Indy Racing League Weekly Press Conference March 18, 2003 Al Unser Jr. K. Johnson: Thanks again Mary, and we certainly welcome everyone to the Indy Racing League Conference Call for this week Tuesday, March 18th. Today we will take a look ...
Indy Racing League
Weekly Press Conference
March 18, 2003
Al Unser Jr.
K. Johnson: Thanks again Mary, and we certainly welcome everyone to the Indy Racing League Conference Call for this week Tuesday, March 18th. Today we will take a look toward the next event on the Indy Racing League calendar, that being the Phoenix 100 for the Infiniti Pro Series, which will take place Saturday, March 22 at 2:45 p.m., as well as the Purex Dial Indy 200 IndyCar TM Series race on March 23 (That is Sunday.) at 1:30 Mountain Time. Both events take place at Phoenix International Raceway. Joining us today will be Infiniti Pro Series driver Arie Luyendyk Jr., as well as IndyCar Series driver and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr.
K. Johnson: With that we would like to welcome Al Unser Jr. to our call. Good morning Al.
A. Unser Jr: Good morning to you.
K. Johnson: We certainly appreciate you joining us this morning, and I am sure there are no more heartfelt comments than what you just gave to Arie coming from yourself. Just as a brief background for our listeners: Al is now in his fourth season driving in the IndyCar Series, his second with Kelly Racing. Last year he earned four top-five finishes and seven top-10 finishes in route to a seventh-place finish in the final point standings. This season he is driving the No. 31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota/Firestone for Kelly Racing. In the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway he qualified 11th and finished 13th. And Al, to get started let's kind of go back to the comment you just made. I mean there are very few drivers on the IndyCar Series circuit, if any, that have logged as many competitive laps around Phoenix International Raceway as what you have. You also mentioned it being one of your favorites. Does that familiarity go hand in hand?
A. Unser Jr: I think mainly because it is so close to my hometown of Albuquerque, and I have been going there, gosh, since I was 5 or 6 years old with my father racing there. We have been going there for a lot of years. We have seen PIR change throughout the years, and today it is a very beautiful facility for the fans and the competitors, although the track is pretty much identical from when it was built in 1966. There is a lot of heritage there, and we sure would like to do well there.
K. Johnson: You have had the opportunity to test out there several times this winter and you have the season opener at Homestead-Miami under your belt. Tell us how you and your team are coming together for this weekend?
A. Unser Jr: We are working extremely well together. The whole team has some new people involved, some new engineers. It is completely different from a year ago with the way that we are attacking the racing and developing the new Dallara. Steve Newey, the head engineer, is doing a great job. My engineer, Mike Colliver, who I had last year, is doing a great job, like always. Although we didn't really show all that strong at Homestead, we look forward to doing a better, way better, job at Phoenix than we did down there at Homestead.
Q: Talk a little bit, if you would please, about what it might mean to get that first win at Phoenix?
A. Unser Jr: Well, it would mean an awful lot. I think I have run second there six times or something. Every time that I did have the car over the years to win at Phoenix, something would happen. I would catch a yellow wrong, or I would run out of fuel or something of that nature. I would just love to be able to put together a perfect race and come up with a win.
Q: Would the win be extra special at Phoenix with the fact that for lack of a better term we are seeing a new and improved Al Unser Jr.?
A. Unser Jr: It would be very special for a number of reasons. The team to get a win under their belt, because my guys worked so hard last year, and we came so close to winning a race. So it would be great for everybody involved, especially my sponsor, Corteco, who is new to racing. They are in their second year of racing. To come as close as we did a year ago and throughout the season and never really get one in there it would be great. There is no place to do it better than Phoenix. The only place I could think I would want to win more is the Indy 500 this year.
Q: And what about from a personal standpoint?
A. Unser Jr: From a personal standpoint, it would make everything, all the efforts that are put into my personal life and all that the rewards would be there. Just like anything, you have to work hard in order to get what you deserve. We are working awful hard to be the best Al Unser Jr. that ever has been so.
Q: Al, some of the people that came up the same time you did, Michael for one, have plans to retire. What are your plans? You seem to be still going pretty strong and everything seems fun to you and you seem to be on a mission to do good, so just wondering what your plans were.
A. Unser Jr: My plans are -- I love racing. I love getting in the cars and mixing it up with the boys out there. As long as I am still competitive and as long as I am still enjoying it, then we are going to keep going. My dad is the oldest winner to win the Indy 500 at 48 years old. I will turn 41 this April. Kind of the way I am looking at it is I have a good six or seven years in there still. Like I said, as long as we remain competitive and enjoy ourselves then we are going to keep doing it.
Q: Sunday in the NASCAR finish, did that bring back memories of your finish last year in Chicagoland?
A. Unser Jr: All except for the touching of each other, yes. Yes, those guys put on a heck of a show and especially the track that they were at, Darlington, it is tough to have a side-by-side finish at that place. They were definitely going for it, and Ricky (Craven) came up that much ahead. It was a good race.
Q: Repeat some of your memories of that finish with Sam last year.
A. Unser Jr: At Chicago?
A. Unser Jr: The last 20 laps was purebred racing. I was pretty calm during the whole time. I was trying to figure out how I am going to lead the last lap and there was one time that I lead one of the laps. I went, 'OK, now I need to repeat this on the last lap.' And I went to do it, and we got a little close going into Turn 3 there, and I had to pinch the car just a little bit and that was enough to throw timing off at the start/finish line. What can I say? I was working hard, and it was just great racing. I could see the traffic jam behind me. There were a couple times some of the competitors tried to get underneath me going down the back stretch and so on. And we were just fortunate enough to be part of the lead group and be in front of that traffic jam that was going on at 220 miles an hour.
Q: Can such a finish be-- can it happen at Phoenix? Is that track conducive to that type of racing?
A. Unser Jr: Quite honestly, the answer is no. The track is really not conducive to that. But with the competition that is going on in the IRL right now, we are going to have side-by-side finishes quite often. I think Homestead was a great sign of that. The top three you could put a blanket over them. And for that track being so flat and being single grooved that was tough to do. So really I think it shows you never know what is going to happen in the IRL, because competition is just so strong that you could in fact have a side-by-side finish at Phoenix. You would have never thought about it at Darlington and wham there it was.
Q: Al, wanted to ask again about Phoenix and the Speedway. Anything that you guys can take back from there, like say if you run well like the a top-three finish that you might be able to translate to your setup at the Brickyard?
A. Unser Jr: I have seen over the years pretty much whoever does good at Phoenix for some reason they get to in Indianapolis and they do really well. Now the setup on the car and all that is completely different. You don't even run the same springs or anything like that. But I have really seen over the years whoever does well at Phoenix ends up doing well at Indy. And really I think what it is it is the frame of mind that you put the team into. If you can win one of these races before the Indy 500 then the whole crew, the team, the sponsors, the driver knows that you can go out on any particular day and beat your competition. I guess that is why we tried so hard at Long Beach over the years because it was one of the races before the Indy 500, and if you can go out there and win then you are not just thinking that you can do it, you know that you can do it. So it puts the whole team in a frame of mind that I think is very important going into the Indy 500.
K. Johnson: Al, we can change pace just a little bit here. Looking back over your career you have raced in a number of different series with a number of different chassis and engine packages. The season opener this year at Homestead-Miami there were no mechanical dropouts. What are your thoughts on the engine/chassis package that the IndyCar Series has developed for this season?
A. Unser Jr: I am really proud to be part of the IRL. I really feel that Brian Barnhart and his staff have done a great job with the rule packages -- especially coming into a new rule package where your car and engine combination were all brand new this year. To go and race the first race and not have any mechanical failures, you have to take your hats off to Toyota, to Honda, to Chevy. You really have to take your hats off to the IRL because they are the ones that have come up with these rule packages, and they want as many cars finishing that race as possible. First race out of the season there were no mechanicals at all, and so that is really good.
Q: Al, right at the start you made comments to Arie Jr. Twenty years ago you were basically in his position with a father who had four wins or three then wins in Indy. What are the pressures on Arie that you can understand as he tries to make it racing just like you did 20 years ago?
A. Unser Jr: I guess the biggest pressure is the constant comparing of driving styles or comparing himself to his father. That is one of the biggest things that was asked of me. And you want to do well. You want to make your father very proud, and at the same time you want to be successful in your own right. If Arie just goes out there, he seems to have a real level head on his shoulders and listening to him today he knows that he has to work very hard to get what he is going to get. He knows that his last name does not add any speed to that car, and if he is going to be successful then he is going out there and has to do it on his own. It seems like he is using his dad's experience. They seem to have a very good relationship with each other, and as long as he keeps tapping into that-- Arie Luyendyk is a great race car driver and he has a lot of experience and he is a proven winner. And Arie Jr. is just on the brink of being exactly that, a winning race car driver and a real bright future in front of him. Coming as close as he has he is knocking on the door really hard, and that is always a good sign.
Q: The season has just started but how do you feel about your chances this year wining the championship?
A. Unser Jr: I feel great about it actually. I have a great team. We did run better at Homestead than I did a year ago. I am excited about it. The Kelly Racing team is a very, very strong race team. We have great power with Toyota engines. The team itself has got a lot of depth to it. The way that Scott Sharp and myself have being working together is extremely good. We worked well with each other last year, and it has just gotten better this year. I think our chances, let's say they are better this year than they were last year, for sure.
Q: You mentioned that you two seemed to help each other. Have you learned anything from Scott?
A. Unser Jr: Sure. Yes. Scott, he is a competitive driver, and he goes out there and pushes that button all the time. And when you do that you are developing the car and you are coming back and giving feedback. When we have been testing, I have gone one direction, and he has gone another. There was a case down in Homestead when we were testing there earlier that the direction that I was going I was not making the amount of gains that Scott was making in the direction he was going. I stopped testing. I took the car and put it on the pad. I put Scott's springs, shocks, everything on my car that he was then at and I went out and I went three or four times quicker just bam. And so what that proves is that we have the same driving style. In other words, I can put on his setup, he can put on my setup and vice versa, and so that is always a great find when the drivers are that close.
Q: That is great. That is great that you all work together and learn from each other.
A. Unser Jr: You betcha. We have to. The level of competition that the IRL is at right now it is a team effort. You really have to work as a team if you are going to win in this series.
K. Johnson: Al, thus far, we have been talking about driving on the track, but I understand that you are going to be doing a driving of a different sort prior to the Phoenix race, that being on the golf course. Is there anything you can tell us about that event?
A. Unser Jr: Sure. We are having my annual golf tournament, and it is to benefit Al Unser Jr's Childrens Charitable Foundations. We get out there and there is going to be 160 some golfers come out. It is going to be Thursday before the race. And really what it is it is to raise money to help my little girl. My little girl got Transverse Myelitis about four years ago. What happened was she was playing basketball one afternoon, and then the very next afternoon she was paralyzed from her chest down. We raise money for the Miami Project down in Florida, who really is the leader in rehabilitation. And then also we take the money up to the John Hopkins Hospital in Boston, who is the leader in Transverse Myelitis. They are trying to find a cure for this awful disease that really can affect children. It affects adults. So we need to come up with a cure for it.
K. Johnson: Well it sounds like you have a great event and a lot of fun to help support that charity. We appreciate you being with us today. Certainly wish the best of luck this coming Sunday out at PIR.
A. Unser Jr: You betcha. Thank you very much.