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Setting the Pace : ABC’S BOBBY UNSER & CO. REV UP THEIR COMMENTARY FOR THE 78TH INDY 500

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is nothing tape-delayed about Bobby Unser. After 13 years of retirement from IndyCar racing, the 57-year-old Hall of Fame driver still enjoys a live show. His body may be confined to the broadcast booth for Sunday’s 78th Indianapolis 500 on ABC, but his heart is strapped in behind the wheel and the accelerator is pressed to the floor.

Unser and the network’s sports department have mutual admiration for each other, especially on Memorial Day. Executive producer Jack O’Hara says Unser is “terrific” and “extremely knowledgeable about the machinery, the drivers and the teams.” His “offbeat and irreverent” style adds to the broadcast.

Televising the 500 live suits Unser. “Being a race car driver you had no excuses. It was your day to perform. Doing it (the broadcast) live was like racing to me. I could add a whole lot more to the show.”

This is Unser’s eighth year working for ABC. The three-time Indianapolis 500 champion will be in a sky booth at Turn 2 of the Speedway. In Turn 4 will be former 500 champion Danny Sullivan.

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O’Hara says placing announcers in different locations allows television to follow the race around the 2 1/2-mile oval course.

“We got the idea from radio,” O’Hara says. “A car may be running fine coming out of Turn 2, but by the time it gets to Turn 4 it may not be running so good. It allows us to do commentary all the way around the track.”

There also will be a camera in six of the cars. Paul Page and Sam Posey will call the race, which the network is carrying live for the ninth straight year. Jack Arute, Gary Gerould and Dr. Jerry Punch will report from the pits. Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil is the defending champion.

The speeds and technology at Indianapolis have rocketed since Unser last climbed out of a Roger Penske-owned car in 1981.

Unser, who describes himself as a “charger,” says in a phone interview from his home in Albuquerque. N.M., “I was known for being a qualifier. I charged flat-out.”

An aggressiveness that put more than one car on a speedway wall accented Unser’s IndyCar career, which began in 1963 when he qualified Andy Granatelli’s V-8 Novi. Unser won 35 races, fourth on the all-time list.

“I am an expert, an authority. That doesn’t mean I’ve always been right. Nobody can call a race like Paul (Page), but he’s not really a racer. I am an expert and the audience is going to believe what I say. And if I say something that’s wrong, they’ll forgive me.”

Unser began doing commentary on TV in 1975 at the first Long Beach Grand Prix while he was recovering from a race-related injury. “A broken leg had laid me up for a little while,” he says, “and CBS gave me a holler.”

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At first he didn’t want to do it, but CBS announcer Ken Squier, a good friend, called and persuaded him to give it a try. “I had no idea what TV was like. No idea. My leg was in a fresh cast but I didn’t want everybody to think I was a sissy, so I went. I was popping pain pills during the race. CBS asked me back the next year and that got the ball rolling.

“Then I went to NBC where they did a lot of tape-delayed racing and at the same time I was learning more about TV. Then ABC began doing a live show, and I got more respect for TV.”

Unser said he believes ABC’s Indy coverage has improved since it went live. “They’ve got a better idea of what do do. For example, the graphics are better and the pre-race show is a piece of art.”

Between Indy stints and other ABC-televised races, Unser keeps so busy doing endorsements, commercials and training films for various companies that he’s only home 40 to 60 days a year.

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Does he miss racing? “Of course I do.”

But he gets his fix, as he calls it, by driving with his son, Robby, in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, an event that Unser won a record 13 times, including in 1986, when he set a speed record in the rally division. Robby Unser has won Pikes Peak four times.

“It’s nice engineering and driving in a race with my son that I won 13 times,” he says. “That fixes my need. I’m still a race driver.”

Which auto racing fans definitely know when they hear his commentary Sunday.

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ABC’s coverage of the Indian a polis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway begins Sunday at 8 a.m.

UNSER UTTERANCES

The never-bashful Bobby Unser doesn’t hold back his opinions, whether they’re of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar racing or his own racing family. Some off-the-cuff observations:

On the ever-increasing speeds, now closing in on an average of 230 m.p.h. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

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“The cars are going too fast, but the safety has stayed ahead of the speeds. The cars today are safer than ever.”

On the technology:

“The cars and the racing are too costly. The cost can be reduced by half. With the electronics and computers in the cars, the fans don’t appreciate all that and they shouldn’t. They don’t care about the computers and electronics. The fans want to see the race.”

On the influx of foreign, and especially European, drivers in IndyCar racing:

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“It needs heroes, like the ones in sprint cars and NASCAR. The fans want heroes and they’re fewer and fewer in the U.S. A lot of the drivers’ names they can’t pronounce. Only a few have a chance to win. The rest are ‘pay drivers,’ the ones rich enough to pay their way into the race.”

On his nephew Al Unser Jr.:

“Little Al is similar to his dad. He’s picked up his dad’s habits and traits and he’s very capable of winning. He stays competitive in the race and in the last third of the race he is pure hell.”

On his role as an auto-racing analyst:

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“I enjoy it an awful lot. I spend a lot of time preparing ahead of time. Part of it is evaluating the new cars that are already set in place. For example, in Australia, we looked at the Honda engine. The Ford-Cosworth. The overhead cam vs. the pushrod. What is Chevy going to do? The different teams ... Penske. Then there are the chassis.

TOP CARS AND DRIVERS

Some key drivers to watch on as the cars round the turns:

4) Bobby Rahal: From Dublin, Ohio. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986. He’ll be driving a 1994 Lola-Honda, entered by Rahal-Hogan Racing of Hilliard, Ohio.

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1) Nigel Mansell: From England. The former world and current PPG Cup champion drives a 1994 Lola-Ford Cosworth XB, entered by Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, Indianapolis, Ind.

2) Emerson Fittipaldi: From Brazil. The defending champion, who also won in 1989. He’ll drive a 1994 Penske-Mercedes, entered by Penske Racing, Reading, Pa.

31) Al Unser Jr.: From Albuquerque, N.M. Known as “Little Al,” Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1992, and the pole position for this year’s 500, the first oval-race pole of his 12-year career. He drives a Penske-Mercedes for Penske Racing.

28) Arie Luyendyk: From the Netherlands. Luyendyk won the 500 in 1990. He drives a 1994 Lola-Ilmor entered by Indy Regency Racing of Indianapolis, Ind.

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6) Mario Andretti: Nazareth, Pa. Andretti hasn’t won the 500 since 1969. He’ll be driving a 1994 Lola-Ford Cosworth XB, entered by Newman-Haas Racing of Lincolnshire, Ill.

8) Michael Andretti: From Nazareth, Pa.. Mario Andretti’s son is looking for his first Indy 500 win. He drives a 1994 Reynard-Ford Cosworth XB, entered by Chip Ganassi Racing Teams of Indianapolis.

5) Raul Boesel: From Brazil. Positioned next to Unser in Row 1, he drives a 1994 Lola-Ford Cosworth XB for Dick Simon Racing of Indianapolis.

31T) Paul Tracy: From Canada. While Tracy crashed during practice, he managed to qualify the third Penske-Mercedes and will be on the inside of Row 10.

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90) Lyn St. James: From Daytona Beach, Fla. One of two women ever to qualify for the Indy 500, she’ll be racing her 1994 Lola-Ford for Dick Simon Racing of Indianapolis on the outside of Row 2.

21) Roberto Guerrero: From San Juan Capistrano. Driving the 1992 Lola-Buick in which he set the track record while winning the pole two years ago. For Jack Pagan of Corpus Christi, Tex.


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