It's been an interesting winter for Al Unser Jr., the two-time Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner who broke his pelvis in the off-season. Knowing that he wasn't coming back to the Kelley Racing team where Unser Jr. competed the previous two...
It's been an interesting winter for Al Unser Jr., the two-time Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner who broke his pelvis in the off-season.
Knowing that he wasn't coming back to the Kelley Racing team where Unser Jr. competed the previous two seasons - finishing sixth in the 2003 standings with a win at the first Texas race - Unser Jr. had a lot on his mind as he rehabbed his hips in preparation for another run at Indy and in the IndyCar Series.
It took a bit longer than he'd hoped to get plans in place, but Al Unser Jr. landed with one of the legends of open wheel racing, the famous Wildcatter U.E. "Pat" Patrick. Mr. Patrick, one of the founders of Championship Auto Racing Teams and the father of its former top ladder series, Indy Lights, has been one of the most long-lived and successful team owners - competitive in open wheel racing for the past 34 years.
Together, the duo announced last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway that they will compete in the 13 IndyCar Series races that will remain after next month's trip to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Mr. Patrick, who sold all of his assets and released his team after the close of the 2003 Champ Car World Series season, will house his new Indy Racing League squad in a dedicated area at Derrick Walker's Indianapolis shops.
Veteran team manager Steve Newey has been named technical director to oversee the team and its activities; he worked with Patrick Racing during the 1990s and was part of Unser Jr.'s CART series winning Galles-Kraco squad in 1990. Newey was also part of the Firestone test team that propelled the tire maker back into major open wheel competition.
Al Unser Jr. will drive a #20 Dallara/Chevrolet and will start his career as a Patrick Racing driver in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. To say he's looking forward to the experience is an understatement. "You never know what's around the corner," Unser admitted. "I had opportunities to form a new team [for the 2004 season] but I'd been talking with Pat since October.
"We rolled the dice and worked really hard to put this deal together," Unser said. "His positive attitude really helped me. There were times when I was doubtful but Mr. Patrick just told me, 'Hang with me Al and we'll get it together' and he did. It feels great to be committed to do Indy and the rest of the season. I feel confident we can show sponsors that we're competitive."
No one who intends to race at Indianapolis has had the opportunity to check out the new engine formula that will come on-stream in time for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. "Nobody knows where they're at with the three-liter engine yet. We haven't run it yet and I don't know that anyone has.
"Those questions," Unser believes, "will be answered in the open test [at the end of April], in practice, qualifying and the race. Pat and I think Chevrolet will have the power to win at Indy," but he won't really know until GM Racing and partner Cosworth Racing in Northampton, England present the power mill ready for installation in their Dallara chassis.
One might think that both Mr. Patrick and Al Unser Jr. are a bit over the hill, but the competitive nature of this duo is unflagging. "Pat made a good point when we announced the team. We're not too old and we do have something to prove."
Unser Jr., who turns 42 this April doesn't think it's time for him to hang up his helmet quite yet. "When I quit enjoying it and I'm not competitive, then it would be obvious" it's time to leave. "But I'm as strong as ever and I am very competitive and I can run with the leaders. I'm gonna keep going until I'm not competitive and that time hasn't come yet."
In the sponsorship arena, Unser Jr. definitely feels "we can have a strong effort. I'm not at liberty to name the companies we're talking with. I want to give them the full benefit of their announcement" when the time is right. He wasn't able to go talk to interested parties during his winter rehabilitation, but luckily for Unser, "that prospect didn't come up."
It's been tough to watch the first two races of the year from somewhere other than the cockpit. "I felt I was missing out. It reminded me a lot of 1999 when I had to sit out a couple of races with a broken leg. I've done it before and now I'm more determined than ever."
Your opinion may differ, but Al Unser Jr. doesn't think he's changed his driving style much since he first started racing Indy cars. "Honestly, I don't think I'm that much different. When I was younger I might have put my nose in a more risky spot earlier in a race, but now I look at the whole race. My Dad has always tried to remind me that there's one lap you want to lead and that's the last one."
Now he knows that "Dad is extremely smart. I don't think I take as many risks at the start of the races as I used to, but I still race hard at the end." It's patience Al Unser Jr. has learned, as a process of maturation.
The pressure to keep up with Uncle Bobby Unser, who has three Indy 500 wins and four-time winner Al Unser isn't there for Junior, who has two Indy victories to his credit. "The family pressure was off with my first win in 1992. I can sit at the Thanksgiving table and hold my head up," he laughed.
But the pressure to keep winning IndyCar Series races is still there for Al Unser Jr. and accounts for his intense desire to return to competition. "Today's IRL is the most competitive series in single seat open wheel racing. There's 20 guys right now who can go out, run hard and win in this series. There are three teams a notch above: Marlboro Team Penske, Andretti Green Racing and Ganassi."
If he beats them over the 13-race campaign starting at Indy in May, Al Unser Jr. will know his gamble to drive the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet wasn't much of a gamble at all.