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Little Al Cautiously but Giddily Returns to Indianapolis 500

May 19, 2000|SHAV GLICK

INDIANAPOLIS — He's not the fastest driver this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Al Unser Jr. is certainly the happiest.

You can tell from the spring in his step, a bounce that all but disappeared during his last four frustrating years with Roger Penske in CART, when he failed to win a race. Wherever he goes here, his smile is with him.

Little Al is home again.

This has long been Unser territory. The New Mexico family has won the 500 nine times. Junior's dad won it four times, Uncle Bobby three and Little Al twice.

"I don't know if you'd call it a reason or not, but I think one of the things that bothered me the last few years has been knowing I wasn't going to be at Indy for the 500," Unser said. "Even when I came here for an IROC, it wasn't the same."

And he's back with Rick Galles, his old friend and car owner from Albuquerque for whom he won the first of his two Indianapolis 500s, in 1992.

He left Penske and CART last November, to rejoin Galles in the Indy Racing League--and a guaranteed shot at running in his 13th Indy 500.

Not guaranteed, however, was that he would make it. Al Jr. still suffers from the memory of 1995, when he, as defending champion, and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, both failed to qualify for the 33-car field in Penske's cars.

It was to be their last chance. Since Tony George formed the IRL in late 1995, CART teams have skipped the race here, until this year when Chip Ganassi brought Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya across the divide to race against George's IRL regulars.

Ask him how he hopes to fare this year, if he thinks he has a shot at victory No. 3, and Unser quickly notes that his mission is to qualify. Right now, that's a higher priority than winning.

"Sure, I'm on a mission here," he said, grinning broadly. "The mission is to make the race. I didn't think it possible that I could miss the show here [in '95], with all the years we tried and winning the race twice and all that stuff. I remember, telling my dad about how we were running on race tires in practice in '95 and he says, 'Al, you better get the thing in the show before you worry about race tires,' and I said, 'Oh, yeah, no problem.'

"You know what happened. Emerson and I didn't make it. I think that was the lowest point of my career, being the defending champion and having to pack up and watch the race from the infield. That's what I did in '95 and it's not going to happen again. I couldn't take it again."

Unser has had Galles' Aurora-powered G Force up to 221.861 mph, more than fast enough to get him in the show Saturday--maybe. Qualifying for the 500 is always a crapshoot, often depending as much on temperature, cloud cover and gusty winds as on horsepower and chassis trim.

"I don't mind telling you, I was as excited as a little kid seeing his first Christmas tree when I walked into the speedway last Saturday, knowing I was going to get in my open-wheel car and go for a few laps," he said. "I had all the same feelings I had years ago, the tradition, the heritage of this place. It all came screaming back."

Unser arrived here fresh from his first IRL win two weeks ago in Las Vegas, but he's not pleased with some stories that hinted that he won only because other cars slowed down, that he never passed anyone.

"What do those [writers] think racing is?" he snapped. "That's how you win races. You build a reliable piece, and when other guys have their tires going off and slowing down, that's how you pass cars and win races. I don't care how they slow down, I just care about leading the last lap and winning the race.

"Personally, I feel that Vegas started a new chapter in my life. The old chapter is definitely closed, and that book is done and on the bookshelf. Everything's different. We look at things different than we did in 1983, when both the team and us were rookies."

Unser's first 500 with Galles was memorable for two things. He and Al Sr. made up the first father-son combination in the same race in Indy 500 history, a happy memory. Then he ran out of fuel after 192 of the 200 laps and finished 10th, a not-so-happy one.

There are two other Unsers here, cousins Robby and Johnny. Surprisingly, despite all the years and all the Unsers who have raced in the 500--Al 27 times, Bobby 19, Al Jr. 12, Johnny 4, Robby 2 and Jerry 1--there have never been three in the same race.

"Getting three Unsers running has been talked about by my dad a lot," Al Jr. said. "To have that kind of family involvement is very special, so hopefully if Robby can find a little more speed, we'll all make it this time."

Robby, in one of Jonathan Byrd's Riley & Scott cars, has a top speed of 214.684 mph. Johnny, driving a G Force for Indy Regency League, has reached 217.764 mph.

A little more speed would have helped Little Al five years ago.


Among the most poignant moments in Indy 500 history has been track announcer Tom Carnegie intoning, "Andretti is slowing on the backstretch."

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