have a glass ball that tells me the future. So, you know, racing has been everything in my entire life. That's the only thing I know. Like I said, when I told Pat, he was very adamant about staying with the team and being a part of his team in some fashion. I said: ^ÓYeah, it^Òs the only thing I know is racing. I'd be honored to stay with Patrick Racing and do everything I can in my power to make it a winning effort.^Ô All I can tell you is what I know today. I am going to be a part of Patrick Racing in some way or another. We^Òve got to work out the details once we get together, and I^Òm going to be at Kansas to support my son, Little Al, in his debut during open-wheel racing.
Q: I know you had the accident in the offseason. I^Òm not saying you^Òre old or anything, but when it takes a little longer to recover, the struggles of a year and a half or so, do you think that had anything to do with not racing longer, took a little longer to recover from the accident. Did that play a role?
Unser: No, neither one of them played a role in what we^Òre doing. Physically I'm in the best shape of my life. Workouts are going to stay the same. My private life and my regimen program will stay identical to what it is right now. Like I said, I feel better today than I ever have. It was more mentally than anything else. Your heart has to be in it. You have to be willing to put everything on the line in order to win at this level. There comes a time in every race car driver's life that he has to face himself in the mirror and ask is your heart in it? Mine^Òs not, so we^Òll close that chapter and start a new one.
King: Al, it's been a great pleasure watching you compete. Great honor to be a part of this day. Thanks very much. Ladies and gentlemen, Al Unser Jr.
Unser: Thank you all for being here.