ROBBY UNSER TAKES OPPORTUNITY AND RUNS TO TOP OF ROOKIE PACK INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 23, 1998 -- He has spent more than a third of his life standing at the door, patiently waiting and wondering if he would ever make it at the next level.
ROBBY UNSER TAKES OPPORTUNITY AND RUNS TO TOP OF ROOKIE PACK
INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 23, 1998 -- He has spent more than a third of his life standing at the door, patiently waiting and wondering if he would ever make it at the next level.
Robby Unser knew in his heart that he could race in the big time, knew it as sure as the name Unser symbolizes championship driving in America. 1998 was the year he proved it, when he posted a strong season with the Pep Boys Indy Racing League to claim the Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award. Unser finished a solid 16th in the final season point standings. It has been a long and difficult road for Unser, 30, but his debut appears to have been well worth the wait. The youngest son of three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, Robby was on the outside looking in while he spent several years with developmental series such as Indy Lights and the American Indy Car Series (AIS).
There were times, he now admits, when he wondered if he would ever make the next step. "Oh, yeah, I thought that for several years," he said. "Racing isn't easy, and when you get so close and can't quite get there ? you wonder if you'll ever get all the pieces in place to move on.
"Sometimes you feel stuck, you feel like you're spinning your wheels." But fate intervened early in 1998, when Unser parlayed a sponsorship from ADP into an opening at Team Cheever. "It was the break I had hoped for," said Unser of his pairing with owner-driver Eddie Cheever Jr. in the team's second car. "(Eddie) was a really neat car owner, he was probably the most honest and truthful guy I've ever driven for.
"They have given me lots of faith. For the first time, it wasn't, 'Robby bring the money or we're not runnin' you.' They made a commitment to me to provide me with a competitive car and let me do my best." This spring, when Unser headed east from his Santa Fe, N.M., home to the Indiana shop of Team Cheever, he walked into a meeting with a 27-year-old New Zealander who would change his life.
Dane Harte, who serves as chief mechanic on Cheever's second car, has been working around race cars nearly all of his life. Mature beyond his years, he looked at the new guy and sized him up, wondering what the high-energy Unser was all about. "We pretty much liked each other right off the bat," said Harte with a chuckle. "I was kind of standoffish at first, because Robby ? his energy level is so high, a lot of the race drivers I had worked with were more quiet, more formal.
"It took a little getting used to. But Robby and I were headed to (the Indy 500) together, and I was excited about teaching a young driver what I knew about running Indy."
It was an odd pairing, the quiet and mature Harte paired with the energetic and talkative Unser who, despite being older by three years, clearly gave the impression that he was the kid.
Chemistry, they say, is an enormous factor in the success of a racing team. The chemistry between Unser and Harte was immediately evident, as they worked through the Indy pressure cooker with relative ease.
They got the rookie qualified, in 21st position, then posted an astonishing run to finish fifth. Unser was edged for Bank One Rookie of the Year honors at Indy only by Steve Knapp's third-place finish. Cheever outdid himself, capturing his first Indy 500 crown with a memorable run. "Indy is special," understated Unser, looking back at a family heritage that spans five decades.
After Indianapolis, Unser was a steady presence at nearly every event, but he suffered a broken foot in a July 19 crash at Dover, Del. The injury forced him to miss the VisionAire 500 one week later at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it appeared that his hopes for the Sprint PCS league rookie title and its $50,000 bonus were in serious jeopardy.
"It hurt us to miss the Charlotte race," said Unser, "but we didn't give up. We just felt like all we could do was keep on trying, and working, and hope we could still get (the title)." He posted a season-best second-place finish at the Lone Star 500 on Sept. 20 at Texas Motor Speedway in The Children's Beverage Group G Force/Aurora/Goodyear. He then clinched the rookie award at Las Vegas at the IRL finale Oct. 10.
"When we started the season, we knew going in we were missing the first two races (Orlando and Phoenix), and we knew that a championship was probably out of the question," he said. "So we had to establish what other mark would be the upper-end accomplishment, and we felt that winning the Rookie of the Year award would be a great thing to shoot for."
Today, Robby Unser looks forward to 1999, when he hopes to return to the Pep Boys Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis 500. He hopes to stay with Harte and Team Cheever.
"Personally, I'm very comfortable in the IRL, I have a lot of faith in the series as a driver. I don't see me trying to go somewhere else. "Even if I did, I think right now I'm happy because I get to run the Indy 500, and I like the rest of the series. I'll take it day-by-day, but I want to keep this road going for a long, long time."