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A Viewer's Guide / Grand Prix of Long Beach

Out of A Spin

Unser Appears Ready to Win Again Just When He Returns to His Favorite Circuit

April 01, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The smile is back on the face of Al Unser Jr. Surprising, perhaps, when one considers that he hasn't won a race in 35 starts--more than two full seasons.

There are two reasons for the smile:

* Last Sunday, in Japan, Unser drove his new Mercedes-powered Penske PC27 to second place in the Budweiser 500. It was almost as good as winning. In 17 PPG Cup starts last season, he never finished better than third.

* He's coming back to Long Beach, where he has won a record six times and once had a string of four in a row.

Just like that, he'll be back in a favorite's role for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a street race that is Round 3 of CART's 19-race FedEx championship series.

"Naturally, I'm looking forward to Long Beach," he said. "In fact, I can't wait to get back. For a number of reasons. One of the major disappointments . . . last year was the way our car ran on road courses. Long Beach will be our first street race this year and we want to see how we do with a brand-new car and a brand-new attitude."

On the Twin Ring Motegi course, a 1.5-mile oval north of Tokyo, Unser finished one second behind Adrian Fernandez of Mexico.

"The car ran just beautifully," Unser said after the race. "It feels great to be back on the podium [top three finisher] again. Long Beach, I can't wait."

When Unser Jr. won at the beach for the first time, in 1988, he was still Little Al, racing in the shadow of his father, Al Unser, who had won his fourth Indianapolis 500 the year before. Now Junior is 35, an elder statesman of CART, older than any of the winners of the 17 CART races last year.

"Hey, I hope people still call me Little Al because it means they still think of me as a little kid," he said, laughing.

Junior won 12 races in 1994 and 1995--nine of them on temporary road circuits--and won the PPG Cup championship in 1994. But he has not won since Sept. 3, 1995, at Vancouver.

"We've tested our new Mercedes engine and [chief designer] John Travis' new PC27 [chassis] very well on road courses, but after two oval races [at Homestead, Fla., and Japan], Long Beach will be the first time we can test it on a street course in an actual race. You never know until you're in a race what a car, especially a new car, will really do."

The road course version of the PC27 looks radically different from any other CART car, or last year's PC26, with a Formula One-style raised nose and a lower front wing.

With Unser and new teammate Andre Ribeiro sharing rides, it has been tested for more than 3,000 miles at Penske's California Speedway road course in Fontana, Firebird Raceway near Phoenix, Laguna Seca in Northern California and Sebring, Fla.

"Our lap times have been right with everyone, so we'll see what happens," Unser said.

"Another thing that pleases me this year is that Andre brought a lot to the team. He and I have similar driving styles--we like the car set up the same way--so it's a hell of a lot easier on the crew than it was with [Paul] Tracy. He and I never had the same feeling for the car."

Tracy, although he won three races early last year, was dropped by Penske when he criticized the car's performance late in the season. Penske quickly replaced him with Ribeiro, 32, who drove last year for Tasman Motorsports. In his rookie season in 1995, Ribeiro won the New England 200 at New Hampshire Raceway and in 1996 won the inaugural Rio 400 in his native Brazil and the Marlboro 500 in Michigan.

"The changes in the car had to be radical, because Mercedes came up with a much smaller package, shorter and lighter, for its engine," Unser explained. "To take advantage of the engine changes, John Travis had to design a new chassis, new gearbox and new plumbing.

"It's a totally different aerodynamic package. We've had teething problems, the way any new car does, but it looks like we've overcome them."

The biggest problem was in the gearbox. At Homestead, Unser had moved from 14th to seventh with 30 laps remaining before transmission problems during a restart ended his day.

"When we came down for the restart, we lost a gear and then the gearbox went," he said. "It was disappointing, but I was very pleased with the way the Penske handled. For a totally new car, it's fast, it handles well in traffic and I was definitely moving toward the front before it broke.

"You saw the difference in Japan. It never missed a beat."

Tires were another sore point last year. The Penske team ran on Goodyears, but after Tracy's win at Gateway Raceway, near St. Louis, Firestone-shod cars won 11 consecutive races until Michael Andretti won this year's opener. Fernandez won on Firestones.

"The Goodyears are changed this year," Unser said. "They're definitely better. You can feel the difference, and you can see the difference in the lap times."

Unser won his four consecutive Long Beach races from 1988 to 1991, then lost a couple before winning again in 1994 and 1995.

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