Sunday, May 27, 2001

Unser Jr.'s obsession still burns at Indy

Winning 500 'why I wake up in morning'

        INDIANAPOLIS — Al Unser Jr. is nobody's fool, least of all his own. He knows what it takes to win the Indianapolis 500, and he knows he doesn't have what it takes.

        His car is not quick enough to make a meaningful run at the checkered flag, and there's no time left to locate more speed. Unser's prerace posture, therefore, is one of amiable resignation.

        “Maybe it's a good thing we don't have all the confi dence,” the two-time Indy champion said. “We've been in the trenches, and now we're trying to dig our way out.”

        There is no gloom in Unser's garage in Gasoline Alley. And, at least for the moment, there is no frantic tinkering. Little Al takes questions with his hands in his pockets — unhurried and unhassled — and his toothy smile says serenity. If he cannot win today's race, the 39-year-old Unser will be pleased just to take part. He feels more alive at Indy than anywhere else in the world.

        “I missed it immensely,”

        he said, referring to the five-year gap on his racing resume caused by the CART/IRL split. “The only way I could describe it was that there was a hole in my chest and I couldn't breathe. My heart started beating again (last year). I'm back where I belong.”

        If there is a first family of Indy racing, it is surely the Unsers of Albuquerque, N.M. Al Sr. won the 500 four times, once more than his brother, Bobby. Little Al's victories in 1992 and 1994 raised the Unser total to nine.

        Seven years since he last turned left into Indy's Victory Lane, Al Unser Jr. is nine parts nostalgia and one part news.

        When his availability is announced in the media center, only a handful of reporters make the trek to the garage.

        Some are drawn by his name, others by a notorious story in the new ESPN magazine, which reveals the messy aftermath of Unser's divorce in painfully personal detail. His children barely speak to him. His ranch house resonates with silence.

        Unser says the reporter lied to him, that the story was pitched as a racing piece but focused instead on his family problems. He does not dispute the specific accuracy of the article, only the general impression it leaves. He is depicted as both obsessed and adrift — driven by his love of Indy but no longer devoted to being an elite driver.

        Unser acknowledges his obsession. Winning at Indianapolis, he says, is, “why I wake up in the morning.” The assertion is not intended as an apology.

        “If I hadn't won,” he says, “I'd be climbing the walls. I'd be climbing the ceiling. I'd be going crazy. It was a monkey off my back when I won in '92.”

        To win again, he probably will need a stronger race setup. Though today's Indy cars are created virtually equal, Unser's qualifying average of 221.615 mph was more than 4 mph behind that of polesitter Scott Sharp. Though Unser will start from the inside of the seventh row — the 19th position in the 33-car grid — only one car qualified at a slower speed.

        “My car is not what I want it to be, but I don't let it get me down,” Unser said. “My dad came here (in 1987), and he didn't even have a ride. The second weekend (of qualifying), he got back in the show and then he won the race. He proved to me that you never give up.”

        Al Unser Jr. is a chip off the old engine block. The Brickyard is in his bones.

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