IRL: Sharp, Unser Jr press conference, Part II

Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr. Part 2 of 2. K. Miller : Al, you were in some photo finishes last year and very, very close to that front spot. Tell us what event you are looking forward to. A. Unser: I am looking forward to the Indy 500. I mean...

Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr.
Part 2 of 2.

K. Miller : Al, you were in some photo finishes last year and very, very close to that front spot. Tell us what event you are looking forward to.

A. Unser: I am looking forward to the Indy 500. I mean that is the race of all races in the world and like Scott said, what we need to do is win the championship for Kelley Racing and for Corteco and for Delphi and Bryant, Futaba, all of sponsors, Toyota. We need to do well. We need to run up front at every event. We need to go Phoenix. We need to go to the season opener in Homestead all the way to the last race of the year and run up front and put a number one on either Scott's car or my car for the championship.

Q: Guys, you have also cited the changes in the car and in the field, you have had some changes in management this year, and I want to get your opinions on how that is going to affect things.

S. Sharp: I am excited. From my perspective, this is a performance-based business, period. And whether you are a driver, you are an engineer, you are any other part of the team member, it is all about performance. And I think Al and I are pretty lucky to have a guy in Tom Kelley who really cares about that and is not happy being fifth or sixth but wants to move things forward. And Tom, sort of on the weekends, has a first-hand look at things. He calls my races, and I think at the end of last year said, "Hey --" He did not want to come in the position of the championship that Al and I did. He wanted to move things forward and took a real aggressive approach from that area, as well. So we have a lot of new faces, particularly on my car, I would probably say 75 percent of the personnel is new, and that is just decisions that Steve Newey and Tom made from the end of the season. We are pretty lucky. We were in a real unique situation last year. Steve was able to come and consult with our team at about four or five races and a couple test sessions. So he really started to be able to get a feel for the personnel. So often you get a new senior manager-type of guy late in the year who does not really have a lot of experience with existing team people, does not know necessarily who to replace or how to add. Luckily last year we had the luxury of having Steve just come consult with us, and at that point I do not think -- we were not sure if Steve was going to come on full time or not, but obviously the relationship blossomed, but certainly gave him the chance to really get a good feel for the team and what changes needed to be made for this year.

A. Unser: I feel pretty much the way Scott does. Tom is very much a hands-on car owner. He does not like running fifth or sixth or in the middle of the pack and so he is taking an aggressive approach. And I have worked with Steve in the past in the early '90s with the Galles team, and he is a great engineer, so we are excited.

Q: Al, do you have a different perspective on going into this season than you have had in say the last two or three years?

A. Unser: (Laughter) Yes. I am excited about it. I learned a lot last year. I learned, I would say, more about my personal life than any of my racing, compared to my racing, and so I am going into this year with a whole new outlook, and I am ready to go. We are excited about it. The team is there. Everything is ready, and we are going to have a great time in the IRL.

Q: I have found that you check your true friends and people that you want to be around when a person is at his lowest, his or her lowest. Do you feel the same way at this point?

A. Unser: (Laughter) I definitely found out who my friends were last year, and my friends turned out to be Tom Kelley, my sponsors -- Corteco, Bryant. They really supported me when I was at my lowest in my entire life. And now, thanks to them for supporting me, that I am now feeling the best I have ever felt in my life.

Q: Just to follow-up a little bit. How would you characterize last year's season?

A. Unser: It was a learning year. I mean, every year I have learned something. Last year, like I said, I learned more about my personal life than I did about really what was going on with the racing. Every time I sit in that race car I learn something new, and last year was definitely a season that -- It was really just one that I learned from immensely, more about me personally than I ever knew existed and found out who my friends were, found out who were not my friends. What can I say? Kelley Racing team, Scott Sharp, everybody supported me. The ones that needed to support me, they supported me.

Q: Scott, if I could ask you one thing. How has the landscape changed in 2003 with even more teams coming into the IRL?

S. Sharp: I think from the outside, obviously, the biggest thing I see is just the depth. Every year the depth of the front group of the IRL has gotten deeper and deeper. Now this year, it is going to be incredible. It is 15, 17 cars deep everywhere you go. That is why I was talking how I think everyone has always talked about what fabulous races we put on at the high banks, boy, they are going to take a serious step up this year with the kind of drivers, kind of equipment that have joined the field is going to broaden that. They are aggressive guys, so I think you are going to see some wild moves, and it is going to be quite a show. But for us personally at Kelley Racing, I do not think it changes a whole lot. I think what was pretty exciting last year was obviously over the season you had existing IRL teams that competed really well against a powerhouse like a Team Penske. And when you look at Indianapolis as a whole, I think it showed really how well many of us existing IRL teams competed against a lot of the CART teams that came in. So I think for us at Kelley Racing, we just want to put a little bit, like what Al said, we just want to put our year together. We have some great sponsors. I think Delphi has been extremely patient. I think we are finally getting the right group of people we need, sort of putting our energies in the right directions and to really go out and make a serious run at the championship. And I think it does not matter who is there. You are going to have to work just as hard to beat the guys that have been there for the last couple of years trying to win the championship as you are any newcomers. It is just there are more of them you have to beat.

Q: Al, this is for you. You had a very strong finish at the end of last season, and I am sure it will carry you over into this year. Does it make you more hungry this year, built the fire in you for more wins?

A. Unser: Yes, I will tell you what, losing those races like I did in Texas and in Chicago, the closest finishes in the history, I have been on both sides of it. I was on the winning side of Indy's closest finish, and I just cannot seem to knock out that win and so we learned from those races last year and so we have a lot of proving this coming-up season, and we are just going to attack it like we used to when I was in my 20s.

Q: Does that make you hungry? I guess is my question. Has it built the fire in you?

A. Unser: The answer is yes. Yes, I would say it is more like a nuclear fire that is going on within me.

Q: I am sure this question has been asked before, and I did come in late. I would like to ask Al, what the impact of a Michael Andretti coming into or a leading car to come into IRL has on both circuits?

A. Unser: Well I mean, yes, we did ask this earlier. Michael and I have had a lot of great races in the past. And in the IRL, we are going to have some great races in the future. With him coming into the IRL, I am just very, very happy that Michael finally saw the light. What can I say?

Q: Is the IRL now as strong as what CART used to be before the split in '96 with most of the name drivers seeming to have come back?

A. Unser: The answer to that is yes and if not, stronger. What the IRL is doing today is putting out the best product for racing on TV that exists. Our cars run closer. They run faster than the best product in the past, which is NASCAR. And the difference between us and NASCAR is we run really, really close, and we do not rub on each other. There is none of this bump-drafting going on or anything like that. We get out there and we run hard, and we run fair. And that is what it is all about.

Q: One last question. Do you think that there is any danger in the near future of the IRL beginning to out-expense itself, which is the reason it was founded to begin with, to cut cost?

A. Unser: No. The IRL is well aware of the cost of what it cost to go racing. With the addition of the new teams, sure, everybody is trying harder. The bar has definitely been raised as far as the competitiveness. But the price to go racing has not, and so you are going to see the teams that have the great big budgets and you are going to se the teams that do not have the great big budgets, and they are going to get out there on the racetrack, and they are going to run equal with each other, and that is what the IRL is all about. And you will see it this year. Just like in the past, Billy Boat's team ran just as strong as any other race team out there, and that will continue in the future.

K. Miller : While we wait and see if someone cues in, kind of give us insight to the offseason, take us off track for a minute and just tell us, tell the fans that will read the transcripts of this what you guys do during the offseason? Scott, you moved to Florida right? You spend time at the beach, go to Disney, what do you do?

S. Sharp: Yes, I moved to Florida. I really have not felt like there has been all that much down time. Certainly, I have some wonderful sponsors that are very understanding of our schedule during the year, especially when we have a big run of races, three out of four weekends, those kind of races. And so we end up doing a lot more PR things in the offseason, a lot more supporting events, promotional opportunities, whether it is for Delphi, whether it is for Futaba, whether it is for some of our other sponsors. So I think we have had to make up for a lot of that in the late fall and early winter. Obviously, it is more time to spend with the family and for us to move to Florida and get a little bit settled, which was nice. But before you know it, the time goes by, the holidays are here. Al and I are doing seat fits, right after the holiday we are back on the track, and here we are. It seems like we only got off the track a month ago from the last race in Texas, and we are gearing up to get seriously testing and head to the first race.

K. Miller : Al, how about you? Have you been snowmobiling over the offseason?

A. Unser: We have been doing a little bit of snowmobiling. But like Scott said, we have been working with the sponsors. Myself, I have been trying to sell the best gaskets in the world with Corteco, and Bryant, we have done some conferences with them. And it has gone by quick. I mean our last race was in September, and here we are it is in January, and it is gone by quick. The reason why is because both Scott and I are just so excited about this coming-up season because of the commitment that Kelley Racing has put forward. It is the commitment that our sponsors Delphi and Corteco, these people want to win, and Scott and I are going to go out there and do the best job we can to make that happen.

Q: I have one for Al and one for Scott. And Scott, I want to begin with you, pick up on something Al said about cost containment. I am not an engineer so I do not know, but I know the old adage in racing is the amount of speed depends on the amount of money you have in your wallet. Has there been a formula that the IRL has found to keep that amount of dollars that you spend down?

S. Sharp: I think they have just done a great job, and like Al said, there are many races. You can go back to over the last three or four years where serious teams that had a lot less budget than some of the front-running teams were able to go out and compete for the win, compete at the front. So I think a lot of that goes back to the design of the cars, the rules package, areas that may be limited, teams wanting to try to go to the wind tunnel or do stuff like that because there are really not a lot of areas in the room to develop those kinds of things. So I am sure if you had money, you can always find somewhere to spend it, but I think the IRL has done a great job of limiting what the benefits of that spending would give you. I think all motorsports series everywhere, whether it is Formula One, CART, NASCAR, everywhere is talking about the escalating cost in racing, so it is nothing that is not I am sure all across the board in motorsports. But I really feel with their little package and their approach and their concerns for that are very well suited to deal with it.

Q: Al, this is going to be the most serious question I asked all day. What about the Snowmobile Challenge you guys have every year?

A. Unser: We took it this year again like we did last year. What can I say? Dad (Al Unser) and I got out there, and we were able to do it. Yes, it started out a great season.

Q: Thank you guys. At this time we are going to conclude today's teleconference. Scott and Al, we appreciate you taking time out of your last few days of the offseason to join us for this media call. We will see you at the Test in the West.

A. Unser: Great. I want to thank everybody for joining in on today's conference, and I hope that you pay attention to the best racing in the world, which is coming up 2003 in the IRL (IndyCar) Series.

K. Miller : Thanks Al, we appreciate that.

-irl-

Sharp, Unser, part I

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Scott Sharp , Billy Boat , Al Unser Sr.
Teams Team Penske