LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Al Unser Jr. -- Junior to his pals but still Little Al to his fans -- won the Long Beach Grand Prix for the fourth consecutive time last year. In 1990 he won the PPG Cup Indy car championship. Last year he finished third in the standings. Bobby Rahal, then his Galles-Kraco teammate, finished second.
So why would his team make a radical switch from a tried-and-true Lola chassis to a new one of its own design, a Galmer?
"This way, we can control our own destiny: We don't have to wait for some supplier to get us what we want," said Rick Galles, the team's general manager and co-owner with Maury Kraines. "There aren't many secrets left in designing an Indy car. If we turn one up, it's ours, and we don't have to share it with other teams."
Unser was in the Galmer, designed by Alan Mertens in England and powered by a Chevrolet engine built in England, when practice and qualifying started Friday for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the third race of the IndyCar (formerly CART) championship series.
Today, he will be after an unprecedented fifth victory in a row on the street course in front of the Queen Mary. Only he and Rahal, who did it at Laguna Seca, have won four in a row on the same track.
The track, though, won't be exactly as it was a year ago. The kink that brought the cars through the garage of the Hyatt hotel in a ear-shattering explosion of horsepower, has been eliminated. So, too, have three corners, making this an eight-turn course instead of 11 in 1.59 miles, and creating a long straightaway along Seaside Way.
"The change makes the track very, very simple," Unser said. "In doing that, it brings the competition closer together. I'm kind of sad about it. I liked that garage area and now it's gone. It should be faster, which may be an advantage for the new Chevy and Ford teams with their slimmer profile."
Unser, who will be 30 on April 19, says he is not approaching today's race with the thought of winning his fifth in a row.
"Our attitude is the same as it's been since I started coming to Long Beach nine years ago, that this is our first race here and we want to win it for the first time. Look at it this way: It's a new season, a new race, a new track and I'll be driving a brand-new car."
Unser's record indicates, though, that he has an affection for temporary street courses. Of his 17 Indy car victories, 14 have been on street circuits. In this year's opening race, a street circuit at Surfers Paradise in Australia, he won the pole and finished fourth.
His new Galles-Kraco teammate, Danny Sullivan, finished fifth.
"I think we surprised a lot of people who had been saying the new Galmer wasn't ready," Unser said. "When we first got it from England, it had the new car blues -- teething problems.
"The Galmer is not a customer-bought car. It has some very unique things about it and we had to get used to them. What we tried to do while testing was use the same setups we had in the past with the Lola, but the Galmer wasn't liking it that way. We did make progress in testing and we learned a lot.
"But when you don't go good right out of the box, you start hearing people saying it's not a very good car. That's true to a point, but it wasn't in our case. It was a great race car when we first tested it. All we needed to do was work out the bugs and get used to the way it handled.
"We gained a lot of knowledge about the car from Australia. Now the engineers have taken that information and made their changes for Long Beach."