The last time Al Unser Jr. was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a driver’s uniform, he raced around the 2 1/2-mile oval at 224 mph--and he didn’t even qualify for the 500. That was 1995.
A two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, who drove in 12 500s, has not driven at the Speedway since, because of the split between Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League that has left the two open-wheel groups going their separate ways.
This week, back as one of 12 drivers in the International Race of Champions, a series of races for selected drivers in identically prepared cars, he took a few laps around the track in a Pontiac Firebird.
“When I got up to speed, I felt real comfortable,” Unser said Thursday at Indianapolis. “The track was just about the way I remembered it from 1995. The next thing I noticed was how long it took me to get down the front straightaway. These Pontiac Firebirds take a little bit more time getting there than my CART car did.”
His fastest lap was 167 mph.
It was an emotional time for the 36-year-old Unser, whose family has been as much a part of Speedway lore as the old pagoda. His father won the 500 four times, his Uncle Bobby three times. Two cousins, Johnny and Robby, have raced here, and another uncle, Jerry, was killed here.
“I didn’t get tears in my eyes, but I’ll admit I came close,” Al Jr. said of his return. “I almost had the same amount of butterflies that I had as a rookie [in 1983]. I didn’t know what to anticipate.”
As a driver for Roger Penske’s CART champ car team, Unser has remained loyal to his car owner and stayed away from Indy. But he also has been outspoken in saying he wants to race there again in the 500.
“When I first heard that IROC was going to run here, I had mixed emotions,” he said. “I truly didn’t want to return and be on the track in anything but a single-seat, open-wheel car. On the other hand, I know it’s an honor to be invited to the IROC and I’ve had success in it, so I felt I should be loyal and go wherever they wanted to go.
“So here I am. I’m out of my realm, but here I am. It just makes me wish that someday we’ll get back here in the Indy 500. However, I feel the same as I did the day the split happened. I’m still behind CART and I feel sure we’re going in the right direction.
“We’re growing worldwide. I guarantee you, whatever the feelings are in this country about open-wheel racing, world-wide ours is the best. People in Europe like our show better than Formula One.”
Curiously, one of Unser’s best friends is Tony George, the Speedway owner who forced the open-wheel split by forming his own IRL with rules quite different from CART’s. The two speak often and are close socially.
Associates of Unser’s often ask why he doesn’t act as a mediator between George and CART.
“I’m just a driver,” he said. “It’s none of my business. Tony is my friend and when I talk to him, he tells me that he’s happy with what he’s doing. That’s all I care about, that my friends be happy.”
Another question often asked is if Unser is frustrated by not having the opportunity to match his father’s four victories. Surprisingly, he says that has never been an issue with him.
“I have never aspired to be in my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “I feel lucky just to have won once. Winning the second one was a bonus. I never expected to get four.
“The guys I feel sorry for are guys like Scott Pruett. He’s in the prime of his career, with a great team, and he grew up with Indy cars. If he never gets another chance, it’s got to be a big disappointment for him.
“The way I look at it, I feel that each year we don’t race here, it’s another year that Indianapolis Motor Speedway missed out having the great CART drivers in their race. Not the other way around.”
Today, Unser will be in the No. 6 yellow Pontiac Firebird, racing 100 miles around the track where he won driving 500 miles in 1992 in a Chevy-powered Lola and in 1994 in a Mercedes-powered Penske.
“I won’t be able to see the blue sky up above me in the [full-bodied] Pontiac,” he said. “That’s about the only real difference; that and maybe 50 miles an hour slower.”
Today’s IROC will be the first supporting race for either the Indy 500 or the Brickyard 400 for Winston Cup stock cars, scheduled Saturday.
Road rage isn’t limited to the nation’s highways.
When Jeff Purvis became agitated with Mark Green’s driving in a Busch Grand National race at South Boston Speedway, he followed Green into the pits and repeatedly ran into Green’s car. That triggered a wild melee between the two crews on pit row, right in the middle of the race.
NASCAR officials fined Purvis $10,000 and suspended him until Sept. 8; fined Jason Taylor, a crewman, $2,500, and fined Kenneth Campbell, crew chief on Green’s car, $2,500 for failing to control his crew. Johnny Allen, Purvis’ crew chief, was fined $250. All were put on probation for the rest of the season.
MORE ROAD RAGE
In an effort to reduce highway road rage, Arizona is using drivers Billy Boat and Roberto Guerrero in public service announcements urging motorists to control their tempers while behind the wheel. Their PSAs are available in English and Spanish.
According to an Auto Club survey, one-fourth of American drivers admit to aggressive driving.
“Who better to address the issue of road rage than Billy Boat and Roberto Guerrero--pros who are always conscious of driver safety,” said Buddy Jobe, president of Phoenix International Raceway.
It’s not the Marlboro Million.
There will be no name change for the end-of-season CART race Nov. 1 at California Speedway, at least for the time being.
“At this time, it will still be the ‘Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota,’ ” said Greg Penske, president of Penske Motorsports, which owns the Fontana track. “We feel, with the market we have in Southern California, it will be CART’s marquee race.”