Throughout its history, the Indianapolis 500 has made its reputation for turning race drivers into mythic heroes. When A.J. Foyt arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1958, he couldn't talk his way past the gate guard to Gasoline Alley because he was still a nobody. He had to wait for his car owner, Al Dean, to arrive before Foyt would be allowed into the garage area.
Just three years later, Foyt won the '61 Indianapolis 500-the first of four Indy 500 triumphs that made him one of the greatest names in American auto racing history.
While Foyt was the grand champion of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the royal family of the Indianapolis 500 is the Unsers. Jerry Unser was the first to attempt to race at the Indianapolis 500, but was involved in the horrifying first-lap crash at the start of the '58 race in his rookie season. The following year, he was badly burned in a crash while practicing and died two weeks later from blood-poisoning complications.
His younger brother, Bobby, made the Indianapolis 500 field for the first time in 1963 and would go on to win three Indy 500s. Another brother, Al, was an Indianapolis rookie in 1965 and went on to become the second four-time winner of the race in 1987.
Al's son, Al Unser Jr., was a rookie in the '83 Indianapolis 500 and would go on to become a two-time winner at Indy and one of the most popular drivers in recent Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.
Little Al Returns To IndyThe driver known as "Little Al" once said he loved the Indianapolis 500 more than life itself. Because of the political nature of the sport that started over the creation of the Indy Racing League, Unser has been unable to compete in the race he loves so dearly because he was under contract to CART team owner Roger Penske. Unser became the first defending Indy 500 champion who failed to qualify for the race when he was too slow in 1995. Beginning in 1996, the CART teams have stayed away from Indianapolis.
But now, Al Unser Jr. is back. Unser has left CART to join the Indy Racing League where he is reunited with team owner Rick Galles. Together, the two won the Indy 500 for the first time in 1992. And, as an added bonus, two of the top drivers from CART, defending series champion Juan Montoya and '96 PPG Cup champion Jimmy Vasser, will race in the Indianapolis 500 for CART team owner Chip Ganassi.
The return of Al Unser Jr. will command much of the focus in this year's race, adding additional luster to an event that still commands attention and respect for its place in motorsports throughout the world.
"We're going to get back to Indy," Unser says with a smile that has not been on his face because of various struggles in CART the past few seasons. "It's real important to us. I haven't been back there in five years. The Indy 500 is the grandfather of all of these races. To get back there was important to me, and it still is. When we roll back there to go testing, I'll probably have goose bumps."
Squashing The RumorsThere are many that believe the Al Unser Jr. who returns to this year's Indianapolis 500 is not the same driver who won it in 1994. Some believe his skills have deteriorated, that personal demons in his life have taken their toll. Unser shoots down the skeptics and believes he has driven the best races of his career the past few years, "just to keep the car out of the fence." Unser has not won a race since the '95 Molson Indy Vancouver CART street event.
"I never saw the questions as negatives-when people were asking what was wrong at Penske and why weren't we winning. I didn't see it as a negative," Unser says. "I know that I went out and did the best job I could do. Most of the time, I was outrunning my teammates. They could put different drivers out there, and they weren't outrunning me.
Rumors about his physical fitness, and his personal habits, have also been used to explain the demise of his racing career.
"I hear it all the time, and it doesn't bother me at all," Unser says. "There was a comment by my engineer, Allen Mertens, when we ran a pretty quick time at Disney World in testing. I got out of the car and we were walking back, he taps me in my stomach and says to me, 'I knew you still had it.' What that said to me was even Allen doubted it. We'll see."
Unser realizes he is a marked man in the IRL-from the drivers who want to prove to the big-name driver that they are pretty good racers themselves.
"Dad made a point of reminding me there are some guys out here who want my head pretty bad," Unser says. "That is fine. That is kind of a compliment to me. If that is the way it is, I have to make sure I don't put myself in a position to give them my head. I have to try to outsmart them and outthink them, and that is what racing is all about."
A No-Win Situation?There are two ways to look at Unser's jump from CART to the IRL. He can return to the sport of oval racing, excel in cars that are more equal than in CART, and hopefully recapture some luster to his career, or he may lose even more stature in his career if he is unable to win or get top finishes.
"That was asked of me a bit ago, that I was in a no-win situation," Unser says. "I don't see it like that at all. The way I see it is, I have a good opportunity to win more races than I had in CART because the car and the package are not so important here. I'm not developing a new car; I'm not developing a new engine; I'm not developing new tires. My engine package is what everybody else is running. My car is basically what everyone else is running, and my tires are what everyone else is running.
"Give me a day when I have equal footing with the rest of the competitors, and I'm going to outrun them. I don't see it as a no-win situation; I see it as a great opportunity to come in and be on equal footing with the rest of the competitors, plus have an opportunity to share and be a part of the growth in the IRL."
The New CarsUnser has adapted to the IRL car from the turbocharged, more exotic racing machines in CART. With the 3.5L normally aspirated engines, and a higher-downforce chassis in the IRL, Unser believes it gives the driver more of a chance to showcase his ability.
"I feel great about the car," Unser says. "Every time I drive it, I learn more and more about it. The thing about the IRL car is it has less horsepower than the CART car, yet it has more downforce and more drag to it. If you slow the car down in the middle of the corner or have any kind of balance problem in the corner, it hurts you big time. You have to keep your momentum up. I'm learning that as we go. This car really reminds me of what we had in 1987 and 1988-that type of car with the downforce and the horsepower."
Unser hopes his presence will help showcase the ability of the drivers in the IRL, and race fans will realize that these drivers are gunfighters.
"They are smooth, they are competitive, and they are racers," Unser says. "They are better racers than they are given credit for, no doubt about it. They know these cars, the teams are real good, and the competition is very, very close.
"The way the rules are set up in the IRL, it's very tough to get an advantage mechanically. Our advantage is to go out there and work hard to make it reliable. It's also that way for the show, too. It's going to get tough to get out by yourself and lead. That is the way the series is built around-to put on a great show and run side by side. That will put a bunch of people in the stands."
A Spectator No MorePutting people in the stands has always been important to Unser. That's because he's been a fan favorite.
And there is nowhere that the fans love him any more than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After being exiled from the Indianapolis 500 beginning in 1996, Unser decided to attend last year's race as a spectator to support his cousins, IRL drivers Robby and Johnny.
When he was introduced to the throng of 400,000 fans prior to race, the crowd erupted with a huge roar.
"It overwhelmed me," Unser says. "When I was a rookie in the first few years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that kind of reception was for A.J. Foyt-it wasn't for me. When we went back there last year and got that type of reaction from the fans, it was overwhelming, it put butterflies in my stomach, and it was just great. Race day at Indy is a great day; there was a ton of people there, and it didn't look any different. That pretty much said it right there."