PHOENIX, Monday, March 13, 2000 -- Sometimes the final box score of a race doesn't tell the whole story. For instance, a glance at the summary of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series season opener - the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World ...
PHOENIX, Monday, March 13, 2000 -- Sometimes the final box score of a race doesn't tell the whole story.
For instance, a glance at the summary of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series season opener - the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway - would indicate two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr.'s league debut - 24th-place start, 25th-place finish -- was a rough ride.
Far from it, insists car owner Rick Galles.
"This is the best I've ever seen him drive," said Galles, who brings Unser to Phoenix International Raceway for the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 on March 19 just as he brought Unser to PIR in an Indy car for the first time as a 21-year-old in 1983.
"I pride myself in knowing drivers," Galles said. "I had him, I had Adrian Fernandez, I had (1999 Indianapolis 500 winner) Kenny Brack. "This is the best I've seen him (Unser). He's better than when he left. He's more experienced. He knows you've got to lead the 200th lap instead of the first one. This is a tough thing to do. It's a mental thing for young drivers."
At the Disney race, Unser didn't have a chance to show what he could do in qualifying with his Galles ECR Racing Tickets.com Starz Encore Superpak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone car. The session was rained out, and the lineup was established by how teams fared in the previous year's entrant standings. Galles Racing finished fourth in 1999, which should have put the team car on the outside of the second row. But the team became Galles ECR Racing before this season and thus was considered new. Unser was assigned to the back row.
He didn't stay there long. Charging through the pack, he climbed to ninth by Lap 62. But his engine expired two laps later, and he became the second driver to depart the race.
"My thoughts about Orlando is that everything that could happen happened," Galles said. "The bottom line is, we had engine failure. I think we've got it corrected. It was an oil starvation problem."
During the ensuing two months, the Galles team and Unser have been busy, testing four times as Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The team is excited about Phoenix, Galles said, because Unser knows the track. And a good finish will help develop some momentum as the series heads toward Indianapolis in May.
Actually, Unser has done everything but win on the mile oval located in the desert just west of Phoenix. He raced there 13 times in CART and only twice failed to finish in the top 10.
His finishes include four seconds. In fact, remove the 14th and 18th places in 1987 and 1988, respectively, and his average finish in the other 11 races is 4.4. Only six times did he qualify in the top 10, his best being a second in 1993 ... to current Indy Racing rival Scott Goodyear.
Unser and Goodyear are renewing their rivalry of the 1990s this season. Galles and Unser, both from Albuquerque, N.M., first joined forces in 1981. Unser won the SCCA Super Vee series title and the rookie of the year award. Then they stepped up to the Can-Am series the next year and won that championship, too.
They made the ultimate step upward together in 1983 to Indy cars. They started the season with a Gurney Eagle, switched to a March, then returned to the Eagle and finished seventh in the final CART point standings.
"We got better and better," Galles said.
But Galles also remembers being disappointed at season's end because his driver didn't win rookie of the year for the Indianapolis 500 or the season. Sensational Italian newcomer Teo Fabi swept both awards.
"In retrospect, he had a hell of a year," Galles said of Unser's rookie performance.
Unser drove for Galles again in 1984, moved on to Doug Shierson's team in 1985 but was back with Galles from 1988 through 1993, winning the CART championship in 1990 and his first Indianapolis 500 in 1992. Then Unser switched to the Roger Penske juggernaut in 1994, where he remained until the end of the 1999 season. Then for a third time, Unser returned to the Galles operation, only this time in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.
In the past, Unser worked with many of the current Galles crew, including engineer Alan Mertens. Still, he had to learn the differences between CART and Indy Racing operations - fewer team members, not as many changes that can be made to the car, etc.
"It's almost like a football team changing its offensive philosophy from a running attack to a passing attack," said Galles, a former University of Kansas football player. "You've got to change your scheme and mental thought."
Galles knows Unser has done everything but win at Phoenix.
"There's a first time for everything," he said. "Our goal is to go there and be competitive, be aggressive and not make any mistakes in the pits. "I definitely know everyone will hear from us before the season's over with."
MCI WORLDCOM INDY 200 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The MCI WorldCom Indy 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) March 19. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 10:45 a.m. March 18.
Practice sessions start at 10:45 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. (MST) March 17, 8:15 a.m. March 18 and 9:15 a.m. March 19.
*** On the air: The MCI WorldCom Indy 200 will be televised live on ABC at 4 p.m. (EST) March 19. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised live at 11 a.m. March 19 on ESPN2.
ESPN2 will televise pole qualifying at 5:30 p.m. (EST) March 18.
The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 3:30 p.m. (EST) March 19, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. IRRN will broadcast a qualifying show at 4 p.m. March 18.
The IRRN race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracingleague.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets for the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 are available by calling (602) 252-2227.
Autograph party: Many Indy Racing drivers will participate in the "Indy & NASCAR Speedfest Drivers Party" March 16 at the Arizona Center in Phoenix.
Indy Racing cars will be on display from 3-8 p.m., and drivers will sign free autographs from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
The fun, family-oriented event will include prizes, contests and live remotes by area television and radio stations.