Moderator: Good morning and welcome to the trackside press conference room. Thank you Rick and Al for joining us at this early hour. Al wanted to make himself available to you. It's been a busy week, but he wanted to make himself ...
Moderator: Good morning and welcome to the trackside press conference room. Thank you Rick and Al for joining us at this early hour. Al wanted to make himself available to you. It's been a busy week, but he wanted to make himself available to the media prior to qualifications tomorrow. Today has the possibility of being a very busy day on track once we go green, so we wanted to do this the first thing this morning. Al, we'll just go ahead and turn it over to you. You started off the week at the top of the speed chart, how's the rest of the week going for you so far?
Unser Jr.: Well, first off, we've been running good. We came out of the gate really well, we came, the setup up was real close when we unloaded and really, since Monday night, Monday was the last full day of running that we did, Tuesday was weather, Wednesday was weather and then yesterday the wind was just blowing too much to really, the only thing you're going to learn is how to fix your race car, so we decided not to run yesterday and so, you know, hopefully the rain will stay away today and the winds will be calm and we'll be able to learn something about qualifying with the race car. We could have run yesterday, but, you know, really it would have been just like a race-type setup. We could have put a bunch of downforce in it and gone out there, but, you know, we're here to qualify and put it in the show and so, that's what we were working on.
Q: Rick, you also started the week off well. You got your team qualified into the Coors Pit Stop Contest. How has the rest of the week gone for you and how are you looking forward to qualifications?
Galles: Well, we're looking forward to it. We've had a lot of time with all the weather and everything and you have to be patient at the Speedway 'cause it'll bite you if you're not. We just decided yesterday that the conditions weren't right for us to run and we wanted to sit back and just prepare for the day and get ready to qualify. It's been a real good week and the team has practiced hard on their pit stops and we just learned through the many years that we've been here that you need a lot of patience at this place because you get a little frustrated and you want to go out and you want to run, but you don't need to run just to be running. So, we're looking forward to today, we've got a big day ahead of us and we're going to work real hard to get ready for tomorrow.
Q: Al, it's been a long time since you were here and last time you were here was such a disappointing year. Do you have any trepidation about qualifying at all?
Unser Jr.: No, I'm not at all. I mean, the car's been feeling good and the guys have been working diligently on it and so, it's a whole different time, you know, I mean, that was four years ago and so, we still remember what kept us from qualifying and so on, and so we don't want to make that same mistake and every time you're here at Indianapolis, you learn something, no matter what day it is or anything like that. In '95 I learned an awful lot that year, what not to do and so, we're doing everything we can to keep that from happening again.
Q: Al, you've never been real big on poles, except maybe in Long Beach and here when you had the big engine. Are you going out and really trying that hard for pole or are you looking for a top position and working more on race setup like you usually did?
Unser Jr.: Pretty much what we've been doing, Dennis, is working on trying to get the pole. I mean, I feel that the team has the capabilities of doing it. The G Force is a good car. You know, Oldsmobile has provided us with some good engines and Franz Weiss, our engine builder, has been doing a great job as far as building them and getting power out of them. And so, the team so far, the team has really, really been doing a great job, not just for the month of May, but ever since we joined them and they've been working their tails off and you know, I really felt that we had an opportunity to win all the races that we've been in so far and you know, an engine kept us out of Orlando, yellow flag right after my pit stop kept us from winning Phoenix and there had been a little bit of luck shined on us on in Las Vegas and so, you know, the team's just been doing a great job and I'm really proud of my guys.
Q: Al, as Mike mentioned, although your last time here may have been a disappointment to you, when you came back here for the first time in your driver's suit, what memories came flooding back to your mind?
Unser Jr.: The memory is every memory. I mean, it had been so long since I'd been to Indianapolis and it was just great. It was great to be back. It was great to be going to all the functions and so on, and especially the warm reception that we got from the fans was incredible and so, you know, it's like a homecoming and so on. It was really special and so you know, we just need to go out there and do our job and do the best we can and get it in the show.
Q: Rick, could you talk about the difference between the Al Unser you knew years and years ago and the one that you reunited with this year?
Galles: I think he's pretty much the same. He's a little older. No, Al's, as a driver, I think Al's matured a lot. He's had some difficulties in his life which he's had to cope with, which we all do, which matures people, but, by and large, you know, Al and I, I think we're pretty much the same. We share the same philosophies of racing and we're just a little bit more mature and we've been here a little bit longer and you know, it's been a lot of fun getting back with him, but we always followed his career, even when he was driving for Roger and Doug Shierson and we've always remained friends, but the main thing is, we're approaching our racing just as we always have and that's to try to win races and win the championship and that's what our goal is, is to do that.
Q: Have you ever had a curfew for Al or anything like that?
Galles: He's had a curfew for me. You know, I think Al tells me what to do a lot more than I tell him what to do.
Unser Jr. No, no, no, no.
Q: Rick, I talked to Chip Ganassi about this, from a business standpoint as far as the team is concerned, has this been a good month for you necessarily as far as media focus is concerned, because obviously the attention you guys are getting is profound. Good for the sponsor, good for the team? Could you talk a little bit about that?
Galles: Well, I think the whole, obviously, we're real proud of the IRL and we're real proud of what's going on here at the Speedway and everything that's happening this month to me is a big deal. They're going to announce a new schedule pretty quick, the new improvements at the Speedway, the fact that Al's coming back this year, the fact that Ganassi's here with his two guys, the fact that Robby Gordon's here, the fact that we have the best racing drivers, I think, in open-wheel American racing and it's going to be a tremendous show on qualifying day and the race and it just makes me really think that I made the right decision to come to the IRL and so all of this stuff that is happening is very exciting to me and the neatest thing about coming back with Al this year, I think, is what the fans have said and the reception not only Al has gotten, but the team has gotten and it's been really, really neat to have the people back here accept us the way they have.
Q: Al, if you will, just trace from the time last August, you had some options and I just wonder if you'd just trace your path here, talk about the impact of Indy and your eventual decision and then the second part of that, if you will, I understand that, and I only heard this yesterday, that Michael and Mario called you after Las Vegas and I just wanted to know what that meant to you, the circumstances there I don't know whether they got ahold of you.
Unser Jr.: Well, first off, Michael did call me in Vegas in victory lane. I thought it was a joke, at first and then when we left, he called again and so wished me congratulations and it just meant an awful lot. I guess they were watching the race and so that was real good that at least they're thinking enough to watch our races and are taking an interest in the Northern Light Series. I had Rick Mears say the same thing, he watched and we did a good job and so all that's real good. We know people are watching the Northern Light Series now and the more and more people we can get to watch it, the better more that they're going to see that this series is viable and very competitive and a growing series. As far as, back in August when Roger announced his drivers, Rick was on the phone the very next day to me and saying, "Hey, come drive my car," and so we started working on it ever since then, you know, about getting together with Rick, you know, and so on, but really, prior to that, you know, I was going to other teams and talking to other teams and they were the Northern Light Series teams. My biggest thing was to get back to Indianapolis and you know, the CART teams that I talked to, we'd go in there and you know, they're interested in me driving for them and I'd say, "Well, my number one criteria is going to Indianapolis," and most of the teams just said, "Okay, enough said, we're not going to Indy and that's that," and so I said, "Okay, well, that's that," and we would end the talks right there. You know, my biggest thing, and everybody knew it, you know. I guess it happened last May, you know. I confided in a friend of mine, Robby Gordon at St. Louis and sure enough man, came back here and said what I had told him, which, and I did tell him that Saturday morning at St. Louis. I said, "I will not miss another Indy," and he came back and told everybody that. Thanks a lot, Robby, you know. You know, that's the way I felt and that's the way I do feel. I've always said it, you know, I raced Daytona 24 Hours, I raced IROC, I raced all these different races so that I could be a better racecar driver at the Indy 500 and that's what it's all about. You know, being away from Indy has just put a big hole in my chest and, you know, when Rick called me up, that was the beginning of, you know, the filling up of this hole in my chest and when we finally signed and all that and put a deal together, it was awesome, I could breathe again knowing that I was going to come back to Indy and at least give it a shot and do our best back here.
Q: Did any stock car teams call you?
Unser Jr.: I had negotiations with a couple of the stock car teams. Pretty much ever since when Robby said that, that was pretty much, the phone just started ringing off the hook basically and NASCAR's great. It's the most popular series in the country right now and all that and they have great races and all that, but I love driving race cars and especially, the single-seat open-wheel race cars. It's very challenging and so, I've driven enough stock cars that you know, the actually love of driving the car is just not there in the stock car. The performance level is not what I like and so on, you know, but they have great races and they have a bunch of people coming to their races and so, but, I love driving race cars. I don't come to the races to talk to fans and so on, I come to races to race and that's what I've grown up doing and driving the most sophisticated cars in the world and pushing that envelope of technology. I really enjoy that and NASCAR just doesn't have that. NASCAR has a show and so, you know, I love driving.
Q: Al, you and Rick, both you guys, talk about your relationship a little bit. Are you guys starting to get a little emotional? The race is coming up and you've been here before and you guys have known each other all these years.
Unser Jr.: Well, Rick and I are very, very good friends. I mean, you know, Rick is the one that brought me to Indianapolis. Rick is the one that really started my career and I felt like we did it together. His rookie year at Indy as a car owner was my rookie year as a driver and all the years prior to that, you know, we were the first team to bring a national championship to the state of New Mexico with the Super Vee and then we backed it up with the Can Am and in 1990 we backed it up with the CART championship and we're emotional and we're business and we're everything and I'm just proud to be a friend of the whole Galles family and being able to do business with them, it's great.
Galles: As far as emotion, there's a lot of emotion at the Speedway. I mean, the day that you get here when we first tested, you just look around in awe of this place. You just got to remember, you got to pinch yourself to just remember this is the largest spectator sport in the world. I think Jimmy Vasser said it well yesterday, it's the biggest motorsports event in the world, no matter what and race day, when you walk out there and there's 500,000 people there, it's probably the most unbelievable feeling that a person has in their life if they get to compete in that event and even though this is our 18th year here, time sure goes fast, but we still get that same feeling, so it is very emotional and same thing with the drawing tonight and the pressure of qualifying which is a big-time pressure event. It is very emotional and we're just really excited to be here.
Q: Hi, Al. Dennis touched on this. When you guys first were together, qualifying was important, but the key was preparing the car for race day. Aside from '95 with Al, what reasons to put so much more stress on qualifying at the moment than the race car, especially because you don't have as much time to prepare the race car as you did years ago.
Unser Jr.: Well, traditionally, if you got a race car that's handling really well and goes sits on the pole, you don't want to change it. It's stupid to be changing it to go out there and race because when you've got a good working car, it's a good working car and so, you know, we have learned this over the years and being here at Indianapolis, that's what we're doing. We're trying to get a car to work good and go out there and run fast and if we can do that, you know, you stick some downforce on it for the race and go racing. It's that simple. It really is. You start getting caught up in the qualifying and the race and you've got to have a setup for this and that and that ain't the way it is. You get a good car working for you, you leave it alone.
Galles: I think, just to follow up on that, I think it's kind of funny now because, and we've done this too, whenever we don't run quick in qualifying, when we're not particularly quick, you know, our major excuse is we were getting the car ready for the race and you know, that's a great line, so whenever you hear that, you know that somebody's just b.s.ing you though, basically they're having a hard time setting their car up, because with these cars, the series was built around the fact that they want close racing and once you get a good basic setup with this car, basically that's what you want to do, just stick a bunch of downforce in it for the race and go racing. You don't change springs or bars that much with your difference, so it's just a matter of trimming it out, but I do get a kick out of . . . you know, the next time you hear a driver say that, you probably know that he doesn't have the quickest car. We may be the ones saying that, so . . .
Galles: That's right. That's right.
Q: Al, you talked a while ago about having that hole in your heart all those years you were away from here, did you feel deep down in your heart that some way, somehow, you definitely would be returning to Indy.
Unser Jr.: Most definitely. I was going to come back no matter what, you know, and I saw what was pretty much going on last year, I was at the end of my contract with Roger and you know, I'd look around and see about the talks and everything and if the series was going to pull back together and to me, you know, talking to other car owners, talking to the different people that are involved in that, I didn't see that they were going to be getting back this year and you know, I'm 38 years old now and I'm in the prime of my life as far as being a race car driver, 'cause it takes both experience and good physical shape and so I was not going to keep giving up these years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and so, you know, I was coming back no matter what and if the car owners don't, that's fine -- we'd go out and put our own deal together.
Q: Al, this is sort of related to what you were talking about. Yesterday I asked Jimmy Vasser if he felt as though there were a lot of people on the CART series who were envious of him being able to be here. Last year, were you one of those guys? Obviously, you had that hole and you needed fill it, but do you think there are still a lot of guys who are pushing to try to get back here?
Unser Jr.: Everybody's trying to get back to the Indy 500, all the drivers, all the crews. The people that aren't is the Board in CART. Those are the people that are not coming back to Indy and why? Who knows why? I mean, it would be to their advantage no matter how you look at. The sponsors they have on their race cars, you know, Marlboro, K-Mart, all of these big, major companies will benefit from being here at the Indy 500 because it is the largest spectacle in racing and so, for them not to be is a big, bad business decision for the sponsors. Now, the car owners can do what the car owner's are going to do, but as far as the sponsors are concerned with, Firestone, I mean, Bosch, everybody, to be a sponsor on the winning car at the Indy 500 is huge. It's way bigger than winning Long Beach, I can tell you that and I think you guys would all agree that it's bigger than Long Beach and it's bigger than the U.S. 500 and it's bigger than the Marlboro 500 in Fontana, you know. I mean, you just don't get this anywhere else in the world. It's bigger than a Formula One race and so, you know, for the sponsors not to be here is bad business for them.
Q: Just a quick follow-up. Evidently, last year Robby let the cat out of the bag there, but when you came walking down the pits with your cousin and it seemed like the reception that he got was also meant for you, as well. Did you get that as well?
Unser Jr.: Yeah, I did. What can I say? It was overwhelming when they announced my name last year and I was walking with Uncle Bobby and my cousins and it was just overwhelming and it meant so much to me to be here and everything and you know, what can I say? It brought a tear to my eye.
Q: Al, over the last several years, what was the lowest moment, you know, during that winless streak and the personal problems you were having and stuff, was there ever a soul-searching moment there where you thought things were going away or you wanted to beat on somebody and say "I've still got talent." I mean, Rick Mears was talking about that yesterday and he goes, you know, "When you have a car and you can't win in it, people start questioning a lot of things and the worst thing a driver can do is question himself."
Unser Jr.: I really don't know. I mean, you know, there was some low moments there, but in racing, you go out there and you try your best and that's what I was doing, I was trying my best and maybe we didn't have the right luck and that's what it all came down to, was just sometimes it was luck and sometimes it was the tires. It was never really the car and the engine let me down at Elkhart Lake in '96. You know, that was devastating, but, you know, I saw the positives from that race, you know and I told my crew that day, I said, "Look, we won this race today. Now, we may not be on the trophy or we didn't drive it into victory lane, but we were leading that thing with two corners to go and the thing blew up on us," and nobody can call that one. That's that 50 cent seal that broke. The only real sad thing that happened that day was it made me work all day long and break on the last lap. If it's going to break, I want it breaking on the first lap, not the last one and so, you know, as far as our racing, we were there, we were there. You know, what stopped us from winning Fontana the last time I drove the Marlboro car, was Goodyear tires. We did our pit stop strategy and all that was great, and especially that last pit stop. You know, we knew that we could go the distance and those guys couldn't and the only ones that pulled in the pits were me and Adrian Fernandez and I had been outrunning Adrian all day. I mean, we were racing together, but I was ahead of him all day and I could leave him and then we stick on a set of Goodyear's and wham, you know, they were the only set of tires all day long that went loose on me. We didn't make any adjustments to the car or nothing like that and so, you know, there's real reasons why we didn't win races, but it didn't have to do with me driving and so, you know, there was really never a real low. I mean, the lows that I felt didn't have anything to do with racing. They had to do with my family and those were the lows that devastated me and so, you know, I really felt the John Travis car was a beautiful car and if it had a Firestone/Honda in it, we would have kicked butt, plain and simple, but, you know, that's all 20/20 hindsight and that's all behind us and now we get to qualify for the Indy 500 and I'm excited.
Q: Al, two-part question. As many times as you've been here and as happy as you are to be back here, does it nevertheless feel somewhat different to you because not everybody is here this time and also, because of the split and the fact that not everybody's here, do you think the event itself has lost some of its luster?
Unser Jr.: I don't think the event has lost any of its luster. You know, what I saw out here last year on race day, that really made my mind up. I mean, this place is The Greatest Spectacle in Racing and it will always be that and so, you know, what the Hulman family built here is something that's bigger than all of us and so, you know, it's all there and for the guys who aren't here, I wish Michael Andretti was here, I wished all these people were here, Scott Pruett. Jimmy Vasser is here, you know, he has a great opportunity, but these people who grew up in America grew up dreaming the same dreams that I had and that's competing at the Indy 500 or they wouldn't be doing what they're doing in CART and so, maybe the Europeans don't, you know, all the drivers from Brazil and Europe, I think their main focus is Formula One and that they don't really care about the Indy 500 as much as say, Michael and myself do and so, you know, it's disappointing that Michael ain't here, but frankly, it's one guy that I don't pass in order to win the race. So, the least amount of guys I have out there that I have to pass is better for me and so, you know, that's how I feel about it. We welcome them, we want them to come here and all that kind of stuff, but it's their decisions not to be here and that's the way it is.
Galles: One question that I'd like to ask is, who is everybody? I listened to the press conference yesterday with Mario and he said the best drivers, or something to that effect, should be here, but when you look back, who are they? I mean, Adrian Fernandez drove for me. He's a good driver, but he's not an Indy 500 winner. Roberto Moreno drove for me. He was driving in the IRL a couple of years ago or a year and a half ago and my question is, sure there's some great drivers in CART, there's some great drivers in NASCAR, there's some great drivers, you guys, in the IRL and every time I hear somebody say, you know, "Where is everybody?" you know, I think that Greg Ray and some of these guys that run here, Davey Hamilton, Jimmy Vasser is here, Montoya is here, Robby Gordon is here. You've got a hell of a field here and I don't know who everybody is. I keep asking that question. I don't know half the guys in CART right now who drive the race cars. We wish Michael was here because he is a great, great race car driver, but I keep asking myself, "Who is everybody?" There's some great teams in CART. There's some great car owners that have a lot of money and work real hard, but I keep asking myself, what about these guys over here. Look what they've done and I'd put them toe-to-toe with any of those guys. A lot of those guys used to drive for me and I know their talent level, so I just wanted to say that.
Q: Al, we can talk about you coming back here, but on a family basis, this is a chance for you to win your third Indy and equal Uncle Bobby. Is that something that would be a pretty big deal for you other than winning your third, equaling him?
Unser Jr.: I'd be equaling Johnny Rutherford at the same time I equal Uncle Bobby and really, any time you can do that well at Indianapolis, it's a big day and no matter if it's your first or if it's your 10th, it's a big day. We're going to try our hardest to make Memorial Sunday a big day for Tickets.com, for Starz Encore Superpak, for the Galles family, for the Unser family, for all of us that are involved and that's what we're working towards.
Q: Al, early in the interview here, you said that in '95 you learned what not to do in qualifying, what are those things?
Unser Jr.: What are those things? Follow a little bit of my own gut feelings. Go out there and stand on the gas. To not get lost in the major confusion of if you're not up to speed, you go into this panic mode and you start throwing springs at it, you start changing wings and you start changing actual cars, you know. That was one of my biggest mistakes, was getting out of the Penske and going with that year-old Reynard that I spent five laps in it and I got out of it and I said, "Roger, man, it ain't happening with this thing. This is worse than the Penske." I remember him saying, that was a real expensive feel. And it was, it was a real expensive feel and really, just believe in myself. You know, I knew that Penske had it in it that year and my biggest mistake was that I got out of it and that was my biggest mistake. We flipped a coin and I won the coin toss and I chose to get out of the car and that was my biggest mistake. Had I stayed in believing in myself, which is, I love developing race cars that nobody else has and I went away from that that year and, you know, I swore from that point forward Roger would have to actually pull me out of the car. It would be his decision and that's what happened last year, you know. It was his decision to put me in the Lola, which on the ovals, the short ovals, the Lola was the better car to have, you know, but I really felt that the Penske car was the best road-racing car to have, but I didn't get the opportunity to show that because the decisions were made for me and granted, that was fine with me, that was okay with me. I was happy with that because he is the car owner and, you know, like Rick, I mean, he can put me in whatever car he decides, but that was my biggest mistake was not believing in myself and sticking to my guns and now I will.
Moderator: Rick, Al, thank you very much for joining us this morning.