Al Unser, Jr. Battles Drivers and Demons

There are two Al Unsers, Jr. The great Indycar driver, who won two Indianapolis 500s and two national championships, and the addicted Al, who spent much of his off track time with drugs and alcohol. Al Unser, Jr. discusses both men in his autobiography, Al Unser, Jr. : A Checkered Past, as told to Jade Gurss. Gurss is the author of Beast, the story of the 1994 Mercedes -Ilmor engine that dominated the 1994 Indianapolis 500 which Unser won.

Unser, Jr. is brutally frank as he tells his story, using raw language at times. He does not rationalize his behavior in any way. He honestly talks about his triumphs on the track and his failures off of it.

Unser begins his racing career in karts with the help of his father, Al Unser, Sr. As a member of one of racing’s royal families, he feels the weight of continuing the legacy established by his dad and uncle Bobby. Unser is able to figure out the racing line quickly and starts winning races.

Al Unser, Jr. after winning the 1992 Indianapolis 500

Unser enters Indycar with the help of Rick Galles, an Albuquerque car dealer. Galles is willing to spend whatever it takes to produce a winning team. Unser chronicles his Indycar career, from the disappointment of losing his 500 duel with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 to his two victories in 1992 and 1994. His 1992 win over Gordon Johncock is still the closest finish in race history.

Unser starts his career as an aggressive driver in the style of Bobby Unser. An incident with Mario Andretti at Long Beach in 1989 and a talk with Andretti before the race at Nazareth causes him to get his aggressiveness under control.

While Unser enjoys success on the track, his life off the track is a time of drug consumption and family strife. In the chapter “Two Al Juniors” Unser talks about his infidelities, his arguments with his wife, Shelley, and his drug use. He admits to being fortunate that he raced in an era before the Indycar series had a stringent drug testing program.

Throughout the story, Unser recounts his failed tries at rehab facilities and his never ending battle with marijuana and alcohol. He is frank in discussing in detail the night he contemplated suicide

Unser is a good friend of Tony George. He understands his reason for starting the IRL, but he is unhappy with the way he implements it. The fear of a total CART boycott of the 500 leads George to add the NASCAR Brickyard 400 to the IMS schedule. Unser cites George’s plan not to invite the CART teams to Indy as the big error.

Unser says, “That’s where he went awry. That’s where he went sideways…he should have still invited the top teams. It was a self-inflicted wound, and no one was bold enough to tell him not to do it.”

The autobiography concludes as Unser finds Jesus and seeks redemption. he is free of the demons that once ruled his life. Unser is now a driver coach for Alliance racing, a Formula 4 team.

Al Unser, Jr. admits he is not a perfect person, on or off the track, but he has battled to improve himself after o many years of self loathing. The ending is inspiring and hopeful.

Al Unser, Jr. : A Checkered Past is available at Octane Press.

Pat Patrick, Car Owner, CART Founder, Dies at 91

Pat Patrick, who began his involvement in Indycar as a team sponsor and became one of the founders of CART, died Tuesday, January 5, at the age of 91 in His home in Phoenix. Patrick’s team won the Indianapolis 500 three times in his twenty seven years of ownership.

In 1967 Patrick’s oil company became a sponsor for Walt Michener’s team. In 1970 he became the co-owner of the team,with Johnny Rutherford driving. Rutherford just missed the pole of the 500 that year by0.01 second to Al Unser. Patrick owned the Indianapolis winning cars of Gordon Johncock in 1973 and 1982, and Emerson Fittipaldi’s victorious machine in 1989. The Wildcat chassis that Johncock put in Victory Lane in 1982 was the last American made car to win the 500. A Patrick car entered the 500 every year from 1970-1995. Patrick’s last entry At IMS was in 1994 with Al Unser, Jr. driving.

In 1979, Patrick and Roger Penske formed Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and by 1982 the organization sanctioned all Indycar races except for Indianapolis.

Patrick invested in what is now Indy Lights, and he was instrumental in Firestone’s continued involvement in the series.

John Paul, Jr., 1960-2020, Won in Two Eras

John Paul, Jr. began winning at 19 years old when he made the SCCA Runoffs, then immediately took IMSA by storm. He won the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring in 1982 on his way to the IMSA GT championship. In 1983 Paul won the CART Michigan 500, passing Rick Mears on the final lap. I’m hard pressed to find someone else who won a race that way. He raced in two eras of Indycar, and also tried stock cars.

The Muncie, Indiana native had all the makings of a rising star. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1986 when he was convicted on a drug trafficking charge. Paul spent 2 and a half years in prison. When his racing career resumed, the bigger teams and sponsors shied away from him.

He drove in seven Indianapolis 500s, scattered over a period 16 years. Paul’s rookie year, 1985, ended with a lap 164 accident. His best finish was his final 500 when he was seventh in 1998.

Paul won the IRL race at Texas in 1998 driving for Team Pelfrey. He also had a brief foray into NASCAR in 1991.

Paul retired in 2002 after contracting Huntington’s disease.

The Greatest 33 Non-Winners: Final Grid- A Reader Request Post

Editor’s Note: This is the first reader request; originally published May 9, 2017

What a fun project this turned out to be! It was fascinating seeing how much those who submitted grids both agreed and disagreed. Some drivers got just one mention, while others appeared on every ballot.  There was near unanimous placement for some drivers, and some drivers were near the front on some grids and near the back on others. The driver nearly everyone agreed should be on the pole is Michael Andretti (pictured above, from 1992).

I  noticed the rankings were along age lines. Older fans close to my age seemed to have near identical grids,  and younger fans as a group submitted similar lineups.  Many drivers from long ago in general fared better on the lists from the older group. I was surprised how well the current drivers stacked up against the racers of the past. Another interesting detail is that all 50 driver finalists had at least one mention. I didn’t expect that.

To rank the drivers, I assigned points to the drivers corresponding to their spot on each person’s grid. A driver on pole got 1 point, the last driver got 33. If a driver was listed on pole on five grids, his total was 5. The lowest total won the pole. If a driver did not appear on someone’s grid, he/she was given 34 points. To my shock, there were only two ties. I resolved placement by averaged each driver’s highest and lowest rank of all the grades, with the lowest average getting the higher spot. One of the ties was for 32nd and 33rd. It was just like qualifying for the 1963 500.

The front row- Michael Andretti, Rex Mays, and Ted Horn, is strong. These drivers were in the top 10 on everyone’s grid. Andretti led 431 laps, the most by any non-winning driver. he started on the front row three times and had 5 top 5 finishes.  Rex Mays, in the middle of the front row is the only other driver to lead more than 200 laps and not win. Mays was on the pole four times. Ted Horn, on the outside of the front row, finished in the top five 9 times in 10 starts.

So here they are, the Greatest 33 Non-Winners of the Indianapolis 500:

Row 1

Michael Andretti

Rex Mays

Ted Horn

Row 2

Harry Hartz

Marco Andretti

Lloyd Ruby

Row 3

Gary Bettenhausen

Ralph Hepburn

Roberto Guerrero

Row 4

Scott Goodyear

Carlos Munoz

Robby Gordon

Row 5

Eddie Sachs

Tony Stewart

Jack McGrath

Row 6

Wally Dallenbach

Tomas Sheckter

Will Power

Row 7

Danica Patrick

Tony Bettenhausen

Joe Leonard

Row 8

Jimmy Snyder

Ed Carpenter

Danny Ongais

Row 9

Pancho Carter

Mel Kenyon

Kevin Cogan

Row 10

Vitor Meira

Russ Snowberger

Paul Russo

Row 11

Tom Alley

Johnny Thomson

George Snider

it’s kind of fitting that Snider is last on the grid. his trademark was jumping into a car on Bump Day and getting into the field starting near the back. Thanks to everyone who submitted a grid. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and reasoning as to how yo put your grids together.

I will be back tomorrow with some 500 news and a report on my visit to the A. J. Foyt exhibit at the Speedway Museum. The cars were great to see, but the memorabilia was even more amazing to me. Thursday I will have my Indianapolis Grand Prix preview with my normally inaccurate winner’s prediction.

 

 

 

 

 

Sebring 2019 – A Two World Show

It’s called Super Sebring. The 67th running of the oldest sportscar race in the United States will also feature a 1,000 mile race featuring the World Endurance Championship series. The WEC cars look similar to the IMSA machines with a similar class structure. Most of the drivers who ran at the Rolex 24 will participate this weekend, although some will be in different cars.

The prime example of a driver switching to not only a different car, but the other series, is Fernando Alonso. Alonso was part of the winning Wayne Taylor Racing entry at Daytona. This weekend he drives for Toyota Gazoo in the WEC, his regular job. Toyota Gazoo is the top team in the WEC.

Indycar newcomer Ben Hanley’s Dragonspeed car will race in the WEC series Friday. Teams are not allowed to participate in both races. Jordan King, who drove the road course schedule for Ed Carpenter Racing in 2018 and will enter the 500 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, will also drive the WEC event in LMP2 car 37.

Chip Ganassi’s LMGTE Ford entry for Friday has two driver slots listed TBA. There is speculation Ford may leave the GT program at the end of this season.

Indycar Drivers Return to Rolex Teams

Five Indycar regulars who drove in the Rolex 24 return to the same teams for the 67th 12 hours of Sebring. Alexander Rossi will drive car 7 and Simon Pagenaud car 6 for Roger Penske’s Acura team.

Sebastien Bourdais in car 66 and Scott Dixon in 67 again join Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GTLM squad.

Colton Herta will again co drive car 25 for the Rahal BMW team.

Kyle Kaiser again drives for Juncos in car 50.

The Meyer Shank car 57 continues its all female lineup with Katherine Legge, Christina Neilsen, and Ana Beatriz. The team was disappointed this week to learn they did not receive an invitation to Le Mans.

The Disappearing Class

There are just two LMP2 entrants for the 12 hour. The class had just four cars at Daytona. As I wondered then, why does this class exist as a separate group? They qualify with the DPi cars and receive little recognition during the race. IMSA very much wants four classes, but they need to have a plan in place to develop the fourth class.

I am eager to see how this double header weekend works out. It will be interesting to compare the cars of the two series. I expect the WEC cars to be faster, but the IMSA racing to be better.

Watch for Updates Here

I will be posting updates all weekend, beginning with WEC qualifying tomorrow. Some will be quite brief.  I will have my Quick Thoughts column after each race. The WEC race ends at midnight, so look for that column Saturday morning (not early).

On Monday my full weekend wrap-u will be on Wildfire Sports.

1976: New Buildings, a Very Short Race, and an End to a Rainy Era

The modern face of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began to take shape in America’s Bicentennial year. The current IMS Museum building opened, allowing for more old cars to be displayed. The building at the corner of 16th and Georgetown would become office space for IMS administration. The Speedway honored the new building with a rendition on the cover of the program.  A photo (below) in the program shows a much different space than we see now.

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Also new in the infield just west of the new Museum is the Louis Chevrolet memorial. The project had an estimated cost of $40,000. It would cost at least five times that today.

I believe this program was one of the last to have a memorial page, honoring drivers and others associated with the track and the race who had died since the last race. Three former winners grace the page, two who died early. Rene Thomas, winner of the 1914 500, died the previous September and at age 89. Other winners on the page are  1966 champion Graham Hill, killed in a plane crash in November 1975; and 1972 winner Mark Donohue, who died of injuries suffered in a testing crash in Austria.

USAC has what seems like a larger than usual presence in the program. There is an ad inviting fans to join the club and a feature by Donald Davidson recognizing the USAC’s 21st year. The article  includes the 1976 schedule:

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Other stories are a nice tribute to Mary “Mom” Unser, mother of Bobby, Al,  Louis, and Jerry, Jr., who died of a heart attack the previous December.  Mary was popular for her famous chili, which she cooked every May for the paddock.

I always enjoy looking through the old programs for the ads for products no longer in use. Champion spark plugs, Monroe shock absorbers, CAM2 racing oil, and Standard oil are immortalized in print.

The score sheet insert is one I had never seen before. It is a pamphlet which includes thumbnail biographies of the drivers, a brief history of IMS, and the current USAC Championship point standings, plus a brief explanation of the points system. Going into Memorial Day, Gordon Johncock led the standings with 530 points. Johnny Rutherford was second with 400 points.

The winner of the 500 received 1,000 points and the 12th place finisher took home 50. Points were not awarded outside the top 12.

 

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The race itself turned out to be the shortest in history. Rain stopped the event after 102 laps, 255 miles. The field completed just one lap more than the required distance to make it an official race. Johnny Rutherford won from the pole, leading 48 laps. It was Rutherford’s second win in three years. It was the last race won by a four cylinder engine.

1976 was the third rain shortened race in a four year period. The 1973 race was postponed two days and ran only 133 laps, and in 1975, rain halted the race after 174 circuits.  An odd statistic- the back to back rain curtailments  gave each winner- Bobby Unser won in 1975-  their second 500 title. There have been just two rain shortened races since then, in 2004 and 2007.

Some races have had starts delayed because of weather and then run to completion the same day.   Others have had postponements of a day or two. The longest postponement was in 1986, when the race ran the Saturday following its original Sunday date.

Later this week, my season previews will be on Wildfire Sports. The Pit Window will share news and commentary on the week’s Indycar happenings as well.

 

Latest Wickens Video

Have tissues handy

 

 

Indycar Introduces New Safety Device- Some Thoughts

Yesterday Indycar introduced a new safety device which will debut at the Indianapolis 500. It is a small deflector in front of the cockpit between the rearview mirrors. The device, called the Advanced Frontal Protection Device (AFP),  is supposed to deflect low flying small debris.   The three inch high, 0.75 inch wide titanium piece is built b Dallara. The windscreen still needs more development, which is continuing. It might surprise you, but probably doesn’t , that I have some thoughts about this device.

In fairness, the AFP has not appeared out of the blue. It has bee discussed and studied for a few years. I’m positive the series would not put something on the car that has not been researched.

First, I have to trust Jay Frye and his team on this one. The never ending quest to make the cars safer is always at the front of his mind. I applaud his effort to implement some sort of safety deflector as an alternative to the windscreen. The screen had some issues. It added heat to the cockpits. Drivers who tested it complained of distortion and limited vision. I like that they are still working on it. The AFP does not appear to affect the driver’s sightline.

“Safety is a never-ending pursuit, and this is INDYCAR’s latest step in the evolution,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “There are more details to come about the phases to follow.”

I’m glad that the NTT Indycar Seeries is not proceeding with the windscreen because they don’t feel it is ready.

My concern is the AFP appears to be limited in what it can prevent from entering the cockpit and striking the driver. I’m not an engineer, but it appears that debris must come at a specific angle on a low trajectory for it to be effective.  The device seems designed to stop smaller objects.

Before commenting further, I would like to see a view of this from the front of the car.

I hope this is a stopgap feature leading to the windscreen. The AFP looks like it is a transitional device which will give way to a more comprehensive cockpit protector.

While the 500 will be the first race for the cars to use the AFP, it will be on all cars for the April 24 test at the  Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Like many safety devices, I hope it is never tested in a race. Sadly, needing it is the only to know if it works as intended.

A close-up of the deflector highlighted in green:

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Image by Indycar

Again, I need to see this in person and learn more about what it is designed to do before I pass a definite judgment.

 

You can read the complete release at Indycar.com

 

Spring Training Begins at COTA; 25 Entries Set to Run

Today, at last, is the official opening day of the 2019 NTT Indycar Series season. Spring training begins at 11 am ET at Circuit of the Americas, the newest track on the schedule. Cars have 5 hours of track time available today and 6 hours tomorrow. Today’s action will be streamed on Indycar’s Facebook page, Twitter, and YouTube.

With Monday’s news about the change in plans at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Colton Herta will test the lone car for the team.  Kyle Kaiser will likely test for Juncos. The team announced yesterday that Kaiser will drive the number 32 at COTA in the March 24 race.

IndyCar sessions are scheduled from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3:30-6:30 p.m. ET on the 12th, and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2:00-6:00 p.m. ET on the 13th.

Expected to test :

A.J. Foyt Racing Chevy (2): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist

Andretti Autosport Honda (4): Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach

Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda (2): James Hinchcliffe, Marcus Ericsson

Carlin Racing Chevy (2): Max Chilton, RC Enerson

Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (2): Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist

Dale Coyne Racing Honda (2): Sebastien Bourdais, Santino Ferrucci

Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy (2): Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones

Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda (1): Colton Herta/Patricio O’Ward

Juncos Racing Chevy (1): TBA

Meyer Shank Racing Honda (1): Jack Harvey

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda (2): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato

Team Penske Chevy (4): Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves

Tickets for Spring Training can be purchased at http://www.circuitoftheamericas.com/indycar-spring-training.