IRL: Rutherford, Unser have Deep Roots at Atlanta

RUTHERFORD, UNSER HAVE DEEP OPEN-WHEEL ROOTS AT ATLANTA HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 19, 1998 -- Two of auto racing's greatest names - Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Sr. - return in new capacities to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time in...


HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 19, 1998 -- Two of auto racing's greatest names - Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Sr. - return in new capacities to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time in 15 years, remembering how yellow flags did them in. The inaugural Pep Boys Indy Racing League Atlanta 500 Classic is scheduled for Aug. 29. Three-time Indy 500 winner Rutherford will drive the Oldsmobile Alero Pace Car while four-time Indy 500 champion Unser will continue his role as driving coach and race control assistant. Both were in the prime of their careers when open-wheel cars invaded NASCAR country for a series of races at AMS between 1978 and 1983. Actually, USAC ventured down to Atlanta in the mid-1960s for a pair of races, and Rutherford won his first champ-car race in the first event there, a 250-miler, in 1965. Rutherford later won a pair of 125-milers there in 1979. Unser Sr. had a second in a 1983 200-miler, a third in a 125-miler in 1979 (to Lone Star J.R.) and a fifth in a 150-miler in 1979. While both talked about how fast and bumpy the track was at that time, Rutherford particularly remembers how a late yellow cost him a fourth victory on the track, and Unser recalls how he lost a lap and a chance at winning because of an incident during a yellow. "Rick (Mears) snookered me on a yellow," said Rutherford, winner at Indy in 1974, 1976 and 1980. "Al Unser, his car broke, and he quit and coasted to a stop in the first turn. He was out of the way, and I thought with a few laps to go they shouldn't throw the yellow. Well, I was wrong. "I had run enough high banks to know that if the yellow comes out you'd better get slowed down and under control. Rick and I were racing down the backstretch. I was leading, and he was beside me on the outside behind me. And when the yellow came out, I just immediately checked up on the throttle and he went roaring by and the observers, I guess, didn't catch it. They were watching the race rather than the caution light." Rutherford said Mears was allowed to stay in front. Mears, an eventual four-time Indy winner, went on to take the checkered flag ahead of Rutherford. Unser Sr. said he ran well in those races but had problems with handling. But the problem that bothered him most happened as he cruised around under yellow. It still sticks out in his mind today. "I was penalized a lap because I passed somebody underneath the yellow," he said. "They were down on the apron, and I was up on the racetrack. That's one of those times where they finally realized it wasn't meant to be like that. "But Atlanta was a fun place. It was a good racetrack. We didn't draw many fans then, but hopefully we will now." Unser said it is amazing how times have changed. He noted that the Pep Boys IRL is stepping into NASCAR country and beginning to draw fans. He said that people today understand that open-wheel cars put on entertaining shows. "I think things have changed through corporate sponsorship, and they have helped tremendously," said Unser, from Albuquerque, N.M. "We didn't used to have that so much. We're starting to get fans. They're finally starting to realize we do put on good shows, and it's good racing." Rutherford agrees. He says there is another generation that has grown up since those late 1970s Atlanta visits. He admits that Southern fans have been brought up on NASCAR Winston Cup racing, and it's the form of the sport they love. "But the IRL and the races we've gone to, I really was pleasantly surprised," he said. "Our first race at Charlotte there were 74,000 people there. I thought, 'Wow, in NASCAR country that means something." Rutherford thinks that the speed, passing on the banks and the night racing provide enough excitement to draw fans at the 1.5-mile tracks of Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Worth, Texas, and that they like what they see. "I think night racing is just perfect for the IRL," he said. Speeds at Atlanta will be well above 200 mph, according to the two racing legends. In fact, Rutherford predicted laps at 227 mph. "Maybe even faster," said Rutherford, from Fort Worth, Texas. In 1982-83, Mears won consecutive poles at 204.463 and 204.983 mph. And Mears won the 150-miler in 1979 with an average of 182.094 mph. But the cars of those days could not stand the stresses of the high banks, and the races were never longer than 200 miles. "You have to realize that back when we ran we didn't have wings and everything," Unser said. "So things have really changed in the design of the race cars dramatically. With those two things and the smoothness of the track, it should be very quick." Atlanta Motor Speedway also has changed since the last time open-wheel cars visited. The track was reconfigured last year, changing from the original 1.522-mile oval to a 1.54-mile quad-oval similar to its fast, smooth sister tracks at Charlotte and Texas. The start-finish line now graces what was the backstretch of the old oval. Two doglegs were added to the new frontstretch to form a quad-oval with ample room for wheel-to-wheel racing and passing.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Sr. , Johnny Rutherford , Al Unser