Indy Racing League March 23, 2004 An Interview With Leonardo Maia and Al Unser, Jr. MODERATOR: Thank you and good afternoon everyone. We'd like to welcome two drivers to today's Indy Racing League teleconference. First, Menards Infininti Pro ...
Indy Racing League
March 23, 2004
An Interview With Leonardo Maia and Al Unser, Jr.
MODERATOR: Thank you and good afternoon everyone. We'd like to welcome two drivers to today's Indy Racing League teleconference. First, Menards Infininti Pro Series Rookie Leo Maia joins us, and later in the call, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. will join us.
Al Unser Jr.
MODERATOR: Al Unser Jr. has announced he is teaming with long-time racing owner Pat Patrick for the 2004 racing car series season. He will start the 2004 season at the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Thank you again for joining us today.
UNSER, JR.: You bet. Thank you.
Q: Congratulations on the announcement that you'll be teaming with Pat Patrick that you made over the weekend. Can you give us your overall thoughts about rejoining the series beginning in May?
UNSER, JR.: Well, I'm very, very happy, obviously. I'm thrilled to death to be driving for Pat Patrick. He's been a long-time car owner, and my family's history goes back with him quite a ways. I've competed against that No. 20 car for many, many years. Most of the time it's been in front of me, but it's been competitive in my entire career. So I'm very proud to be driving it now.
Q: Over the years, we all know how much Indianapolis and the 500 means to you. You have to be ecstatic about perhaps winning that race again, teaming with Patrick, who has won the race three times. But can you talk about Indianapolis, I know you've talked about it so many times before, but how much that race really means to you?
UNSER, JR.: Well, it's hard to put into words what Indy means. You know, it was a dream come true for me just to compete, and then to be successful there is very special. So starting our season there, it's really great that we are able to go there and be with a competitive team like Patrick Racing.
Q: Were there moments in the last few months where you wondered: "Would I get a ride for 2004; will I be back at the Indy 500?"
UNSER, JR.: Honestly, sure. I mean, you never know what's around the corner. There were times that I had opportunities to form a new team, but quite honestly, Pat and I have been talking since last October and I just wanted to do everything I could to be with Pat. We basically stuck it out with him and gambled, or rolled the dice per se, and just worked really hard on putting a deal together with Patrick Racing and Pat himself. Just by staying in communication with him and his positive attitude helped me in staying with him. There were times that I was doubtful, but all I did was just give Pat a call and he'd say, 'Hang in with me, Al, we'll get it together.' You know, there were a couple of times that even Pat said, 'You know, we can sell both of ourselves really good. It's just going out there and selling the sponsors.' I really feel now that we have committed to doing Indy and the rest of the season and we'll be able now to go out and show the sponsors that we're serious and we'll be competitive and we made a commitment and to join a winning team.
Q: Because of the injuries that you received in the off-season, was that a hindrance? And physically, how are you?
UNSER, JR.: Physically, I'm doing great. We're definitely capable of driving race cars today. The first part of your question, no, it wasn't a hindrance. I mean there were about four to six weeks there that if there was a sponsorship meeting, I really couldn't walk in to a board room and present myself. I'd be on crutches and so on, and that's not a good thing. But we didn't have any sponsors to go in and present ourselves to, so it didn't hinder us at all.
Q: When you think about coming back to the Indy 500, and we've all reached that age where, myself included, where we look to some day say, 'Enough is enough'. When will 'enough is enough' be for Al Unser Jr?
UNSER, JR.: I guess when enough is enough is when I quit enjoying what I'm doing, and I get out there on the track and I'm not competitive. Then it will be very obvious that it would be time to hang it up. But right now, I feel as strong as ever. I truly love getting out there and competing and driving the open-wheel cars. And I'm competitive. I can run with the leaders. I can win races and win championships, and so, we're going to keep going until it's obvious that we can't do it.
Q: You haven't spoken much about your sponsors, and maybe you can or you can't, but do you feel like you'll have a strong effort in your program?
UNSER, JR.: I definitely feel that we are going to have a strong effort. We have been talking to sponsors, but we are not at liberty to say who they are at this time because we want them to get the full benefit of the announcement. And so we are not at liberty to say.
Q: Do you feel like you're pretty strong as a driver to come back and finish up a season and go longer?
UNSER, JR.: You betcha. I truly love racing in the IRL. We are definitely capable of running with these boys out there. I look forward to starting the season. I wish we could start in Japan. I wish that we would have been able to be at Homestead and Phoenix. But logistically, we were not able to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Pat is moving over from CART to the IRL, and he sold all of his assets and equipment that he had from his CART team. So we are basically starting from scratch. It's disappointing we were not at the first three races, but what a place to begin the season with the Indy 500. It's going to be great.
Q: Will you approach this 500 any different than you have any other, thinking this may be the last chance for you to win?
UNSER, JR.: No, not at all. We are going to go to every single race trying to win every single race that we enter, just like I have my entire career, and I really feel that with Steve (Newey) running the team and Pat's backing, that we are going to be competitive.
Q: How hard was it to watch the races on TV and you were not in a car?
UNSER, JR.: It was pretty tough. To be real honest with you, I felt that I was missing out. All that it did was remind me of the time that I had to watch those few races in 1999 when I had my broken leg. That was pretty painful to watch that go on. But we have done it before, and all it did was make me more determined to put a deal together with Pat. So here we are at the second race. We were able to announce our plans and go from there.
Q: How do you drive differently now than when you were a 22- or 23-year-old coming in?
UNSER, JR.: Quite honestly, I don't feel that I drive that much differently. You know, when I was younger, when I was 21 and a rookie, I may have put my nose in a more risky spot early on in the race than I do now. I feel that I look at it as a whole race. My father always told me, There's one lap you want to lead, and it's the last one'. And so you make that happen during the race. When I was a kid, I would want to lead every single lap, the first one, the second one, the fifth one and so on. But I guess now, you know, my dad is an extremely smart person when it comes to winning races, so if there's anything different, I won't risk as much at the beginning of the race as I do at the end of the race. At the end of the race I feel that my driving is identical to when I was 21, 22 years old.
Q: You've won the race twice, the 500 twice, you have an uncle that's won it three times and a dad that's won it four times, does it motivate you to try to catch up with them?
UNSER, JR.: No, not really. I mean, I really felt that my family pressure was off of me with my first win in '92. The family heritage was upheld in its bright colors. And being a second generation winner, I really felt the family pressure. I could sit at the Thanksgiving table and hold my head up at that point. Of course, we want to win Indy again, and we want to win Indy four or five times. That's the whole object, and also the championship. You know, Pat made a good point there at our press conference in Phoenix. A lot of people think that he's too old. A lot of people think that I'm too old, and so both of us have something to prove this year, and next year and the years to come -- that we are not too old. That yellow cabs can still get out there and mix it up.
Q: On a personal note, I checked out at Indy and 10 times against car No. 20, you finished ahead six times and behind four times.
UNSER, JR.: All right. (Laughs).
Q: There's a lot of talk about the field. Do you have any sentiments on that or any feeling on that for the 500?
AL UNSER, JR: When you look at the IRL today, it's the most competitive series that I've ever competed in. With the single-seat, open-wheel cars, we run closer and really the field is extremely deep. There's 20 guys that can go out there and run with the pack and are capable of winning. Never in the history has it been really that competitive for the No. 1 spot. If there's not 33 cars there, whatever cars will be there, are capable of winning the race, and it's going to be "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" like it always has been.
Q: Putting new engines in for Indy, does that mean everybody will be on kind of the same page to start out there and experience may be a factor in who does what?
UNSER, JR.: Quite honestly, I don't think anybody truly knows where they are at on their engines. The 3.0 liter engine, nobody has gotten out on the race track and run them yet. We don't know competitively where Chevrolet is, Honda, Honda with Toyota, Toyota, all of them on the same day. That's a question that is going to be answered in the Open Testing that's coming up. All during practice and qualifying, we are definitely going to find out who has got the power and who doesn't. Pat and I are banking that Chevrolet is going to deliver to us the power that we need to sit on to win the race.
Q: The grid has gotten enlarged in terms of quality, as you said earlier, who do you think will be your toughest competitor out there?
UNSER, JR.: Well, right now, from observing the first two races, there's three teams that are really kind of a notch above everybody, and that's the Marlboro Penske team, the Andretti Green operation and Chip Ganassi's Target team. Those three teams seem to be the ones to compete.When you look at it, that's eight cars that are very, very strong and very, very competitive. And so, those I believe are going to be the ones that we're really going to be aiming for.
Q: Will you be missing not racing against Michael (Andretti)?
UNSER, JR.: That's a twofold. Mike was a very strong competitor and he's definitely capable of being competitive. I don't miss that because he's one less guy that I have to beat on the track. On the other hand, Michael is a great friend, and like I said, a competitor. So I do miss him out there.
Q: What are you doing in terms of rehab from your injuries from last year, are you still on some kind of a program?
UNSER, JR.: I'm back on my regular regimen of training. My hips are completely healed. I'm just doing my regular cardio work on my cross trainer and my weights and so on. So we are back to our normal schedule.
Q: You haven't been in a car since Texas in October; is that right?
UNSER, JR.: That is correct.
Q: Do you feel like it's going to take very long to get it up to speed, or a place that's so familiar to you it's going to come back right away?
UNSER, JR.: No. We'll get right up to speed right away. In 2001 in November, Rick (Galles) had pulled from me and so -- Rick Galles had decided not to go racing in 2002. So I pretty much spent the same period of time, actually it has been one month more now, than it was when I started in 2002. But, you know, we get in the car and it's like riding a bike; you're right there in speed.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us today and looking forward to having you back at Indianapolis in May.
UNSER, JR.: I'd like to thank everybody for joining us today and I hope to see you at the track real soon.