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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Unser Is Ready to Fasten His Seat Belt

April 23, 1999|SHAV GLICK

The roar of 750-horsepower turbocharged engines a few yards away shattered the quiet inside the Team Penske motor home. For Al Unser Jr., though, it was a tonic. His eyes lit up at the sound, masking for a moment the discomfort of having to keep his right leg elevated over a tabletop.

Unser is recuperating from a severely broken ankle. The sounds were from the cars in the CART FedEx series running last week at Long Beach. One of those cars was his, but inside it was Roger Penske's Brazilian rookie, Tarso Marques.

"It was very difficult to watch the race in Japan [April 10] on TV and it was harder to be here and not be able to do anything but sit," Unser said. "Except for one thing. I sat in the car, with my driving uniform on, when it was in the garage. I wanted to find out if I can handle the situation with my foot next week."

Unser plans a test drive next Monday at Gateway Raceway, near St. Louis, then hopes to race May 2 at Nazareth, Pa.

"I worked the throttle. I can lift my ankle up and down, but I can't have any sideways motion," he said. "And they want me to sit with my leg up as much as I can. I'll have a carbon-fiber wrap around my ankle to keep it from twisting if I hit anything."

When Unser was in the car, he looked at team advisor Rick Mears, and said, "I'm home," then added, "A little taste is better than no taste at all."

Although he will be driving a race car Monday, the 37-year-old, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner cannot resume walking for seven more weeks.

"I broke my ankle in 1985 and was back driving in 10 days and never missed a race, but this one was different," he said. "That time I broke the inside of my ankle. This time I broke both the inside and outside."

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's director of medical services, said he did not want Unser to put any stress or weight on the ankle for 12 weeks. The accident occurred March 21 at Homestead, Fla., on the first lap of the first race of the season.

Unser and rookie Naoki Hattori crashed into each other and Unser's car was pinched into the wall between the first and second turns at Homestead-Miami Raceway.

"The weight of his car squeezed me against the wall," Unser said. "I was like the meat between slices of a sandwich."

Only once before in his 18-year CART career has Unser missed a race--and that was because he failed to qualify for the 1995 Indy 500, after having won the year before.

"That time it was really tougher on me," he said. "It was worse because in '85 I was not hurt or anything, except for my feelings. I couldn't stand it when the cars were running without me."

Marques, who had been doing some testing for Penske, was rushed into the No. 2 Penske-Mercedes after Unser was injured. He finished 14th in Japan and 25th at Long Beach, continuing a team trend. Unser has been unable to win in 54 consecutive races and Penske has been stuck on 99 victories as a car owner since early in the 1997 season.

"What makes it extra tough on me is that Roger went to a one-car team this year, so all the work we did was mine--just the way I wanted it," Unser said. "We tested so much over the winter and we felt the car would be more competitive this year. One of our problems is that the series got so darned competitive.

"Look at the podiums in the first three races. There were three different winners [Greg Moore, Adrian Fernandez and Juan Montoya] and eight different guys on the podium. It's the toughest series there is.

"The engine war between Ford, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota, and the tire war between Goodyear and Firestone has raised the standards.

"We were a little short on tires last year and a little down on power with Goodyear and the Mercedes Ilmor, but we were looking for a change for the better this year.

"We bought a Reynard and I tested it along with the PC28 Penske and I felt the PC was every bit as good."

"When I get back in the car, Tarso will do most of the testing, to keep me from working the ankle too hard. The team really likes him. He gives good feedback. He says everything I said about the way the car handles."

Unser's other concern is his 12-year-old daughter Cody, who is paralyzed from the waist down after collapsing while playing basketball last February. She was found to have transverse myelitis, a condition that damaged her spinal cord.

"My little girl is a trouper," he said. "She's coming along fine, in one respect, but not physically. Her spine is improving, she's back home in Albuquerque now, taking rehab three days a week, but she's still paralyzed.

"They say it will take two to three years of rehabilitation. It happened so fast. At 3 p.m. Friday she complained of numbness in her legs and by Saturday morning she was paralyzed."

Surprisingly, her 16-year-old brother, Alfred, is not following the Unser legacy of racing, which has produced nine Indianapolis 500 winners and 10 Indy car champions.

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