LONG BEACH GRAND PRIX : Unser Jr. Qualifies According to Past Form


There seems to be something special about the Long Beach street course as far as Al Unser Jr. is concerned.

Little Al, whose father Big Al has won four Indianapolis 500s, is on a streak. He has won the last two Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach races in the PPG/CART Indy car series. Last year, he also won his first Indy car pole on the 11-turn, 1.67-mile temporary circuit.

Friday, in the first day of qualifying for Sunday's $1-million race, he was again fastest.

Unser, 28 Thursday, drove his Lola T9000, powered by a Chevrolet Indy V-8 engine, at an average speed of 89.196 m.p.h. He had qualified at 90.740 last year.

"This is my favorite place to race, next to Indianapolis," Unser said.

Mario Andretti, a four-time winner at Long Beach--once in Formula One and three times in Indy cars--was second fastest at 88.813 and his son, Michael, was third at 88.508. The Andrettis also drive Lola-Chevrolets.

The three have accounted for all the victories in the six Indy car races held in Long Beach: 1984, 1985 and 1987 by Mario, 1986 by Michael and 1988 and 1989 by Unser.

Another qualifying session today at 11:30 a.m. could shuffle the field for the start of Sunday's 1 p.m. race.

"Usually, the more we run here, the slower the track gets," Unser said, "but with the overcast skies it's likely to stay more consistent this year. I don't know if my time will stand up or not."

Unser said the reduced speeds this year are due to the 1990 rules that limit downforce in the cars.

"I can feel the difference in all the (11) corners," he said. "There just isn't as much grip to the ground as there was a year ago. One second doesn't sound like much, but it makes a significant difference in the feeling you get in a lap.

"It will make for a better race, though, because there are more cars bunched together at the top of the field."

Unser might have had a faster lap, but he missed a shift toward the end of the course, and before he could get around again, the session ended.

"I was chasing Sully (Danny Sullivan), trying to get a draft on him and got so anxious that I missed a shift,"Under said. "Bobby Rahal was right back of me, so I figured I'd hook up with him and go around for a fast one. But when we got to the start-finish line they were waving the checkered flag. I just threw away that last lap."

Despite having the fastest lap, Unser said his car actually was five to seven m.p.h. slower than many of the top cars on the straightaway.

"I don't know why, but we're going out there tonight to see if we can find out," he said. "We have some ideas we are going to try, and we'll give them a good going over during practice in the morning and hope they work in the second (qualifying) session."

Eddie Cheever, making his first Indy car start at Long Beach after driving in four Formula One races there, is in ninth position with a 87.123 m.p.h. lap.

"This track is completely different than when I ran here seven years ago," Cheever said. "It took me a while to learn the course, and I still have some to go. I was surprised to see so many different types of asphalt and cement. Some are gooey and some are slick. This makes it hard to get the proper set-up in the car."

Cheever is driving the 1989 Penske PC-18 that Emerson Fittipaldi drove last year when he won the Indianapolis 500 and the PPG Cup driving championship.

Asked to contrast Indy cars and Grand Prix cars, Cheever said: "When you're driving, it doesn't make much difference whether you're on a bicycle or in a Lear jet--a race car is a race car. The Indy cars are a little heavy on the slow corners, but once you get going, it's fine. It's obvious that the cars were designed for the big speedways, but they are very good on a road course."

Willy T. Ribbs, who will become the first black driver in a sanctioned Indy car race, was in 17th position after a fast lap of 85.234 m.p.h., but he did not seem overly concerned.

"We were way off balance," he said. "We're trying to get it right, and we need to finish our debriefing session in order to make some improvements. I'm approaching this just the same as any other race--as a professional. I'm just out there running with the boys."

Chevrolet-powered cars finished in seven of the first eight positions. Only Teo Fabi, in a year-old March-Porsche, broke through the domination, qualifying fifth at 88.013.

Although Chevrolets were expected to dominate, driving one did not ensure success. Arie Luyendyk and 55-year-old A. J. Foyt found that out. They are 18th and 22nd, respectively.

In addition to today's Indy car qualifying, there will be a Toyota pro-celebrity race at 1 p.m. and an International Motor Sports Assn. Chevron GTO-GTU race at 4:15 p.m.

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