Unser Jr. on up slope toward Indy 500

ON MOTOR SPORTS

April 30, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

I want Al Unser Jr. to win the Indianapolis 500, just so I can hear him try to thank his sponsors in Victory Lane.

Unser drives the Galles ECR RacingTickets.com-Starz Encore Superpak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone car.

Whew!

Seriously, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if Unser, 38, won. It has been five years since he has raced in the Indianapolis 500, and a lot of has happened in his life since then.

In 1995, as the defending champ, he failed to qualify for the race. And, as it turned out, that was the least of it. Then came a five-year losing streak. A complicated divorce. And a heart-wrenching illness for his daughter, Cody, who was stricken with transverse myelitis, a rare spinal cord infection that has left the 13-year-old partially paralyzed.

Perhaps his victory, April 22, in the Vegas Indy 300 was a sign that the darkest times are past.

Thursday, Unser took his car of many names on to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time since that ignoble failure to qualify.

"When I pulled out of the pits, it was great," Unser said. "It was great to be back. All the same feelings, you know -- the tradition, the heritage of this place just came screaming back and it was wonderful ... There's been a hole in my chest ever since CART and the IRL split because we didn't go to Indianapolis."

Unser had thought they would go. He thought Championship Auto Racing Teams and Indy Racing League would work it out and everyone would be back at Indy that very next year. But it didn't happen in 1996. It still hasn't happened, though Chip Ganassi's powerful CART team of Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser will attempt to qualify for this 500.

To get back to Indy, Unser has had to return to an old friend, car owner Rick Galles, who called Unser the day after Roger Penske announced he wasn't going to re-sign him. "There are people in this world who never give up on you, and Rick Galles is one of them," Unser said of the man he drove for while winning the 1990 CART championship and the 1992 Indy 500.

When Unser finally took his long-awaited practice laps, he immediately began focusing on the end of May, when he will again try to make the field for the Indianapolis 500 on May 28.

"The mission is to make the show," said Unser, who described the track as "virtually the same" except for being a bit rougher down the main straightaway. "I didn't think it possible that I could miss the show here, with all the years we tried and winning the race twice."

"I remember talking to my dad about how we were running in race tires and stuff like this in '95, and he goes, `Al, you better get the thing in the show before you worry about race tires,' and I said, `Oh, yeah. No problem.' And low and behold, Emerson [teammate Emerson Fittipaldi] and I didn't make it. The mission right now is to get in the show."

Busch blues

While the stock car racing world is revved up over the fact that there have been nine different Winston Cup winners in nine races this season, the buzz around the Busch Grand National scene is quite different.

In nine Busch Series races, only once has a Busch Series regular won. Winston Cup drivers have claimed the rest: Mark Martin has won four times, while Winston Cup rookie Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek have each won once.

The lone full-time Busch driver to win is Randy LaJoie.

Winston Cup driver participation in the Busch series has been debated for years. Once, there was purpose. The series needed the driver name recognition the big boys brought. But not any more. It's time NASCAR did something. If not totally blocking Winston Cup drivers from entering, it could at least limit the number of Busch races they can enter or the number of Winston Cup drivers who can qualify for a single Busch race.

Buttonmania hits F-1

Michael Schumacher may be tearing up the Formula One circuit, with three wins in four races, but in Great Britain the driver in the limelight is 20-year old Jenson Button. Buttonmania is being compared with the rise of the Spice Girls.

After his fifth-place finish in the British Grand Prix last Sunday in his Williams BMW, Button is being viewed the way British tennis star Tim Henman is at Wimbledon. As a Times of London headline said, "Jenson Button has gone from boy next door to great British hope."

"He is very mature for a 20-year-old," team owner Frank Williams told the Associated Press. "He has exceeded our expectations." Williams added that other factors will be considered before a decision is made for 2001, including the possibility that CART champion Juan Montoya may be in the running for the Williams' seat.

Nuts and bolts

On May 8, look for NASCAR to announce a 36-race Winston Cup schedule for the 2001 season. The two-race increase will include new events in Kansas City, Mo., and in the Chicago area. The 36-race card will be the longest schedule for the sport since there were 48 races in 1971, in what was then called the Grand National division and considered the last season before the modern era.

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