IRL: Unser's rejuvenation

Texas Motor Speedway bills itself as the "Indy Racing League's Second Home" and after this weekend's barn-burner at the Ft. Worth 1.5-mile, 24-degree banked oval, it's easy to see why. The on-track action kept 92,000 fans standing throughout,...

Texas Motor Speedway bills itself as the "Indy Racing League's Second Home" and after this weekend's barn-burner at the Ft. Worth 1.5-mile, 24-degree banked oval, it's easy to see why. The on-track action kept 92,000 fans standing throughout, their mouths agape in awe for 500 kilometers of the Bombardier 500 200-lap IndyCar Series race.

Al Unser Jr.'s victory in Saturday night's race was well deserved, for him and for Kelley Racing. Unser gave Tomas Scheckter a run for the money all night, until Scheckter had his refueling problems in the pits and the suspension failure that ended his night against both outside and inside back straight walls. New Mexico's finest then had to fend off Tony Kanaan, teammate Scott Sharp, Felipe Giaffone and Tora Takagi in order to take the twin checkered flags he's lost here so many times before.

"Yeah, that last lap was something," Unser recalled three days later. "Tony got next to me and I thought 'oh no, my chances are slim' but my Toyota engine pulled me through and we won. That was a lot of work to finally win," after losing last year to Jeff Ward by .0111 seconds here in the June and to Sam Hornish Jr. at Chicagoland by .0024 seconds last September.

This was a popular win, as everyone likes to see someone who's been down, recognized his or her flaws and overcome them succeed in a chosen field. Unser Jr.'s self-admitted addictions look to be behind him, and he's driving as well as I've seen him over the last decade. Good payback for Tom Kelley, Kelley Racing and sponsor Corteco, who never doubted their driver.

"I feel really great these days and it's most apparent away from the tracks," Unser said, "because I didn't drink at the track. My mind is so much clearer and physically I'm stronger at the end of the race. When I'm away from the track these days, things are a lot better than they had been."

It seems that Al Unser Jr. and Kelley Racing have a feel for the Indy Racing League's 1.5-mile ovals like Texas. And that bodes well for Unser, who now lies second in the point standings, 26 behind Kanaan. "Tom Kelley took our team to the next level over the winter, hiring Steve Newey [to head up engineering] and other guys like Ziggy Harcus on this team.

"Tom made a commitment to win and Scott and myself and our engineering staff work well and pull in the same direction," he stated. "If we come away with podiums in the next two races - at Pikes Peak International Raceway (1 mile tri-oval) and Richmond (.75-mile banked D-shaped oval), we look strong for the championship."

Whereas he dedicated his first IndyCar Series victory to daughter Cody and the second to son "little" Joe, "this win is dedicated to me. I wanted it for myself, but I've got to give credit to the team. We all performed really well at Texas," Unser allowed.

"The program I'm in right now, working out and training makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning. I enjoy life way more than in the past. I'm really fortunate, lucky to do for a living what I truly love and I do it with the support of my team, our partners and my family," Unser said. "Any time you win it's fantastic because it entails hard work and sacrifice on a lot of different levels. The rewards are gratifying and very satisfying but we have to move on to the next one."

The Pikes Peak Honda Indy 225 coming up on Sunday is Unser's "home" race because of his family's success at the Pikes Peak Hillcimb. "I just hope to bring that success down the mountain to this oval and start a tradition here. Like I keep saying, I just love driving these open wheel single seat Indy Racing cars and, as long as I'm competitive, I'll keep doing it."

Now the eldest in a regular 22-driver lineup for the Indy Racing League's premier IndyCar Series, Unser Jr., 41, believes he really has a shot at the IRL championship. After all, father Al Unser captured two Champ Car titles at ages 44 and 46. "It can be done and as long as it's fun I'll keep doing it."

Unser Jr. does have a particular talent for drafting, something he learned both in open wheel and in his IROC competition, where he's taken two titles (1986, 1988). That talent comes to the fore at places like Texas Motor Speedway and other 1.5-mile circuits. "I really enjoy the mile and a half tracks and we've got great setups for those kind of tracks. We've struggled a bit on the little ovals but with testing we keep working at it."

At Dallas-Ft Worth Airport less than 24 hours after Al Unser Jr.'s win in the Bombardier 500K race, waiting for the return flight to Indianapolis, I met up with some Indy-based fans who flew in to see this race. Like me, they'd watched it on television and realized that, if the IndyCar Series races were that good on the tube, they'd have to be even better in person.

There's no doubt in my mind that it was worth attending to see Al Unser Jr. achieve his third Indy Racing League win; for these fans, the feeling was identical. This man has, in a way, reinvented himself and shown us that he isn't over the hill yet. For the sport of open wheel racing - as well as for Al Unser Jr., that's good news.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Al Unser Sr. , Sam Hornish Jr.