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Latest IRL News and Commentary

Al Unser Jr. Press Conference

June 12, 2003

K. Miller: Al, we appreciate you taking time to join us, and weíd like to start with Jeff Simmons, the Infiniti Pro Series driver. He was on before you and said to make sure that we passed on our congratulations on an outstanding victory, and Iím sure everyone on the call would echo that. Point zero-eight-one of a second was the margin of victory over Tony Kanaan. I know youíve been asked this numerous times since the race, but for those of us on the call, walk us through that last lap yourself. Tell us what was going through your thoughts, obviously coming off of two very close finishes in the past couple of years. Are you thinking, ĎI canít lose another photo finish?í Are you thinking, ĎThis is mine, Iím going to make sure I get this,í and what are your thoughts?

Unser: Well, first off I want to thank everybody for joining us today and, yes, it was one of those close calls. When we started and Tony Kanaan got next to me on the back straightaway, I was thinking, ĎOh no, chances of me winning this one are slim.í But you know, my Toyota engine pulled me through, and we came around and won the race. It was fantastic for Kelley Racing, for Corteco/Bryant Heating and Cooling, all my sponsors. A lot of hard work and it was great to finally win.

K. Miller: As I mentioned, two close finishes, most notably the exact same race last year at Texas, .011 of a second, you lost that race to Jeff Ward and then at Chicago, also last year, .0024 was the margin of victory for Sam Hornish, Jr. over you. Do you like those close finishes or really would you preferred to not have the stress and just run away with the win?

Unser: I think the close finishes are great for the fans, but for myself, no, I donít like those close finishes, and I guess Firestone gave me some bigger tires this time and we were able to win.

K. Miller: Youíre driving the No. 31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota/Firestone for Kelley Racing. This is the first year youíve driven the No. 31 since your 1994 season, is that correct?

Unser: Yes, it is.

K. Miller: And I understand that is the season you were driving for Penske Racing, you won your second Indy 500, you won your second CART championship, you won eight of 16 races in the number 31 that year. Obviously, youíre second in points and have a shot at the championship this year. Are you superstitious? Does the 31 have anything to do with it?

Unser: Well, the 31 car was the lucky car for me in Ď94. The 7 car Iíve run in the past. The 7 car I won my first race in, in 1984, it was the 7 Coors Light car, but I only won one race that year, and then every time Iíve had the 7, I havenít won or had a good season. The 31 car gave me a great year and so we went with that. I guess I am a little superstitious about that, and so the 31 car was the lucky car for me, and now itís turned out to be again a lucky car for me.

K. Miller: The point standings, as they stand now, Tony Kanaan, 177, youíre in second with 151. Interesting stat I want to note for the journalists on the call, youíre the oldest driver in the series at 41 years old. Your father won the 1983 CART championship at 44 and then came back and won the CART championship two years later at age 46. Do you feel like age doesnít matter? You certainly have a shot at the championship, 40, 30, 20 years old, it can be done?

Unser: It truly can be done and the reason why is because Iím enjoying what Iím doing. I love driving these cars. And as long as I enjoy it and Iím competitive, then weíre going to keep doing it.

Q: Al, I just wanted to ask you about the sensation of racing at Richmond International Raceway, something that small at the speed that guys run, can you break down the thought processes as you make a lap, or if there is a thought process?

Unser: Well, most definitely Richmond is a little bullring. It is the smallest oval that we race on in the series, and itís got some banking to it and so itís an enjoyable racetrack. The cars run fast there. They run extremely close. And, you know, it being on a Saturday night, it truly is a Saturday-night fight because of how small it is and you end up rubbing wheels with people and so instead of, in our series instead of it being Darlington stripes, we call them Richmond stripes around there.

Q: It sounds like you take this all quite in stride, but are there any legitimate, you know, safety issues in putting open-wheel cars on a track that small?

Unser: No, not at all. I mean the cars that we run, the IRL does a great job as far as the safety of them and so, you know, as drivers, we get out there and we drive them as hard as we can, and we go racing in it. Thatís all there is to it.

Q: Hey, Al, how are you?

Unser: Doing great.

Q: Hey, first of all I wanted to get your thoughts on Pikes Peak. In the past this race is kind of been a sprint. Now that you have the superior engine in Toyota, Iím curious how important qualifying is going to be for you to get up front and obviously get in front of those Chevys and stay up there.

Unser: Well, based on last yearís race, you know, you could throw a blanket over the top three finishers. The two Marlboro cars and Sam Hornish in the Pennzoil car were just nose to tail the entire race. And based on that, you know, thatís the way I really see the race coming up, so qualifying is going to be important. Your pit stops are going to be very important because it is hard to pass when you get toward the front up there. So itís a race where the man who makes the least amount of mistakes is the one whoís going to win.

Q: My second question, Al, I want to talk about the alcohol thing. How much is not having alcohol in your system helped you focus behind the wheel?

Unser: It helped me quite a bit. I mean, when I'm away from the racetrack itís really the most time that has helped me in, so my life is extremely good, and I'm enjoying it. And my performance on the track really hasnít changed all that much because I never had alcohol around me at the racetrack. But away from the racetrack my life is so much better. And then that has kind of been a snowball effect, I would say, as far as when I get to the racetrack, my mind is so much clearer, and then when I get out of the race car, I physically feel better and I'm mentally stronger at the end of the races.

Q: Well, do you think not having alcohol in your life anymore has helped you gain in the points? I mean, youíre second in the points, do you think thatís a direct a correlation there?

Unser: Yeah, it has definitely helped. You know, it just definitely helps. I mean, like I said, when I show up to the track I feel so much better, and then when I'm away from the track I feel a lot better so.

Q: Hi, Al. I wanted you to, first of all, accept this with respect that I really mean this, but you're really in this championship hunt. As we go to the second half of the season, youíve won at St. Louis, youíve won, Chicago, we know how you ran there last year, Texas youíve won at, the team has run extremely well at Nazareth. And the mile-and-a-half tracks that are left, I mean, you have fared pretty well on mile-and-a-half. Do you feel differently now about your chances to win this championship? Maybe, I'm sure you went into the season thinking you're going to. You like to compete, but you really, legitimately, are in this championship hunt.

Unser: I feel good about it. I guess that the most important thing that happened at Kelley Racing was over the wintertime. They brought Steve Newey on board. Theyíve really gone into the next level, you know, theyíve brought on the Toyota engine, and (team owner) Tom (Kelley) himself has made a commitment, personally, to do whatever it takes to win this championship, and both myself and Scott Sharp were working really well together. The engineers are working really well together, and the whole team is pulling in the same direction and so, yes, we have been strong on the mile-and-a-half. And, you know, personally I've been looking at the next two races that are on the small ovals. If we can come away with a podium finish, then weíre going to be really, really strong for winning this championship.

Q: And I guess I was making this point after the race, that your skills in the draft have always been such a big thing. I mean, obviously Dale Earnhardt always talked about you being kind of one of the guys in the IROC game that understood the draft. Do you feel like thatís kind of been one of your difference makers on those big tracks?

Unser: I would hope to think so. I mean, all that I can say is that I've really enjoyed the mile-and-a-half. It is a drafting game. I would hope to think that during the IROC races that I run and understanding the draft and all that sort of thing has helped us. You know, another big help is my fatherís knowledge of the draft and what he has passed to me. So, we just enjoyed those mile-and-a-half races. The teams got a great setup for that and so thatís the races that we do well at.

Q: Finally, have you, at some point in this season, decided that championship now is legitimately within reach, or like you said, maybe you have to come out of these next two races to know that?

Unser: If we can come out of the next two races, you know, because at Kelley Racing the little ovals are the ones that we tend to struggle at. Both Scott Sharp and myself have done testing, we've been working at it, and I feel confident going up to Pikes Peak because Scott has tested up there and he came away from there, from the test, feeling that we had a good setup on the car. And I've been able to drive Scottís set up and what heís found to be really good, and so I'm really looking forward to this coming up weekend.

Q: I got a feeling when I was watching you hoist that trophy up and almost turn in circles and show it to everybody, that in some respect you were saying to the world, ďHey, look, Al can still win races.Ē In effect, were you saying that?

Unser: You know, the last two races that I had won, the first one I dedicated to my daughter, Cody, and the second one I dedicated to my son, little Joe, who had never been to victory lane. And so, the next race was dedicated to me, and really thatís the way that I felt. You know, it has been a long time and with everything that I've been through, that was the race that I truly wanted for myself, and I'm just so happy that it came in Texas. I'm so happy that it came this early in the season. And now what weíve got to do is take the Corteco/Bryant Special and go win the IRL championship.

Q: Does it make it a little better that it wasnít because you outwitted someone or a caution flag fell at the right time, but that you just flat-out drove to win?

Unser: I was fortunate that I had a great team and really thatís the way I consider it. You know, I'm just one link in the chain that makes the win, and so my guys did it for me because they moved me up every time we came in the pits. They had awesome pit stops, and the way I feel about it is all I did was perform as well as they were performing and so I was just part of the team on the team win.

Q: Are you going to walk a little taller when you arrive at Pikes Peak?

Unser: Maybe for a little while until the first practice session. But, you know, it will all start over again ,and the IRL is very, very competitive, and there are a lot of drivers that are great race car drivers and great teams out there. And so weíre going to have to work for everything we get.

Q: I just wanted to ask you going back to last year, you did sit out a couple races, and I'm sure there were times when you felt a little uncertain about your future. Were there any moments when you actually, seriously considered giving up on the career?

Unser: No, I never considered giving up driving race cars. I love doing what I'm doing. And I really feel very fortunate and lucky to be able to do for a living what I truly love doing, which is driving cars. And so, it was really going to be based on the sponsors, and if they were going to stand behind me, and my car owner and Tom Kelley, personally, and his family, the Corteco family, decided to stand behind me and support me, and they helped me the most.

Q: Also, I wanted to go back to an earlier question about one-and-a-half mile tracks, specifically you will be competing at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta on August 17. Have you visited that track before, and if so, what are your thoughts on that, and what do you think of the track as far as the competition there goes?

Unser: Kentucky is a great racetrack and, yes, Iíve competed there before, and itís a wonderful facility, and there's close racing and side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel racing. And if we have a good day, there's a strong chance of winning that race.

Q: I just wanted to ask, you touched on this a little bit, but given the difficulties last year and the challenges that presented you personally, did Saturdayís win kind of fit into a special category for you?

Unser: Yes, it did. I mean, any time you win a race, the rewards are fantastic. Itís a reward of all the whole team doing a lot of hard work and sacrifice and everything. And then when you win, the rewards are really great, and theyíre satisfying, and it was the same case. You know, we all worked very hard to get that win down at Texas, and team worked just as hard as I did and so it was very satisfying. And now we need to move on and think about the IRL championship and go from there.

Q: Since Pikes Peak is so close to Albuquerque, do you consider that a home race?

Unser: I consider it a home race because of Pikes Peak, the hill climb, and how much my family has so much tradition in Colorado Springs. My uncle Bobby, my uncle Jerry, my uncle Louie were all born in Colorado Springs, and then with the hill climb, how many Unser wins are up there and all that sort of thing. And so I really want to bring that down to that oval, from the mountain down to the oval and win there and try to start a tradition that has been there for a long time and move it down to the oval.

Q: Also, one follow-up question. Eddie Cheever and Michael Andretti have recently retired to become team owners. Have you had any thoughts about going in that direction?

Unser: I love driving these cars. And as long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I'm competitive, then I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, because I truly enjoy driving them and so on. So thatís where I'm going to stay.

Q: Given all the struggles you have been through in the last year or so, what were other driversí reactions to you winning last weekend? Did you get phone calls from people? What was the reaction from others? I know you're competitive butÖ?

Unser: I havenít had any talks or anything from any other drivers or anything like that, but there was a lot teams that gave me the thumbs-up when I was coming in to Victory Lane and just my friends and my family. A lot of phone calls and just a lot of support, and itís really felt good.

Q: And as a follow-up, you talked about your being, what, the oldest driver in the series? What kind of concessions have you had to make for age? I mean, is it tougher to get out of the bed in the morning, is it tougher to do certain things that you did easily before when you're competing?

Unser: Actually, because of my program that I'm under right now, and based on my alcoholism and all that sort of thing, working out, itís easier to get out of bed in the morning, and I truly enjoy life. I'm up in Chama (N.M.) right now. I'm going to get on my tractor, and I'm going to go cut some grass and do some work around my cabin up here and then head off to Colorado Springs.

Q: So it sound like itís gotten easier. Has it gone a lot easier?

Unser: I wouldnít say easier, what I would say is more enjoyable. I just enjoy life way more than I had in the past.

Q: I'm just curious, you're mentioning on the TV promos now that you're residence is Henderson, Nevada, so first of all I wondered how much time do you actually spend here in Nevada, and second of all what are your thoughts about the prospect of the IndyCar Series returning to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next year?

Unser: I donít get to spend as much time as Iíd like to in Henderson. I really love the city. I've got a boat that I go out on Lake Mead, and I enjoy it out there. And I'm very, very excited at the prospect of the IRL getting back to Las Vegas because itís a mile-and-a-half. Itís a great oval. We have very close race in there, and I won in the last race there.

Q: Thatís right.

Unser: So I definitely want to get back there because there's some luck there for me.

Q: You're known as a very clean driver. Competitive always, but very, very clean. Thereís been a little bit less than that on the IndyCar (Series) circuit this year. Is there anything that you would advise some of the newcomers on the circuit about how they need to keep their noses clean and keep it between those walls?

Unser: I think that everybody out there is a clean driver, and thatís what I truly believe. What is going on this year that we've seen is very, very competitive. And when you start pushing the envelope to its max, you know, racing accidents happen. And so, for what we've seen this year, itís been the closest competitive racing that the IRL has ever seen. And with that, when you start pushing that envelope comes little mistakes. And every driver out there is a clean driver and respects the other driverís space and all that, but like I said, when you start pushing that envelope and you start getting out-prided a bit little bit, then it gets real competitive, and so really thatís what we've seen this year.

Q: You mentioned the extra commitment the team has given you this year. In what way has that taken place?

Unser: Itís just with the people that we've hired. Steve Newey, whoís a great engineer, as you know, brought the team to the next level, Paul Harcus, who we refer to as Ziggy. When I won my championship in 1990, he was my left front tire man and mechanic. Heís a fantastic gentleman, and just the engineering staff and the mechanics, theyíve just brought it to the next level. So the whole team has truly stepped up to a different level, and itís showing. I mean, with Scott Sharp winning in Japan, myself winning in Texas, the seeds are now bearing fruit. Itís all the hard work that theyíve done over the winter.

Q: With Richmond two weeks away, you mentioned a little bit about the approach when you know you might rub wheels a little bit, something thatís not exactly common on the circuit, how does your approach change?

Unser: Itís Saturday night fight at Richmond and so you got to get in there and get your hands dirty and get with the program. Richmond is the smallest oval that we run on. Itís very unique in that aspect and so qualifying is very important and so you just need to get with the program.

Q: I wanted to ask you, what do you think of having the yellow to give a one-lap finish like that. First of all, what does a driver thatís out in front think as he waits and decides whether heís going to win on the yellow or get that one lap? And then how important is that restart?

Unser: Well, first off, the driver wants to finish under the yellow if heís leading the race. If he's in second place, then he wants the green to come out and have a shot at winning the race. So myself, I was putting a lot of pressure on the Pace Car, and I was wanting to finish it under yellow because I was the leader. But then, we want the fans to see a finish under green and a race for it, and so I had some mixed emotions there about that. But the way that it ended up, it was very good on all aspects. You know, the IRL crew did a fantastic job cleaning up the accident and getting us a green-flag finish, which everybody wants to see and so it was great. I mean it was a wonderful ending. And I guess if I was in Tony Kanaanís spot, I would say, ďWell, the ending wasnít all that great because I lost,Ē but being the winner of the race, it was fantastic.

Q: When you were with Galles, your team did a lot of practice for pit stops, and your pit stops in Texas were super. How much does your team practice on pit stops?

Unser: My team practices all the time, and every team out there works hard at these pit stops because they know how competitive the IRL is. So, you know, my guys have worked really, really hard at coming out with great stops. We came so close winning the pit stop competition at Indianapolis, and I love my crew. Theyíve done a great job, and I expect great things in the future from them.

Q: One last question. Ranking this victory, of course Indy, I imagine, is at the top, but how do you rank this victory among all youíve had?

Unser: Personally, itís been one of the ones that I have truly, really worked hard at. And you worked hard at all of them, but this one in particular. I've had different challenges in my life that I have to face and I have to deal with, and we've done that, and the good Lord blessed us with the reward of all the perseverance, and all the hard work does pay off, and the good Lord gave it to us.

Q: Thank you. Good luck this week.

Unser: Thank you.

K. Miller: Al, thank you very much for taking time. We know you want to get out to your tractor to work on the farm. So, do get out while you have some time off, and then we wish you the best of luck not only this weekend in Pikes Peak but certainly in a chance to win the Indy Racing League championship this year. Thank you very much.

Unser: Thanks, Kim. And I just want to thank everybody for joining us today. It means a lot and I hope to see you all up at Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs.

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