IRL: R. Unser to take Indy500 Rookie Test

ANOTHER UNSER TO MAKE DEBUT THIS WEEK AT INDY INDIANAPOLIS, April 13, 1998 - The Rookie Orientation Program starts April 14 for new drivers hoping to qualify for this year's Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, and guess who's on the list:...

ANOTHER UNSER TO MAKE DEBUT THIS WEEK AT INDY

INDIANAPOLIS, April 13, 1998 - The Rookie Orientation Program starts April 14 for new drivers hoping to qualify for this year's Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, and guess who's on the list: Another Unser.

Robby Unser, son of three-time Indy champion Bobby Unser, will take his test and attempt to make the field in a second car owned by Pep Boys Indy Racing League driver Eddie Cheever Jr. Unser becomes the seventh member of the famed racing clan from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Albuquerque, N.M., to take an Indy rookie test.

If Unser qualifies for the race, he will become the third son of a trio of Unser brothers to follow his father into the 500.

Unser joins possibly nine other drivers who must be put through their paces April 14-15 under the watchful eyes of veteran competitors before receiving approval to participate in next month's practice and qualifications leading up to the 82nd annual race on May 24.

The list of drivers likely to take all four phases as raw rookies or the faster last two phases as a refresher include: Donnie Beechler, Dan Drinan, Cary Faas, Chet Fillip, Jimmy Kite, Steve Knapp, David Steele, Brian Tyler, Stan Wattles and J.J. Yeley.

Pep Boys IRL rules require a driver completely new to the Speedway to complete 10 laps between 190-195 mph, 10 between 195-200, 10 between 200-205 and 10 faster than 205 mph. Rookies must advance through three phases in the two days and then can finish the final phase on the track's opening day, May 10. All refreshers must be completed this week.

"We want to provide our drivers the best possible conditions to demonstrate their abilities to participate in the 500," IRL Executive Director Leo Mehl said.

Robby Unser's dad retired after winning for the last time in 1981, but later became a regular television color commentator in the ABC broadcast booth.

Al Unser Jr., son of Bobby's brother Al, took his rookie test and qualified for his first race in 1983. The father has won four times, the son twice. Jerry Unser was the first brother to come to Indianapolis in 1958. His son Johnny made the field initially two years ago.

Joe, Jerry and Louie Unser started the Unser legend by challenging the demanding Pikes Peak Hill Climb that eventually became "Unser's Hill" during the 1920s. In 1929, the trio of Unser brothers decided to attack Indy. They built and drove three race cars, but their plans were shattered when Joe, probably the best driver of the three, was killed while testing his car on a Colorado highway.

Eleven years later in 1940, Louie finally made it to Indianapolis. He started his rookie test, but failed to take the last phase of 25 laps at 110 mph.

Later in his post-race report, chief steward Ted Doescher wrote:

"Louie Unser did not take his full 25 miles at 110 mph due to the fact that the car he was driving, namely the Bill Holabird Special, was difficult to handle due to an improper front end adjustment. This car was driven in the race by Billy DeVore (to 18th place) after proper front adjustments were made. I mention this due to the fact that I feel Louie Unser will make a good driver on the Indianapolis track providing he is given the proper equipment. In the event he returns in 1941, my recommendation would be to have him start his test at 90 mph."

Louie Unser didn't return.

It wasn't until 1958 that the Unsers resumed the Indy quest. All four of Jerry Henry Unser's sons made it to the Speedway, with Jerry Michael being the first. He became the second Unser to attempt a rookie test and, unlike his Uncle Louie, passed and qualified for the race. He was involved in a gigantic first-lap crash in the north chute, his car going over the wall. He wound up in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder without completing a lap. He returned in 1959, but suffered fatal injuries in a Turn 4 practice crash.

Four years later, brother Bobby took his first shot at the Brickyard. He throttled through his rookie test in the R & P Special (Junior Johnson passed two phases of his test in the same car the next day) and managed to complete two laps in the race driving Joe Granatelli's Hotel Tropicana Special before crashing.

In 1965, the youngest Unser brother, Al, passed his test in the Arciero Brothers Special. It didn't appear he would qualify for the race until A.J. Foyt went to Unser's garage and offered him a ride in his second car, the Ansted-Thompson Special. Big Al ran 196 laps and placed ninth.

A fourth Unser brother, Louie (Jerry's twin and named after his uncle), also was at the Speedway during this period, but as a mechanic. Suffering from a crippling disease, he worked on his cars out of a wheelchair. The Unser brothers' parents, Jerry and Mary (known as Mom and Pop Unser), became noted for their chili feast (burnout) in the garage area each May.

By 1983, both Bobby and Al had won Indy three times each (Al added a fourth in 1987) when the third-generation Unser, Al Jr., showed up as a rookie driver. He passed his test in the Coors Light Silver Bullet, qualified fifth fastest and finished 10th after being penalized two laps for passing under yellow. He completed 192 laps. Later he added to the Unser Indy saga by also becoming a multiple winner with victories in 1992 and 1994.

The year 1995 saw the race without an Unser for the first time since 1962. A year later there was another, Johnny, seeking his first opportunity. He was less than 7 months old when his father succumbed to his Speedway crash injuries but was 37 when he finally reached the track as a driver. He took his test and drove the Project Indy/Ruger Titanium Reynard and, like his father nearly four decades before, failed to complete a lap and finished 33rd. He rebounded with an 18th (from 35th) last year driving for Ron Hemelgarn.

Robby, born Jan. 12, 1968, now takes the baton, hoping to carry the Unser legend into the 21st century. The five Unsers that preceeded him as qualifiers have driven combined in 61 500s for a total of 9,129 laps or 22,822.5 miles.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Jimmy Kite , Donnie Beechler , Bobby Unser , Steve Knapp , J.J. Yeley , Brian Tyler , Stan Wattles , Chet Fillip , Junior Johnson , Robby Unser