Indy Car Racing Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
Al Unser, Jr.
May 7, 1996
ADAM SAAL: Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate you all taking the time to join us. We are especially appreciative of Al Unser, Jr. taking time, actually rare time for being home in Albuquerque to join us on the teleconference today. Al, of course, drives the No. 2 '96 Marlboro Penske Mercedes. We are heading into U.S. 500 qualifying this weekend. This will actually mark Al Unser Jr.'s 18th start at MIS and his 14th appearance at a 500 mile event at the MIS track. He won the 1990 Marlboro 500. That is still the fastest 500 mile race in motorsports history; an average speed of 189.727 miles per hour. Last year's race he and Scott Pruett staged one of the most exciting finishes in IndyCar history, with Pruett taking the win by just .56 seconds. The second closest finish ever. His finish in the top 10 the last seven consecutive Marlboro 500 races; his best start in the 500 mile race at Michigan came in 1990 when he started in the middle of the second row of that. Al is currently second in the PPG point standings with 53 and that is just 20 points behind PPG Cup leader Jimmy Vasser. And out of his 210 IndyCar career starts, he has 31 IndyCar career wins, 7 career poles, 74 podium finishes, and it is a record he will take into the U.S. 500 qualifying this weekend. Al, we are going to get right to questions because we have got a large group here today. .
Q. Al, I mean, the obvious question is do you wish we were all in Indianapolis? Do you wish you were here? I mean, is this a tough thing you are going through this month?
AL UNSER JR: Well, yes, it is. You know, this whole thing really is disappointing to me, but you know, I am very proud to be part of the U.S. 500 and looking forward to going there this weekend and qualifying. I feel real good about the Goodyear tires. I feel real good about the power that Mercedes has given us. And so you know, I am looking forward to going there this weekend.
Q. Al, I will belabor you with one more right away about Indy. Is there a growing sense among the CART IndyCar people that this just isn't a one-year thing; that you are stuck with two series for ever?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I really don't know. I think really the IRL is -- has a series and it is up and running, and you know, how long that lasts, I don't think anybody knows. I do know that the PPG IndyCar World Series is the most competitive series in the world and, you know, I feel we are putting on better shows than NASCAR. I feel we are putting on better shows, for sure, than Formula I and, you know, we have, at CART, for quite a while now, been a very, very strong series; has been a leading series in single seat open wheelers for quite a few years, and I don't see that going away whatsoever. I really -- I feel that the CART IndyCar series is going to go on and on and on and keep gaining strength that we have been doing the last few years.
Q. Al, I was wondering if -- and you have spent so many months way at Indianapolis. I was wondering, was there a point when it kind of hit you, this reality, that you are not going to be there this time and is it kind of a weird sense of not being there or what are your feelings about that now that we are actually into May and you are not there?
AL UNSER JR: Well, I will tell you, I am getting to see my flowers bloom in Albuquerque for the first time, but quite honestly, missing the show last year hurt immensely and I really feel this year, it is out of my control and it doesn't hurt near as bad as what we, at Marlboro Team Penske, went through last year, so.....
Q. My question was the last part of Al's answer, but Al, has it surprised you at all that CART's ability to stage this U.S. 500 so quickly and thoroughly? I mean, did you ever think that an organization could get it off, from talking, to doing in such a short time?
AL UNSER JR: No, I don't. I really feel that the officiating body at CART is the best in the world. The Board of Directors at CART have been racing for years and years and years and they know the ins-and-outs of the business better than anybody else. So it doesn't surprise me that they could stage the race. We could be going for the Vanderbilt Trophy which is an honor within itself; to have that type of trophy to being going for and then, you know, of course the million bucks that goes to the winner of the U.S. 500 is -- it would be really, really good.
Q. With all this early free time, I noticed you mentioned about the flowers blooming. Do you think it is any lack of testing time or do you think the teams are going to be hurt by not spending the whole month getting ready?
AL UNSER JR: No, I don't. I really feel, you know, the running that we did at Indianapolis was -- was pretty tough. I mean, it takes a lot of money just to run these cars for one hour and for what is going on in today's technology; for the cars to be going as fast as they are going and so on, it takes a proper set up and because of the consistency in the rules that we have had the past several years, the basic set up has been the same and so, you know, we can unload at Michigan and within a half an hour, we can be running wide open all around the track and have a pretty good setup. Most of the team, because of the quality of teams that has risen, most of the teams are being able to accomplish this and so it is not going to hurt one bit.
Q. Any projections on what you think the pole might be Saturday?
AL UNSER JR: On Saturday? I guess I can answer it the way my father would and that is: "The poles' going to be what the poles' going to be." I could tell you that it is going to be pretty close to what it was last year because of the engine displacements haven't changed. The boost has not changed. They lowered it last year from 45 inches to 40 inches to try to create some reliability so that on race day we get in as many finishers as possible. I think this was accomplished. At the same time that was accomplished, it put on for a great show. Drafting at Michigan has come into play; more so than ever before. So what you see down racing at Daytona 500 and Talladega where the drafting is such a big part of the game down there,, it has entered more so into the U.S. 500 because of the reduction of boost and so we are not going to be putting up great big numbers like what happened at Indianapolis yesterday, but come race-day, you are going to see 12, 15, 20 cars on the lead lap. You are going to see them nose-to-tail, and, you know, passing going on like there was last year. I thought it was a great show.
Q. I just was going trying to get you to amplify on that, if you take away the tradition and heritage and all that, the people that haven't been at both tracks, can you compare a lap around the two tracks; one is a little bit shorter -- what is it like in the straightaways and so forth and the characteristics of the tracks?
AL UNSER, JR: Well, the characteristics of the track are actually very, very different. With today's IndyCar, we are basically taking the same setup, the same springs, the same shocks; the same roll bars, so on, and they are getting closer and closer together than they had been in the past. And so the basic setup of the race car at Indy is pretty much what it is going to be at Michigan. The characteristics, the shape of the tracks are different, but I really feel that at Indy, because of the configuration, it is a lot of single file racing. It is extremely tough to pass on that racetrack for the speeds that we are going nowadays. At Michigan, we have got three or four different lines going through the corners, and, I mean, there is quite a few, you know, a million different passing areas on Michigan and so that, again, creates for this drafting and so on.
Q. Al, the question I had last year, I had a chance to interview you prior to the Marlboro 500, when all this was starting to come down and you said it was going to be a very emotional time because of the fact that Indianapolis has made -- it really has had such a great part in making your family into the history books of racing. Can IndyCar Racing, CART series go on without this crown jewel? Do you see it going on as strong as it has been without the Indy 500?
AL UNSER, JR.: Very much so. I definitely see it going on. I guess what I see right now is entering into a new era. I really feel that this is the inaugural event of the U.S. 500 and I think it is going to go on and on and on; become one of, if not the most premier event in the PPG Car World Series. Now, the Indianapolis 500 is the oldest race in the world and, you know, there is a lot of tradition. There is just, you know, it is a spectacle in racing and it is because of what Tony Homen (phonetic) did in the '40s and the '50s and the '60s and so on and so, you know, with what is going on nowadays, it is just extremely disappointing, you know, to see the IRL using the oldest race in the world as a tool to start their series and so -- but, you know, they have ever right to be doing that and so on and so it is just -- it just -- it is unfair, basically is what it comes down to -- to the drivers of IndyCar; to the crews that have been supporting this spectacle in racing for the last 10, 15 years.
Q. Follow-up on that: You weren't at Indy last year and you are not going to be there this year. It's conceivable that you may never be there again. Can you address that?
AL UNSER JR: Well, I sure do hope that that doesn't happen. My hopes and prayers are that the leaders of the two organizations come to a compromise with each other and that the best in the world will be back at the oldest race in the world and that everything will be back to, you know, what Tony Homen built and meant to have and so, you know, that is definitely my hope and we were at Indy last year. We just didn't make the race. (LAUGHTER)
Q. I was wondering, yesterday your teammate Paul Tracy was on a teleconference and he said that he really hadn't thought much about Indy. His total focus was on the U.S. 500. I find that kind of hard to believe. What are your thoughts? I mean, have you been thinking about it a lot or are you focused solely on the U.S. 500?
AL UNSER, JR.: Focused on the U.S. 500 because that is the race that is coming up. That is the next race in the PPG IndyCar World Series, and you know, the ultimate goal here is to put the No. 1 back on the Marlboro car, so that is where my focus is. I can just tell you that ever since I was a kid I have dreamed about running in the Indianapolis 500 and then winning it was truly a dream come true and all of that and I really feel that kids across the world dream about going to the Indy 500 and competing in it and it is just -- it is unfair that right now, the way the qualifying procedures are, that there is these 25 spots reserved for these competitors that race in the IRL, so that pretty much knocks out that nine-year-old Italian boy that wants to race at the Indy 500 and -- but he has to go race these other races in order to get there. That is where it kind of gets unfair to the people across the world.
Q. Al, let me ask you sort of a two-parter. I know you've paid attention to Indy - the safety factor - yesterday's group they had three, '92s and a '91. You won Indy in '92 in a Galmer (phonetc). How would you like to go back to Indy this year driving the same Galmer and run in a field that will probably include about 20 rookies; how safe would you feel and what kind of a race do you think there will be there?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I got faith in USAC as far as there procedures that they go through; the tests that they go through in order to pass these tests. We have pretty much lived under these same rules in the past. It is the same rules that I had to pass when I was a rookie back in 1983, so that is pretty much the same. I guess I wouldn't say that it is going to be unsafe. I really feel that they are doing everything they can to keep it as safe as possible and, you know, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway takes great pride in their safety crews. I really feel that that place, in particular, has pretty much set the standard and the technology that we have in IndyCar Racing today that started pretty much from there because it is the oldest race in the world and all that. But I guess the thing that would concern me more than anything would be the difference I really feel that you are going to see from the pole time to the 33rd fastest guy. I really think there is going to be a pretty big spread in the field and that is going to probably create some problems that are really kind of, you know -- we don't know what is going to happen, so -- but, you know, there is an awful lot of them, but, you know, as long as they use their heads, they will be all right.
Q. I was wondering if you think Mercedes is making up some ground on Honda. They pretty much dominated the first few races.
AL UNSER, JR.: Yeah. Mercedes is definitely making up ground and -- oh, I feel very confident that they are going to do it, you know, reliability behind the Mercedes is awfully strong and so right now they are putting out great power. They are developing and trying very, very hard to lead this series. I feel that the engines are pretty close right now, so I got all the faith in the world in them.
Q. As a driver I guess you could say you are a pawn in all this. Do you blame the heads of both these organizations for doing that to you and other drivers or do you just blame Tony mostly?
AL UNSER JR: I am not really one to place blame on people. I feel that, you know, both organizations have done this and, you know, I am definitely a driver. I am not one who comes up with rules and makes decisions in that area and so yes, all I can say is that I am extremely proud to be a part of the PPG IndyCar World Series and it is definitely the number one series in the world today and I am proud of that.
Q. If could I add one follow-up, whoever does win the Indy 500 this year, should there be an asterisk next to that person's name?
AL UNSER JR: For what?
Q. For winning a race without many of the -- most of the stars of the sport?
AL UNSER JR: I don't know. You know the defending champion last year missed the show. So.... (LAUGHTER).. So, I don't know. I think the Indy 500 is the Indy 500 and that is it. Whoever wins it has won the Indy 500, so.....
Q. I am curious what your thoughts about Johnnie running this race are and if you have given him any specific advice on being a rookie here?
AL UNSER JR: I think it is really great that my cousin Johnnie Unser who is the son of Jerry Unser; who is the eldest brother of the Unsers' brothers of Bobby and Al and uncle Jerry died at Indy in 1959. He was the first Unser to get to Indianapolis and I am just extremely proud that his son has made it there and is practicing and he has -- we have definitely given him advice. That is the only reason and main reason why my father is there, is to help Johnnie get through his rookie test and make the show.
Q. What sort of advice did you give him about this race?
AL UNSER JR.: Just to keep cool. The pressures there are pretty immense and, you know, just to learn as much as he can because it is going to be a pretty eye-opening experience and, you know, if he gets in the race then the advice is going to be to really be careful and pay attention on what is around you because he hasn't raced these guys very much and the other competitors haven't raced with each other very much and so you don't know who is going to make sudden moves. You don't know what people are going to do and when they get into some touchy situations, so he is really going to have to keep his head and watch out for that kind of thing.
Q. First of all, Al, I am really enjoying the hell out of this conference. This is terrific. Go back to the car, though, with the lower down-force is there going to be a difference in drafting?
AL UNSER JR: I really don't think so. I think the drafting is going to be pretty much the same. If anything, it is going to be a little bit better because, you know, we have got a tire war going on in our series and Goodyear is making really, really good tires. Firestone is making really good tires, and so that is what is attaching us to the ground and when we get behind somebody and lose some of our down-force, the extra grip of these tires is going to come into play, so I really feel it is going to be a heck of a race come the 26th on Memorial Day at Michigan.
Q. Paul mentioned that he would be briefing his pit crew this time around because of what happened at Nazareth. Are you on the team carrying through with another brief, with a different procedure this time around?
AL UNSER, JR.: No. You know, I have got the best team in the world with Marlboro Team Penske and, you know, I feel very bad what happened to the crew guys in Paul's pit, but that is, again, another kind of sign on how competitive this series is. Paul came in there and was trying to make up time and every where we can make up time and, so he drove it into his pit a little bit deep and locked him up and slid; made a mistake and I really feel for the guys that were caught up in the incident, but that is what is so great about this team is when they get knocked around a little bit, you wouldn't believe how strong they come back fighting. The guys are behind Paul 110 percent and that is what is -- what everybody will see at U.S. 500.
Q. One quick question. As far as the IROC Series goes, how do you feel about racing in that and could we ever see you possibly racing in anything else?
AL UNSER JR: I enjoy the heck out of the IROC Series. I am really looking forward to the upcoming event at Charlotte. We are going to be racing tight and it will be the first time that the IROC Series is there, you know, I enjoy mixing it up with the good old boys down south and hopefully I will get enough practice in at Charlotte to try to be a little bit competitive and so I enjoy it an awful lot.
Q. Al, after you qualify this weekend at Michigan, what is in your plans after that other than the IROC race, will you be visiting Indianapolis?
AL UNSER, JR.: Excuse me. No, I won't. I will probably be testing somewhere. I will be doing something for the team and, you know, if we got a little bit of idol time I will probably unload my Polaris watercrafts right there by the little lake and ride them by the track and do a little bit of playing around on my motorcrafts.
Q. Al, you have referred a couple of times to Tommy Homen and I am wondering if you could speak to the kind of job you think Tony George has done as kind of the steward of both the track and the race for his family?
AL UNSER JR: George is a good friend of mine and I really feel that he is a young president. Being president, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I kind of feel that his people that are under him have -- they don't have the best of benefits for all of auto racing in their hearts like Tony does. I feel Tony is genuinely trying to make an effort to better the sport and being a young president there is going to be mistakes made along the way. And so Tony has all the talent in the world and to come through this and I just -- like I said, my hopes and prayers are that this deal does get worked out for the best that are all -- that are --
Q. I'd like to know what is your game plan as for winning the U.S. 500, Al?
AL UNSER, JR.: Finish. (LAUGHTER) You know, something Rick Mears told me quite along time ago "you first have to finish to finish first."
Q. Yes, I have heard that.
AL UNSER JR: That is our number one thing that we have got to do first and then secondly just to, you know, have faith in my crew; have faith in my car owner and go out there and just keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble and run the pants after that Marlboro cars.
Q. Al, you had said that Tony George has in his heart the best interest in racing in what he has done. Would that be the long-term best interest of American oval track racing or what do you think his motivations are?
AL UNSER, JR.: I really don't know what his motivations are. Tony and I talk. We don't talk about this. He is a good friend of the family and we discuss family stuff, you know, ask how each other's kids are, so on and so forth. We stay away from this and a large part of the reason is because I am a driver and that is all I am, so I just -- I just know Tony as a person - Tony is a good person at heart and so I can only hope that he has that good heart when he starts going about his business.
Q. Do you feel there is a problem in that the cost of IndyCar Racing have escalated to such a point that maybe young American drivers can't break in anymore?
AL UNSER JR: Oh, I totally disagree on that. I really feel that when you start talking about open wheel race cars that run 230 mile an hour, there is a price tag that goes with that; is the most elite racing in the world. These are the only cars that go 230 mile an hour and turn left; go through the corners at those speeds, so it makes these cars most elite racing in the world and so, you know, I really feel that CART has done the best job at curbing the cost. There is nothing to stop CART from having electronic gear boxes like they got in F-I, electronic this, electronic that, and CART has made every effort not to do that. They have, you know -- a traction control came out a few years ago; it was out law. Electronic gear boxes were outlawed. Active suspension was out law. And that is because it drove up the cost of racing. What won't be sacrificed though in any way is the technology of safety that goes into these cars because when you start talking about these speeds, there is a man inside that car. And when you start talking about safety which is all the new composites that are coming out, again, the rule changes that happened between '95 and '96, was the attempt to give the driver some real feel of the car before it does anything weird on you at these speeds and that was accomplished and so, you know, the cost in this racing is big and the rewards of racing is big. It is big for the sponsors. It is big for the fans that come out and see these cars go 230 mile an hour. What can I say? It is the best racing in the world.
Q. You have mentioned a couple of times that it is important at Indy for rookies to keep their head. What are the kinds of things that cause rookies to lose it and how easy or how hard is it to keep your head when you are an inexperienced driver?
AL UNSER JR: Running these speeds takes a lot of mental concentration and when you haven't run these speeds for a period -- a length of time which run 500 miles is going to take anywhere from two and a half to three hours. Three hours you are going to be running 235 miles an hour. It wears on you. And come three quarter distance, you really need -- that is the most important time for you to be as sharp as you can be and when you haven't done this before; when you haven't been in these races before, you don't know how you are going to be, so that is a lot of what I am kind of talking about.
Q. How hard is it, just to follow-up then, how hard is it to attain that mental discipline, if you will? Does it just come from experience?
AL UNSER JR: There is no simulation for it. There just isn't. The only thing you can do is go out and do it. When I was a rookie at Indy, it was a pretty big deal. (LAUGHTER)
Q. We are talking about the rookies for Indianapolis. What about Greg Moore and the IndyCar series, what advice has Greg come to you at all in reference to that?
AL UNSER JR: Greg hasn't come to anybody for any advice as far as I know. He is a very talented race car driver and that kid stands on the gas - I will tell you that. He is doing a great job and. He is going to be one of the greats.
Q. And follow-up on that, have you done any testing at Michigan prior to the U.S. 500 at all and if you have, how is it going and what do you really look forward to with this type of year; it is colder up in this part of the region; have you made any adjustments with the Goodyear tires?
AL UNSER JR: Goodyear tires is doing a super job. I am so proud of these guys, it is unbelievable. We were down a little bit in Australia and the very next weekend in Long Beach, we called upon them and they answered. And they gave us.....
ADAM SAAL: We lost Al. I apologize, everybody and on behalf of Al, I apologize. Thank you very much. We will let you know who will be on our teleconference next week.....
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