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Marlboro Team Penske Media Conference

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Penske Racing

Marlboro Team Penske Media Conference

Al Unser Jr.
May 4, 1995

CHRIS MEARS: High everybody, this is Chris Mears from Marlboro Team Penske. First of all, I'd like to thank all of you for calling in to day. As you know, we have Marlboro Team Penske driver Al Unser, Jr. on the line who will be heading to Indianapolis this evening as defending champion of this year's Indy 500. I'm sure you have a lot of questions to ask him about the upcoming race. But before we get started I'd like to let you know that this will be Al's 13th start at Indy. He won the race in '92 and '94 and qualified in the pole last year which was his first pole on an oval. His 12-year record also includes one second, three fourths, one fifth and that gives him seven top five finishes at this speedway to date. Should Al go on to win the race this year he would become only the fifth driver to record back to back victories and he would become the first driver to win back to back since his father did so in 1970 and 1971. Al is also second to Marlboro Team Penske advisor Rick Mears in all-time career prize winnings at Indy with $4,262,690 versus Rick Mears' records of $4,299,392 and 15 starts. Al has one victory in the '95 season which took place at Long Beach that gave him a record six victories at that track and gave him also his 28th IndyCar career win. As many of you know there have been five different winners out of five races on this year's PPG IndyCar World Series and with Emerson's win in Nazareth, our last race, Marlboro Team Penske is the only team this season to record two victories. There are a large number of media on line. I'd just like to request that before you ask your questions that you identify yourself. Also, please try to keep background noise to a minimum. If you'll be using your laptops or any type of computer during call, I'd like to suggest to use your mute feature on your phone if you have one available. Just please remember to take it off if you wish to ask a question. Transcripts of this teleconference will be available on Marlboro Racing News later this afternoon. If you prefer for me to fax you a copy of the transcript, please feel free to call me. Most of you have my number but if any of you don't you can reach me at (407) 575-6043. Again, thank you all for calling in and I'd like to ask Dick Mittman with the Indianapolis News to start the questioning.

Q. Al, welcome back. And my question, coming back as a defending champion, you've done it once, you've come back again trying to emulate your father putting back to back; is that one of the toughest things to do driving at Indy to win two in a row?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, I guess it is. Yes, you know, to be able to go to Indianapolis and to win one of them is extremely difficult to do and in the then to back it up the very next year is double hard. So, you know, what dad did accomplish in '70 and '71 was a milestone and it hasn't been done since, and I think that in itself shows how hard it is to do. But, you know, we feel very confident about going to the speedway this year. You know, the team's on a role right now. We've won the last two races. And so, you know, Penske Racing has set the standard in IndyCar Racing for the last ten or 15 years, especially at the Indy 500. And so, you know, like I did last year, I feel very good about it and looking for forward to a great month of May.

Q. Al, how are you feeling right now healthwise?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Healthwise we're doing really good. We've been taking care of my shoulder quite a lot, and I've got the track doctors giving me inflammatory medicine; which I have an inflamed tendonitis of the rotary cuff. And so, you know, everything -- everything feels really good right now. We're looking forward to start a practice opening day.

Q. To follow-up on that, what's the deal with IROC; are you going to be in the last race?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Yeah, I'll be in the last race. I don't think we're looking good for the championship right now but you bet, if everything goes okay, yeah, we'll be running at Michigan.

Q. Go back to 13 years ago and share your thoughts the first time that you sat in a car ready to go down the grid at the Indy 500.

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, it was a dream come true, actually. You know, it was one of my goals from a child to race at the Indy 500. And, you know, to be able to accomplish a lifetime goal is really wonderful and I felt very lucky and fortunate. But, you know, it was very special. You know, I love the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I love what it means. You know, and to be able to go there for rookie orientation and so on, it was great.

Q. Al, when you first -- your first visit memories of Indy when you first walked in there, I don't know how old you were, but can you describe what that was; was it intimidating, was it daunting or what?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, I was about eight years old, I guess. And yes, it was, it was all of the above what you just said. It was -- when I first saw the place from 16th and Georgetown at the -- the Grand Stands were huge. They were the biggest thing I had ever seen and, you know, it was -- once we got in there it really didn't bother me too much because, you know, dad, I mean he had already won it twice and so, you know, it was very special. It wasn't scary by any means, it was -- you know, you definitely sat back and thought about it and thought how awesome it was. And just the mere challenge of it was very intriguing, enlightening; you know, it was wonderful.

Q. Are there more difficult races to race at on the circuit than Indy?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I think all of the races on the PPG IndyCar world series circuit are hard. And I don't think really one stands out over the other as far as difficulty and conquering it. Though, you know, Uncle Bobby had a good, good thinking about it or whatever, you know, about Indy and so on. And, you know, you just try to take these races that we race on the championship and try to start winning them. And as soon as we start winning those, you know, it's kind of like a domino effect; once you knock the first one over then the rest will follow, and Indy is one of those dominoes that are in there. And so I really feel that the Marlboro Team Penske has started knocking over the dominoes and Indy is next.

Q. Al, can you talk about the overall competition and the circuit this year?

AL UNSER, Jr.: The overall competition is extremely tough. You know, we have some great teams out there with great drivers. And really, the cars are very, very close. They're extremely close with each other. The engines, you know, the Mercedes and Cosworth are extremely close together and that puts out for anywhere 12, to 15 guys can win any one of our races; so it makes for good racing.

Q. Al, going into last year you and Emerson were testing that Mercedes engine and stuff. Were you guys, was the word giddy, with excitement going in there or were you worried about going in with still sort of an unproven situation?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, we were giddy about how strong the thing was. You know, we knew qualifying was going to be a good day for both of us. But, you know, race day is the one that counts. It's the one that gives us the 20 points. It's the one that pays the million bucks and so that's the important one. So, you know, we hadn't gone 500 miles with the 209 until opening day of Sunday of last year. And so, you know, we were a little bit skeptical on it, but once we went 500 miles at Michigan I knew that we had a dang good chance of doing it at Indy because if it will live in Michigan it will for sure live at Indy.

Q. As you say, your last two races your team has won both of them. But you started out this year on a down note. How did the team react? Did they do a lot of things or did they just settle down and not panic?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, what they did do was -- you know, we were backed into a corner and we came out slugging. I am really, really proud of the whole team. You know, they've come through this deal like true champions that they are. And, you know, when things get down a little bit we just, you know, took our nose, put it to the grindstone and went at it and the whole team responded. And, you know, here we are now with a couple wins and back in the hunt for things.

Q. What exactly did you do? Did you have like some test sessions or just --

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, we went testing right after Miami. Miami is where we really -- you know, we measured up with the competition and found that we were behind the eight ball a little bit, and so we went testing right after that. And really, ever since that time, you know, we've been back in the hunt. We've had a little bit of, what I call, the new car blues, you know, with the electronics failing on me a couple of times. But the performance of the car is definitely there, and I really feel that it's the best car out there right now. And so, you know, we feel good about being in it.

Q. Could you be a little more specific about some of the things that were done to the car. Was it primarily or exclusively in the electronics and engine management department or were there some other tweaks that needed to be done within the drivetrain and/or the chassis?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, what it was, you know, we changed the electronics a little bit. We've just been fine-tuning it a little bit. You know, we had some of those computer glitches, you know, that kind of snuck into us and, you know, bit us a couple of times. And so, you know, we've gotten those out, hopefully. And we'll go on, you know. The actual performance of the car was just getting to know it better, you know. We did a lot of testing prior and we really didn't know where we were based on the competition. When we got down to Miami we found out where we were and we found out that we needed to get some more performance out of the car and so we went testing, we found it and here we are.

Q. Difficult doing the tests and getting the data on the car and doing these kind of improvements, was it anymore difficult without having a test driver or a third driver like Paul Tracy?

AL UNSER, Jr.: No, it wasn't. It was the same, actually. You know, Emerson and I were available for anytime that they wanted to run the car. So, you know, we were right there with the team.

Q. Al, how do you feel about that some of your chances of winning relies on a little computer chip?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I don't know, the same way I feel about a little bearing, I guess. You know, it's just a part of the car and it's an important piece just like the uprights are just like the wishbones are, and so, you know, it's just one of the of those things that just, you know, you need to figure out, you need to make it reliable and go on from there.

Q. Al, what sets the Penske team above the other teams competing in Indy?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I guess a desire to win. You know, and also the fact that our owner let's us have our head, pretty much. You know, Roger really gives all of his people, and I really feel that he does this with his whole company, that he gives them the best opportunity to be the best that they can be, and that's what Roger does. You know, he allows us to be innovative, he allows us to stick to our guns, you know, I mean -- and he gives us the best tools to work with that can be gotten. So it's really a special thing,.

Q. What is Rick's role in this picture?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Rick Mears is one of my engineers and he's really a team consultant. I try to keep him in my corner as much as I can because, you know, he's a great champion and so on, and he has a lot of knowledge about the cars. And so, if I'm having a hard time explaining something to the engineer, if Rick's listening in he -- you know, he can put in his own idea or whatever because he knows what I'm talking about because he's felt it. So we're able to make the car -- make the changes with the right changes. And so Rick is really good in this area.

Q. Al, what do you mean know about being defending champion at this race now that you didn't know a couple of years ago. What will you do differently this year or will you do anything differently? What is it like to be defending champion?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, it's really good, you know. It's kind of sad, actually, because you're coming back and it's the end of your reign. You know, winning Indy is almost like winning a Miss America pageant, it's something that you go with the whole year and when it comes time to come around again there's a lot of guys out there trying to take the crown away from you. And so, you know, we need to work very hard to keep it. And so, you know, race day will be a new day like it always is and, you know, I really feel with the Marlboro Team Penske that it -- you know, I've got the best people, I've got the best team, I've got the best car and, you know, I could not ask for a better defending -- better way to defend it than what we are now.

Q. Al, someone once said that the trick to winning this race is to just drive it like any other race. Would you agree with and would you say it's a lot easier for you now that you've won it twice; to treat it that way?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I would have say so, yeah. You definitely have to treat it just like any other race. It's extremely hard to because it's not, it's the Indy 500, it's the oldest race, it has the most tradition, it pays the most to win, and all of those things. But, you know, winning it definitely makes it a little bit easier to come back the next year and deal with it.

Q. Al, when you look at the month of May, the first thing that everyone points to is pole day, and then there's practice and then there's race day. From a driver's point of view, compare the feelings of pole day and race day.

AL UNSER, Jr.: Pole day for me really is a little bit more nerve racking, you know, because you're not in the show and, you know, the most important thing to do is to put it in the show. And you can be out there with the fastest race car and all of a sudden on your four laps your engine blows up, you're not even in the show. And that kind of is a bit nerve racking. But, you know, once you get in the show then you start thinking about the race. And it's more of a kind of settle down a little bit and start thinking about your strategies and so on because there's so many elements that come into it on race day that you can -- that you can take from. And so qualifying is just out there, you know, flat out going as fast as you can and hoping to make it and put it in the show.

Q. Bobby Rahal didn't make this show, is that a wake up call that even champions sometimes get left out?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Excuse me, I think it's a wake up call that shows how tough and how competitive this PPG IndyCar World Series is. You know, if you -- if one area is weak on your team it's going to show up in this series and it magnifies itself as a matter of fact. So, you know, your -- the chain is only as strong as the whole chain. And so, you know, each link has to be there in full strength and get through it.

Q. Your shoulder, has it affected you at all in your race in your performance? And number two, will you be doing anything special therapywise during the month here?

AL UNSER, Jr.: No. My shoulder hurt a little bit qualifying at Nazareth, but really race day it was fine because once the adrenaline gets going and all that it tends to go away. When it was at its worst it was almost impossible to drive the car. We were testing at Indy when it really got to me. And since then we've been doing our exercises, we've been icing it every day and taking our inflammatory medicine. And so, you know, right now it feels stronger than it was at the beginning of the season, so we're happy with it.

Q. Exercisewise is there anything special you do here because you log an awful lot of practice miles here?

AL UNSER, Jr.: No, not really. If it gets to bothering me or something then we'll probably cut the day short and, you know, go ice it or something like that. But really right now it's very strong and I don't see it being a problem at all.

Q. Al, you won the pole last year, your first one, and this year everybody seems to be talking about the Menards and the possibility of breaking the track record. Are they the car that even the Penske team is fearing?

AL UNSER, Jr.: For pole day I'd have to say so. You know, the advantage that we had with the 209 last year the Buick has now. And so, you know, it's just plain and simple that's the way it is. That engine -- that Buick's probably putting out to close top a thousand horsepower. Come pole day if it's a calm day the Menards, Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyk, they've been testing out at the speedway over 233, 234 miles an hour. And they seem to be able to do it whenever they want to so, you know, I really see those guys having a race between themselves on pole day, and that's far as it goes. You know, we'll get the Buicks on race day.

Q. Al, looking forward to 1996 what can you tell us about Roger's plans; assuming there will be at least four races of the Indy Racing League, Tony George's rival series to the IndyCars? What can you tell us about Roger's plans and then what are your feelings for 1996 where it looks like there might be two different IndyCar series.

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, to be really honest, I haven't talked to Roger about it one ioda. Ever since Miami hit we've been doing nothing but driving race cars and going to the next race. You know, my feelings really are just that, you know, I hope that the two of them do get together because, you know, that's what the sport needs. It doesn't need, you know, different series and anything detracking from what we have right now which is a great solid series and with great strength and, you know, a great fan following. And so myself, I'm looking at the 1995 Indy 500 and that's it.

Q. Al, you're at Indy for nearly an entire month, after a while does it drive you nuts being there so long?

AL UNSER, Jr.: If the race car's going slow, it drives you batty, but if the race car is going fast, you love every day, you can't get enough.

Q. Come race week when you get Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, do you leave Indy or do you stay around?

AL UNSER, Jr.: No, I stay around there. I go up to one of the lakes there and settle down with my kids and get on the SeaDoos and so forth and try to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle a little bit. But during the month of May my mind never leaves the racetrack. So if I was to go outside of the state I think I would be a bundle of nerves but I wouldn't be able to be there at a moment's notice.

Q. I wanted to ask you, with your family history at the track and really having grown up and been around it all your life, you've got a couple of wins there now yourself and a pole, is the thought of being there for the month of May, is that almost a comfortable feeling for you now?

AL UNSER, Jr.: If I have a fast race car it's a very comfortable feeling. If it's slow, it's even worse nowadays because what we have accomplished in the past there and how important it is to my sponsor, Marlboro and Mobil and Mercedes, and then I've got my boss, Roger Penske. So if anything is astray just a tiny bit, then it comes down with a pretty heavy hammer. But, you know, if we've got a good race car then it's enjoyable to be there.

Q. Al, could you talk a little bit about the young drivers that -- it wasn't too long ago that you were the young driver and now you're kind of the senior rep in almost. You've got a fine crop of new young drivers this year, can you talk about them a little bit?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I still am one of the young guys here. It's a great bunch of young guys with Villeneuve and Tracy, Christian Fittipaldi rookie this year, you know, Robby Gordon, this group is quite the graduating class. And so, they're definitely tough to beat and they're very, very good. So, you know, with this new blood coming in and the talent that is in there, it's super.

Q. A certain faction of the IndyCar Racing community that resents the presence of so many foreign-born drivers in IndyCar Racing. How do you feel about competing in an international series? Do you feel like that just comes with the territory or would you agree with Tony George's assessment that we need to have a way to get more American-born drivers in the series?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Well, I feel that we need to, you know, get good race cars drivers in the series and keep good race car drivers in the series. And it doesn't really matter what country they come from or anything like that. I think it's very good that we've got this much interest and this much involvement from foreign countries, you know. In and at the motor speedway and Indy 500 is a world event, and it's known throughout the world. And now, just recently, with the involvement of the foreign drivers it's coming over into a whole series is becoming a world event, and that's what it's all about. You know, if we can get worldly known with the whole series and not just the Indy 500, it's going to make the Indy 500 stronger, it's going to make our series stronger, and we have nothing but, you know, a plus-plus situation. So, you know, I would like to see more ovals on the circuit, you know, but most of my wins has come on a street circuit. So I'd like to see more street circuits too. You know, I just -- it's just -- you know, it really doesn't matter as long an there are great race car drivers which we have a bunch of right now.

Q. The explosion of IndyCar Racing internationally, has that put to rest any of your aspirations to compete in Formula I; either with or without Roger Penske?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Joining Roger Penske's team for IndyCar Racing had put the end to, you know, my interest in Formula I. I tried very hard to go over there and they didn't want me, and so I was able to get fortunate enough to land the best ride in IndyCar Racing. And we're not going to give that up for anything so...

Q. A little bit of a disappointment you say they didn't want you, Al?

AL UNSER, Jr.: No, not really. You know, it was something that my dad advised me very strongly against. You know, he didn't think I'd like the traveling or whatever and I kind of thought that I would. You know, I was going to -- I enjoy the different countries and the different cultures and stuff like that, and so I would have enjoyed going over there and running. But, you know, the Indy 500 is my true love and I would not leave the Indy 500 for Formula I. You know, I was always going to come back. And, you know, it would be in my contract, if I was to ever sign one, that I run the Indy 500. And so, you know -- just like Mario did. And, you know, if they didn't want to do that then I wouldn't be in an F-1 ride no matter if they did want me or not. Now that I have the best ride for the Indy 500, which I would not have gotten if I did go Formula I racing, and I would have come back, you know, with a lesser team or whatever, you know, that wouldn't have been happy for me and that would have been the only down side to going F-I. But, you know, now that I've got the best ride, I'm very happy.

Q. Speaking of your dad, Al, how has he adapted now to his retirement? Last year right in the middle of the month he said farewell and there was a lot of tears between you and him and so forth; it seems pretty well accepted now he's a retired race driver.

AL UNSER, Jr.: You bet. Especially when we outrun him on the snowmobile. No, his retirement has settled in with him very, very well and he's now a very much a bench racer. And he tells me now more than ever what I'm doing wrong and what I'm doing right. So, you know, retirement has done him good.

Q. Al, I was wondering, with the increased IndyCar schedule this year, did having five races prior to the 500, does that benefit the Marlboro Team at all?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I think it's benefited every team, not just ours, because I feel with that additional race in there and -- or two races, whatever it is, that the cars are going to be more reliable. You're going to have more cars finish the 500 or hopefully so anyway. You know, the chances of that are very, very good because we've added these couple of races. So, you know, it's helped all around.

Q. Al, we miss you over at the IROC series at Taladega last week. What I wanted to ask you is if you've had a chance to see highlights of the Sunday Winston Cup race, and if you have, given what happened to you at the end of the IROC race at Daytona, did your heart just go out to Dale Earnhardt when he got hit from behind at the last lap?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Extremely much so, yes. (LAUGHTER.) No, I was very happy for Mark Martin, actually. You know, he definitely had the best race car out there and Mark definitely deserved to win. You know, Geoff, he ran awful strong, and there at the end of the race, you know, it was misfortunate for Dale, but I did kind of yell out a little yes that I was pretty -- how can I say it? It -- I wasn't super sad, no, at what happened to him but...

Q. Al, any chance of seeing you in a Cup car maybe this year or next year's Daytona 500?

AL UNSER, Jr.: I don't know. We might be able to. Right now we're just, you know, concentrating on the Indy program and, you know, once we get things under control there, you know -- I enjoy running NASCAR, I like it very much. I like running wheel-to-wheel with Dale and Rusty and the whole gang down there and, you know, maybe some day we'll do more of it.

Q. Al, you spoke a moment about ago about your dad now bench races with you more and tells you more what you do right and what you do wrong. With him retired at the speedway is he -- are you and he together more than when he was driving and do you consider that a plus?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Is he and I together more? Is that the question?

Q. Yeah. Are you and he together more?

AL UNSER, Jr.: Yeah, we are; at the racetrack especially. Really because of our schedules we see more of each other at the racetracks than at home. And now that he retired from racing he's not in the pit, you know, two and three cars down the road doing his own practice. He's in my pit and very much involved within the team. So, you know, it's great to have him finally there back given the idea, you know, from what he knows and I haven't learned yet. So he's more willing to share those ideas now than when he was racing against me. So....

Q. Al, for qualifications which shoulder is it and how did you hurt it?

AL UNSER, Jr.: It's the left one and I hurt it '93, I separated it at a crash in Phoenix and then '94 I separated it again in a crash at Phoenix testing and then just this year we've been driving extremely hard because of how close the competitiveness is, how close the field is. And so after Long Beach is where it finally inflamed itself and got really sore. And so ever since then we've been working on it.

CHRIS MEARS: I'm going to have to ask everybody to limit it to just one more question due to the time limit that Al's running on. Anymore questions? Okay. Again, everybody thank you very much for calling in and we'll probably see most of you at Indy coming up this weekend. Thank you again for calling.

AL UNSER, Jr.: And I'd like to thank everybody for joining us today and hope to see you out at the racetrack during the month.

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