Indianapolis 500 legends host oval-clinic for up-and-coming drivers

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There's nothing more inspiring than learning to shape your craft from the best of the best.

Several 17 to 22-year-old USF2000, Star Mazda and Firestone Lights drivers got the opportunity to learn some racing tips from legend Al Unser Jr. and current IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon at the 2011 Mazda Road to Indy. The clinic taught the young drivers who have mostly only experienced road-type courses the tricks and tips on how to conquer an oval track. Mazda's program is in it's 21st year of operation and is in effect to help young drivers through the various ladder systems to one day become apart of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

"I think about relaying my experiences and trying to advise them," Wheldon said. "I think this helps a lot of them get over their nerves because oval racing is certainly different than road course racing. It requires a different technique and I think myself, Al Jr., Johnny Unser and Steve Knapp were able to give a good insight into what to expect."

The aspiring Indycar drivers participated in a driving clinic where they were got the chance to ride in the official pace car around the two and a half mile track, seeking tips on how to be a successful driver in an oval course race. After the young drivers experienced their first laps around the historic IMS, a question and answer session was held with the four experienced drivers who relayed information of how to be a successful IndyCar driver to those they consider to be the future of the sport. With recent increases in technology and bigger risks while racing, safety was a big concern the panel addressed in depth.

"It's all based around using your head when you're out there driving and there's some knowledge we can share with them before they even get in the car to help them safety-wise," Al Unser Jr. said. "The speeds that you run on the oval are very extreme and any little thing we can do to help them out safety-wise is going to pay dividends."

During the question and answer session, Unser Jr. described how drivers should always have their HANS device with them at all times, make sure their seats belts (which commonly come loose during races) are retightened often and even suggested that drivers go as far as having someone build them a custom-fit seat for their car. This is meant to help with keeping things aligned properly nside the car whichwill help drivers have an easier time out on the track when things are coordinated and together.

While safety is the top priority in any form of auto racing, the panel made sure to address several other issues in hopes of mentoring the young drivers on a path to humble success with tips such as representing their sponsors the way they themselves would want to be represented and understanding that while there is only one driver in the car, racing is a team sport.

"For me, it was about relaying how gracious you should be to your sponsors," Wheldon said. "You need to represent your sponsors well because we have an opportunity here that probably only two-percent in the world get. It's important to embrace that but by the same token, you can tell there's that eagerness and sometimes when you're a rookie and developing to be an IndyCar driver there are a lot of things that are perhaps overwhelming. It's just making sure you're grateful along the way and thanking the people that support you.

"It's a team sport," Unser Jr. said. "It starts with the sponsor, the car owner, your crew all the way down to the guy who stays at home and sweeps the shop, your engine builder and you're just one link in that chain of teamwork. [You need] to always thank those guys at the end of the day because really, the mechanics are the unsung heroes of our sport and to thank them because they're the ones who are really putting in the hours to let you go out and do what you do best."

The Mazda Road to the Indy continues on Saturday as participants will test their skills on the oval track at Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont. This all leads up to the next event for USF2000 and Star Madza drivers who will race at the 0.686-mile oval track during the "Night Before the 500" festivities.

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