IRL: Robby Unser carrying on family tradition at Phoenix

ROBBY UNSER READY TO CONTINUE FAMILY'S LEGACY AT PHOENIX By Dick Mittman PHOENIX, March 19, 1999 -- Robby Unser was five days shy of being 3 months old when father Bobby won for the first time at Phoenix International ...


By Dick Mittman

PHOENIX, March 19, 1999 -- Robby Unser was five days shy of being 3 months old when father Bobby won for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway on April 7, 1968. Less than two months later, when Robby approached 5 months of age, his father scored the first of his three victories in the Indianapolis 500.

Robby, of course, doesn't remember either occasion. But Unser, an Albuquerque, N.M., native, does recall spending a lot of his youth at the oval in the desert.

"Actually, Phoenix was the one race we got to go to all the time," Robby said, "because it was close. I remember being there when I was young enough that I was playing in the dirt, stuff like that, with other guys."

He even remembers being around fellow Pep Boys Indy Racing League standout Billy Boat at the track when both were boys.

But there is one thing he hasn't done. Now 31 and well into his auto racing career, he hasn't driven one competitive lap at PIR.

That should all end March 28 when the starter drops the green for sendoff of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League's second race of the season, the MCI WorldCom 200. Though Unser was at the track last March as a spectator, his Pep Boys Indy Racing League career didn't start until the Indianapolis 500.

"My first lap (at PIR) was when we tested there (Feb. 26-27)," said Unser, born Jan. 12, 1968.

Team Pelfrey announced at the "Test in the West" on Feb. 26-27 that it signed Unser as its driver for the full season. Unser had stepped into the car at the season-opening TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway, qualified 21st and finished 15th. He was going to serve as a test driver for Team Cheever, his 1998 team, before the Pelfrey ride became available.

Unser drove in eight races last year as a teammate to owner/driver Eddie Cheever Jr., with a best finish of second in the Lone Star 500 in September at Texas Motor Speedway. He missed the VisionAire 500 at Charlotte, N.C., due to a broken foot suffered in a crash at Dover, Del. Still, he finished 16th in the final point standings, good for Pep Boys Indy Racing League Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year honors.

And now he's ready to take on the tricky, 1-mile oval at Phoenix for the first time. "It's going to be an interest weekend," Unser said. "We've definitely got a lot that we've got to make happen there as a team. I think Phoenix is a time where we've got to go there, we've got to be smart, we've got to get our stuff together, get to working right and start our plan.

"This (team) is definitely something that is not going to be a fly-by-night. We've got to look at making the decisions and make things happen that benefit us down the road, not just what's going to be best for Phoenix. For Phoenix, the best thing for us is to go in there and start preparation for Indy."

Unser will drive a Dallara/Aurora/Firestone car. The team has picked up a major sponsor, Worldwide Petromoly (an oil additive). Unser said he and team manager Greg Paull are communicating well, but the team is behind because of its late start. Still, the seat time he gained in 1998 was very valuable.

"I think I've got a much better chance (of competing) having a second swing at these things," he said.

Cheever hired Unser for Indy last May. Robby, of course, was under the shadow of his dad, a three-time winner of the 500, his uncle Al, a four-time winner, and his cousin, Al Jr., a two-time winner. Despite the immense pressure, he qualified 21st and then drove a fine race to finish fifth. Another newcomer, Steve Knapp, placed third, keeping Unser from winning the coveted Bank One Rookie of the Year Award.

But for Robby, the excellent race made him more than Bobby Unser's son.

"Going to Indy, I just wanted to do the best I could," he said. "I really didn't know how important it was to do good at Indy. After all is said and done, I think it was very important, because obviously it changed my whole career as far as where I'm going and what's happening. And in the confidence in myself."

Though he now feels capable of winning, he quickly notes that he is only one piece of the puzzle. He said that to be a winner every member of the team must perform in top-level fashion.

"And that's the neat thing," he said. "At least I know with my piece of the puzzle, I can do the job."

The Unser family has raced at Phoenix since Robby's dad drove the Lynch Offy to 17th place on March 22, 1964. Besides his 1968 victory, Bobby also took the checkered flag at Phoenix twice in 1972 and again at the spring race in 1976. He also had five seconds.

Uncle Al won six times -- fall 1969, spring 1970, spring 1971, fall 1976, fall 1979 and fall 1985. Little Al never won at PIR, but finished second four times.

Cousin Johnny Unser drove to a ninth-place finish in his only appearance there in 1996. Johnny will become a full-time Pep Boys Indy Racing League participant in Ron Hemelgarn's second car at the VisionAire 500 on May 1 in Charlotte, N.C.

Robby's start will be the 85th at Phoenix for a member of the Unser clan.

"Obviously, the goal is to try to go and win," he said, "but more importantly try to do a good job and try to walk away from that race with some good experience and knowledge so we can go into the next race and get Indy going good."


Schedule: The MCI WorldCom 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) March 28. PPG Pole qualifying starts at 11:20 a.m. March 27.

Practice sessions start at 10:45 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. March 26, 8:35 a.m. March 27 and 9:15 a.m. March 28.

On the air: The MCI WorldCom 200 will be televised live at 4 p.m. (EST) March 28 on FOX Sports Net, the network's debut Pep Boys Indy Racing League telecast.

SpeedVision will televise PPG Pole qualifying at 2 p.m. (EST) March 27.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute pre-race show at 3:30 p.m. (EST) March 28, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. A 30-minute PPG Pole qualifying show will start at 3 p.m. (EST) March 27 on the IMS Radio Network. The Phoenix-area IMS affiliate is KGME-AM Sports Radio 1360, Phoenix.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Billy Boat , Bobby Unser , Steve Knapp , Johnny Unser , Robby Unser