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Indy Car Racing Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indy Racing League

Indy Car Racing Media Conference

Al Unser, Jr.
July 16, 1996


MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We are glad to have everyone today. Our special guest will be Al Unser, Jr. who drives the Marlboro Penske Mercedes for Marlboro Penske Racing. Al is currently second in the PPG competition race trailing Jimmy Vasser of Target Ganassi by eight points as we prepare for the Marlboro 500 MIS on July 28th. Al is winless through the first eleven races but maintains the position through a very consistent season. He has four podium finishes, including runners-up at Rio in Milwaukee and he has finished among the top eight in eight of the eleven events this season. Al joins us from Michigan today. Al, thanks for joining us.

AL UNSER JR: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We have a large amount of people on the phone today so we will get right to it.

Q. Al, I don't know how much you want to say in wake of the weekends events, just the driver's reaction to the Toronto track; are they generally happy with it, the safety features there?

AL UNSER JR: Well, I think, Ron, it is as safe as any of the race tracks we go to. It is very high standards all the way around the racetrack and so, you know, it was a very tragic weekend and with losing Jeff and the corner worker. We hate to see this kind of stuff, no matter what time it is. If it is during practice, like what happened to Scott Brayton, or you know, if it is in the actual race itself, it is a very sad weekend, but this is the nature of the beast. This is racin and, you know, it is all part of it, so, you no, my dad told me long time ago, "if it was easy, everybody would be doing it" and it just -- we have been reminded twice now in just this year that-- what racin -- some of the cruelties that we have put on it. I really feel everybody did their job at the utmost with everything that happened. It is just one of those things.

Q. Little Al, this is your second time at Michigan and it is such a horsepower track. I am wondering if Mercedes has come up with anymore horses?

AL UNSER JR: Well, actually, I think we are going to have real close to the same thing that we did, the U.S. 500. I thought we had plenty of horsepower. We had some problems with our waste gates there qualifying and I qualified fifth, only couple mile an hour off the pole. So I am kind of looking forward to the Marlboro 500. We have done extra testing, so that we don't get caught out during the race itself, but, you know, we feel good about it.

Q. Al, when something happens like happened in Toronto, it must be very difficult on families and difficult time for everyone in racing. Can you talk about that a little?

AL UNSER JR: Well, it is tough on all of our families and, you know, especially, I am sure, the family of Jeff and his wife, Tracy and their mom and dad. I mean, it is one of those things. It is that and you know, my family have been racing for a very, very long time and, you know, my uncle, Gerry, the first of four brothers in Indianapolis died in 1959, so it is not new to our family or anything like that. It is tough on everybody, but, you know, like I said, that -- it is the nature of the beast.

Q. Al, could you speak to sort of the same question except from the driver's point of view, how, you know, where is the place for, kind of taking in the tragedy that happened, how does a driver deal with that, if at all?

AL UNSER JR: I think everybody deals with it in a different way. You know, I -- it -- I analyzed what happened and, you know, what -- you know, what created everything. I feel that the safety crew of CART is second to none and, you know, as far as me feeling in safe hands, I have got the best team in the world. I have got a safe car and the enjoyment in racing for me is, you know, I can't put that into words what -- how much I love the sport and, you know, this is part of it and so, you know, I feel that, you know, Jeff was doing something that he loved very much and so that sometimes -- miscalculations or just the slightest lack of concentration on a driver's point of view and the ballgame is over and so, you know, it is just one of those things. Anything can happen. With Scott Brayton during practice, it was a mechanical failure that did him in and so, you know, but I can't tell you how exciting it is to drive these things at 230 plus and so on. It is neat. What can I say?

Q. Al, I just wanted to ask about the rumors about you leaving Penske. Do you know where that came from and what are your plans at this time?

AL UNSER JR: No, I don't know where it came from. I am extremely happy to be with Marlboro Team Penske. I feel that they are the best in the business and I am just sure that or hoping, anyway, that they are going to have me driving their cars for a long time to come and so we are looking forward to the Marlboro 500 and also trying to get enough points to win this year's Indy, IndyCar PPG IndyCar World Series, so.....

Q. Al, is how important is it for you to win a race this year? Can you win the championship without winning a race and will you really feel like it is really a championship if you don't win a race?

AL UNSER JR: I feel like a championship is a championship and it doesn't matter if you have to win a race or not. I feel that you need to win a race if you are going to win this championship and maybe not just one, but several of them and so, you know, we are trying our hearts out to get to that No. 1 and, you know, claim that spot but if it is not the case and we are ahead by points at the end, you know, we are definitely going to put that No. 1 back on that Marlboro car - where it belongs.

Q. Al, given the fact that you haven't won this year or have a pull and yet you are No. 2 in points right there, do you feel this may be your finest season as far as driving overall and sticking in there and fighting hard to be a contender?

AL UNSER JR: I don't know. We have had a lot of fine years, you know, I enjoy racing with this team. I enjoy, you know, the engineering, all the aspects on this team and that is all part of getting out there and developing the car and driving and so on and, you know, we are happy.

Q. Al, you said you obviously want to be back with Marlboro Team Penske, but you have also said in the past many times how important the Indianapolis 500 is to you. Is there anyway to resolve that situation for you to at least drive in that particular race?

AL UNSER JR: I don't -- no, coming from the driver, I don't -- I don't have anyway that I can solve the problem. If I could solve the problem between CART and the IRL, I would love to, you know, but, you know, that is something that is out of my hands and so on and, you know, I hope some day that we get back at the Indy 500 with the best teams and the best cars in the world and so, you know, my enjoyment comes from driving these cars and so on and I hope some day that we get to run them at Indianapolis again, but if we don't, then, you know, I feel that is Indianapolis's doing.

Q. So you don't foresee any chance of like a one-off type thing, either with Penske or somebody else?

AL UNSER, JR.: I don't know. You know, I can't really comment on that. We are trying to win this championship right now and Indianapolis is quite a long time from now so we will let the head guys do what they want to do.

Q. You have got a number of wins at Michigan International Speedway in the IROC division but it has been awhile since you have been down that victory lane. How important would it be to win at Michigan? You are a driver that goes back to 1980 with the competition at LIS. With that much experience, tell me a little bit about what it takes to win at Michigan?

AL UNSER, JR.: Well, it would be very, very good if we could win this Marlboro 500 for Roger seeing how he owns this facility and it is his facility and Marlboro is sponsoring the race and having a Marlboro car in victory lane would be super. It sure as heck moved me a little bit closer to the championship as far as point-wise. I don't think anybody can catch us when we win the race, so, you know, it would be real important. Winning there is real simple. You have to go out and have a good competitive race car with reliability, because it is 500 miles and reliability is definitely just as important as the performance of the car, if not more. And so 500 miles at Michigan is tough to finish so, you know, we can -- if we can do that, like we did at the U.S. 500, but have a little bit more performance out of the race car, we are going to be looking good, so I feel good about coming.

Q. You haven't won. What is it going to take to put that car in the victory lane?

AL UNSER JR: Well, a little bit of luck would be awfully good. We had Milwaukee pretty much sewn up and I got a yellow flag there at the last and that cost us to win there, but, you know, the car is performing really well. The team is operating together really, really well and what can I say, a little bit of luck would help.

Q. Do you need anymore horsepower?

AL UNSER JR: As far as the engine, I really feel that the Mercedes is very close to the Honda. I think the Honda still has the edge, no doubt, but you know, the Mercedes is definitely right there and I think our biggest differences right now in the cars or the teams is tires, you know, we seem to have about a full second lapse at the beginning of the season or difference between the two companies and then Goodyear brought it in to about a half a second there around Long Beach and now up at Toronto, you know, the cars there was a full second difference between the fastest Firestone and the fastest Goodyear and so we need a little bit more help from Goodyear and we will be right there.

Q. Al, what went through your mind last week or last weekend when -- right at the start of the race knowing that you can take the points lead and you lose your front wing?

AL UNSER, JR.: (laughing) Bad luck. What really went through my mind, I can't really tell you guys, but, you know, it was sad because I got hit from behind and pushed up into the guy in front of me and so, you know, there was nothing I could do. I was hoping we could get through there and go racing, but -- because I had a really good car for the day, you know, we dropped a lap behind to everybody and pretty much dead last and I came up to 13th and just one out of getting any points at all and so we learned about the car during the day and I had fun during the day, no matter what, because the car was working well, so, you know, we were just sticking them off one by one trying to get into the points and so I think the team is right there. We just need some luck and we will be okay.

Q. Is your attitude now I have used up all my bad luck, it is time for the good luck?

AL UNSER JR: That would be pretty nice if we could get on that wave and ride that waive, but the waive hasn't hit us yet, so.....

Q. Al, realizing that you may not have the best combination of chassis, tires, motor, whatever it might be, to dominate, but you have the best team, what do you tell yourself at the start of the race when you are putting on your helmet, what are you telling yourself to keep yourself motivated?

AL UNSER, JR.: I really don't need much motivation, you know, I am -- I want to win that race as bad as the whole team does and there is not one guy there, you know, from Roger, all the way down, that doesn't want to win these races and this championship and so -- but, you know, the thing that you got to keep in mind is that it takes a team to win and, you know, I just need to remind myself, you know, that let us get to the first stop, let us get to the second stop, let us -- let the strategy play out in the race and, you know, if we do that and not get anxious at the beginning and try to go somewhere where we run a real strong chance in knocking a wing off or bending something, letting the race, you know, be raced and so that is what I am pretty much thinking as I am putting on my helmet.

Q. Are you more conservative or more aggressive being -- trying to get to the front with the car that is not quite 100%?

AL UNSER, JR.: I guess, you know, it all depends on what time it is during the race when you get aggressive and when you don't. I am pretty much a strong believer that starts and so on, you know, you need to defend more than be on the aggressive side and, you know, let us get into the race; let us start running these laps and the car will go to the front or you will find out what you got because that is what these races are all about. It takes all day to win these things, not just the starts or the middle or the finish. It takes everything.

Q. Al, a question about Michigan, is that more a handling track, horsepower track, and why is that so?

AL UNSER JR: Well, if you saw a performance at the U.S. 500, you would definitely say it is a handling racetrack. We missed on the setup during the race and we backed up big-time as, you know, we got into half tanks and so on and your cars definitely need to work, you know, horsepower is all part of it also, you know, your engines need to run good and strong, but they need to run all day. And sometimes the fastest single lap is not, you know, the guy that is going to win the race. So you need a good all around package and good pit stops, 7, 8, 9 of them during a 500 mile race, so that is all part of it.

Q. You got that other side action called IROC going on up there. You got three guys basically come in, set the things, Sodder (ph), you know, is Marcus and the man himself, Dick Trickle. Of those three drivers, do you listen to trickle a lot and do you get anything from what he tells you on those cars?

AL UNSER, JR.: The IROC guys they just say, you know, you ask them what a car is; they will say it is beautiful. (LAUGHTER) You know, all the cars are and they are, you know, the Pontiacs are definitely a good car and -- in the IROC Series and Jay Signore and the IROC crew make them all equal and that is everybody, so I enjoy running in this race an awful lot.

Q. Dick didn't leave the cigarette lighter in the one that you got though, did he?

AL UNSER, JR.: No.

Q. First, congratulations on that come back. Too bad you didn't get any points there. I work as a photographer at some events in no man's land, and regarding safety of the track, we are always asked if we see anything that is of concern and to immediate report it to the IndyCar officials on the other side of the wall you guys are going fast. Is there anything that causes you concern looking ahead to Vancouver?

AL UNSER, JR.: Nothing at all. I don't have any concerns about any of the race tracks that we race at. They are all. (inaudible)

Q. Al, do you hold out any hope, for that matter, any desire, still to drive in Formula I?

AL UNSER JR: No, not really. I mean, those guys, I tried a long time ago and -- not a long time ago, but a couple of years ago and they didn't want me and it was a blessing because I was able to join the best team in the world and so you know, I am not going anywhere.

Q. No regret then?

AL UNSER, JR.: None. No, not at all.

Q. Al, are you guys in the middle of what is about the longest dry streak you guys had in about 20 years. Is that playing on you guys in any way in a negative sense, any pressure or in a positive sense, that we have done this before, we can win races?

AL UNSER, JR: Yeah, I -- I don't know it is not my longest dry spell for 20 years, but you know, we are -- we have had some real good races this season and, you know, like I said, it is lady luck that has kept us out of the first place and the big reward of great execution and great teamwork and -- but it is not from lack of trying and it is not from lack of performance. I feel it is right there and so it will come to us here soon.

Q. Just to follow-up, if your boss decided that going racing across the pond was something he wanted to try again, would that be enough to make you think twice about it?

AL UNSER JR: You bet. It would be -- as long as this was Roger's and one of Roger's cars, I am extremely happy.

Q. Could you elaborate a little bit on what your strategy is going to be for beating Honda horsepower in the championship?

AL UNSER JR: Getting out there and racin with them and getting the car working well and, you know, having great strategy during the races and, you know, there has been a lot -- lots of times that myself and this team has taken a car that is not the quickest one out there and because of teamwork and great execution, we beat them with a slower car or whatever and so, you know, that is what racing is all about, to be honest, and so, you know, it is one of those things.

Q. One more question about Toronto again. Do you feel the temporary road courses aren't safe as, say, the ovals or would you like to see more of the road courses on a permanent basis?

AL UNSER, JR.: I feel that there are -- our current street circuits are up to the latest standards that are humanly possible and I feel assured that everyday we can make new advances in safety and so on, up the facilities. I think that happensto the utmost with CART and I think that they work on that everyday and that these tracks are, and so, I feel that it is great that we can take what these cars are capable of running, you know, 230 mile an hour and so on and put them inside the city streets, I think, is a great idea and continue to do so. It puts it right in the cities across America and that is -- I think that is great, but you know, that is one part of (inaudible) --

Q. Do you want to see the CART expand here in the states like places such as Denver Airport or Texas Speedway, or do you want to see more overseas circuits?

AL UNSER JR: My answer is I'd like to see both. I'd like to, you know, go to the new facilities here in the states and I would like to go overseas and show these IndyCars off. I think it would be great to do both.

Q. Do you still feel the change of the CART rules, the NASCAR style race car was a good idea, after Milwaukee?

AL UNSER JR: And after Toronto, too. (LAUGHTER) We do. I feel that, you know, it has bitten me twice and all of that, but you know, I feel in the long run that it is going to be better for the show and, you know, it will end up helping us more times than not.

Q. Al, you are out there at Michigan, I don't know if you are testing right now, or doing, you know, just trying to get some reliability stuff or something like that. How close is it to having a car that, well, I guess, Trickle might call it a car that might be junk and then a car that you might be able to make that left-hand turn down victory lane how temperamental are those things to get going?

AL UNSER JR: When you start to look at about average speeds of 230 mile an hour, they are temperamental and through a long run, you know, we run 40 gallons of fuel and that gets us around almost 40 laps at MIS and so your car needs to play real consistent to run those speeds and so if they go out just a little bit, it could be a big speed loss. And that is what happened to us at the U.S. 500 and we have been testing there since and, hopefully, Marlboro 500 will be a much better race and we will be able to get up there.

Q. Al, could you talk just a little bit about the benefits and drawbacks that you see in being part of a multi-car team?

AL UNSER JR: There really aren't any drawbacks, you know, that -- if the team works together and the drivers work together, there are no drawbacks. It actually enhances both performances of a multi-car team, if it's two or if it's three like our team is this year, you know, there is two other drivers in there that is driving the same thing I got, that want to win and you share all the information and so it is all real good, you know, with Marlboro Team Penske, there is only three Penskes out there. You know, with the Reynard chassis and also with the Lola chassis, you got eight or nine of those guys, different teams, though, driving the same car, but still the factory of Raynard and the factory of Lola, they share in all this information and it kind of puts us at a small disadvantage, if there would be one and that would be it.

Q. If you guys are communicating back and forth between teams, just out of curiosity, why does Tracy qualify always up there and you are not mid pack but still (inaudible)--

AL UNSER, JR: I have been trying to ask myself that same question, you know, I don't have an answer for you. Tracy goes out there and comes up with a little bit more, maybe, out of the car - I don't know. Takes a little bit more chances.

Q. You guys start with the same setup?

AL UNSER JR: For the race, we have started with the same setup at times and at times, we haven't, you know, but the majority of the team, we go there race weekend with the same setup in all the cars.

Q. Kind of take me into the mindset of Marlboro team Penske. As the year started off, it seemed like the Honda package and everything else was a little bit better as far as performance. Did that cause you guys any cause for concern? Did you pick up the pace in development, in testing, or anything, or do you kind of continue just at the same pace as you need to? I guess my question really is when you look at something that is better, do you hurry up and try to achieve that with your only setup or, as a team, do you kind of say everything will fall into place and we will continue to march forward?

AL UNSER, JR.: You try desperately hard. You definitely go into a panic zone, everything, I mean, you do everything you can to speed up anything if you feel that you are behind in any area and Marlboro Team Penske does this better than any team out there and, you know, that is what happened and that is what has been happening -- that is what has been happening all season long and, you know, Mercedes has definitely helped from the very beginning and I feel it definitely closed the gap on Honda than what we started with and, you know, Goodyear did the same thing, but now because of that development process and so on, you know, Firestone may have opened it up again and so, you know, we -- Goodyear has to come up with a better tire and so on and, you know, we will keep working very, very hard to come up with a better setup on the Penske chassis and -- which I feel that we are very competitive with the Reynard and the Lola chassis out there and so, you know, it is just one of those things, the car -- the IndyCar World Series is so competitive now that it is really, really tough to find an edge anywhere, so that is why you see in a lot of the driving being very, very aggressive on the racetrack and so on; that is what it takes. So it is extremely competitive.

Q. Just one follow-up on your plans for next year. I guess, frankly, does Penske have anything up their sleeve for next year? What is the plan to sort of equalize the competition?

AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I really -- I feel -- I haven't really talked to Roger about next year, but I feel there is a new car in the works and, you know, everything from Nigel Bennett and John Travis my indication is that there is a new car underway and so on, and, you know, hopefully, it will be the best car in 1997. And we will start testing it as soon as we get it on the ground and, you know, Mercedes, I am sure, is behind it 110% and we will have new engines and so on.

Q. No major changes?

AL UNSER JR.: Not that I heard of, no.

Q. Of the three tracks you run in the series, ovals road courses, natural road courses and streets, is it safe to say that, for you, the street circuits are your least favorite? Can you rank those for us and tell us why?

AL UNSER, JR: Well, I don't really have a least favorite. I have a most favorite and that tracks in and out for motor speedway. And race tracks are race tracks. What I feel is in the CART series that we have a widespread of differences on the track. And when you win this championship, you are an all-around type race car, you know, on the super speedways, the one ride ovals, the temporary circuits and the permanent road circuits, you have covered a lot of ground and -- different styles of racing and so, you know, that is why this championship means a lot to any race car driver in the world.

MODERATOR: Al, thanks for your time and patience and we apologize to our callers for today's inconveniences. Thank you everyone for calling.

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