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IROC: Unser, Vasser Excited about Speedway Homecoming

31 July 1998

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. felt like a rookie again Monday when he pulled onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track in an International Race of Champions Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

Al Unser, Jr. in 1994

It had been 1,163 days since he had last driven a lap in an Indy-style car on the storied Brickyard track, at 225.236 mph in a failed qualifying run in May 1995. It was the worst day of his career as his four-lap speed average of 224.101 mph on his third qualifying attempt was not fast enough to make the "500" starting field.

"When I first left the pits I was full of excitement," Unser said of his IROC practice. "I actually had butterflies in my stomach. It was almost close to when I was rookie here in '83 and pulling out for the first time, because I didn't know what to expect."

Jimmy Vasser, 1996 CART champion, returned to the Speedway -- also as one of the 12 drivers who will compete in Friday's inaugural True Value Firebird IROC race at Indy -- with good and bad memories. Most of both came between crossing the finish line at the end of Lap 170 of the 1995 "500" and reaching the third turn of Lap 171.

With 30 laps to go in that year's "500," Vasser led the field as he tried to add his name to the illustrious list of winners. Then on the far side of the track in the northeast turn, he lost control of his car as he dueled with Scott Pruett and slammed into the wall.

He had to wait 1,158 days to turn a wheel at the Speedway once more.

"It's great to be back here," Vasser said.

Both are pleased to be racing at Indy once more, but still would prefer to be here in an open-wheel race car chasing the checkered flag in the "500."

"I was very jealous of Robby and Johnny (cousins who since have carried the Unser banner at Indy)," Unser Jr. said about his brief visit to the Speedway during practice and Indianapolis 500 Pole Day in May.

"Yes, this is going to ease the pain a little bit," Unser said about the IROC race in which he'll start seventh in a yellow car. "Anytime you get to race at this facility it is a plus. It's just a real shame that we're having the problems we're having with our open-wheel series.

"I had kind of mixed feelings. I definitely wanted to come back, but I wanted it to be in a single-seat, open-wheel car in May. The rulebook says the age is 60. I'm a long way from that, so I'm open until that time."

Neither the Pep Boys Indy Racing League nor CART rulebook has any age maximum. Little Al's father, Al Unser Sr., won his fourth Indy 500 in 1987 at age 47. Unser Jr. is 36, Vasser 32. Vasser, too, wants to drive in the "500" before the years pass him by.

"I obviously don't have the history that the Unsers do here, but I still have a great desire to race here," he said. "My prime years are slipping away. Well, I don't have as much confidence that I'll be racing when I'm 60. I didn't really have anything to do with the split, so I really don't have anything to do with the solution."

Both were referring to the two Indy-style racing series.

Little Al spent time with his cousin Robby Unser in May as Robby, the son of three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, made his debut. Robby finished a highly creditable fifth. Little Al walked out to the pits on Pole Day not knowing what kind of reaction to expect from the fans.

"Really, the emotional bit happened in the month of May. I came down pit road, and I was overwhelmed. I wasn't sure what to expect with the crowd. I didn't know if they would boo me or what. The crowd showed me a lot of heart. They clapped, they said they missed me. To me, that meant everything. It almost brought a tear to my eye. They were remembering the wins and the good things we did. "The only time I had seen anything like that is when (A.J.) Foyt comes walking out of Gasoline Alley."

Vasser's good memories include getting bumped out of his first race on Bubble Day in 1992 and returning to qualify in his backup car. Then in the race he crashed and broke his leg. In 1994, he joined Hayhoe Racing and finished fourth in a solid drive before his thwarted charge for victory in his farewell race the next year.

He will start on the pole in the IROC race due to an inverted start from current point standings. He noted that this was the first time he had been on the pole at Indy. "I'm not proud of how I achieved it," he said. "Maybe it will work for me, and I can keep some of these monsters behind me."

Unser Jr.'s wife, Shelley, has urged her husband to switch to NASCAR, because she feels he can do it competitively. He has resisted.

"Shelley's point is that I can do it," he said.

"She feels since I don't get to run the Indy 500, and I love this place (Indy) so much and that instead of going home and kicking the dog, mowing down a field that doesn't need to be mowed and stuff like that, I come back here and run in the Brickyard.

"I love the stock cars, I love the IROC an awful lot, but my true heart belongs in an open-wheel car. I get so much fun out of driving the open wheelers that the stock car is a little bit secondary."

Unser hasn't won an open-wheel race since Vancouver in 1995 as he has tried to provide car owner Roger Penske with his 100th career victory. Last Sunday at Michigan, Unser was very competitive and took the lead midway through the race only to suffer engine failure almost immediately.

"I don't feel I'm at the end of my career," he said. "I feel I'm right in the middle of it. I feel I'm in my prime years, and I'm getting stronger everyday. And it's just a real shame we're not here."


Event schedule: The inaugural IROC at Indy race is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. (CDT) July 31.

Broadcast schedule: The IROC at Indy will be televised on ABC at 4:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 1.

IROC tickets: General admission tickets for the IROC at Indy event July 31 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are available for $25 from the IMS ticket office. Ticket forms can be obtained by calling (317) 484-6700.