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Indy Racing League Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indy Racing League

Indy Racing League Media Conference

Leonardo Maia
Al Unser Jr.
March 23, 2004

LEONARDO MAIA: ... cousins and family members grandparents and everyone still down there. I would go and spends a month there, but lately with the racing season, it's pretty much the racing season runs the summer and the off-season. Believe it or not this year , since the actual racing season, I haven't had the time to go back there for about four or five years. Any chance I get, I really miss it and I want to go back.

Q. Growing up in Oakland area and going to high school there and sports, racing isn't too big through there, is it? How did you get introduced, just because of going back to Brazil?

LEONARDO MAIA: Yeah, pretty much. For everybody in Brazil, a big thing is soccer and auto racing. You're always around it no matter if you want to be or not. It's soccer and racing. I grew up -- I was always really was interested in doing it. I sort of studied it and find out the best way to do it and that's how did I it. It's really sort of on TV in the background in my childhood.

Q. Your father, was he interested in racing?

LEONARDO MAIA: He was a really big fan, but he never did any racing of his own. I'm sure he would have liked to. He just loved the sport. He's been to every single one of my races and he's really helped me out through my whole career. He's a big fan of racing in general.

Q. What did it mean to you this past weekend being around some of the guys that are the stars now, they will be coming to the Indy 500, and I assume you're going to drive in the Freedom 100 here.

LEONARDO MAIA: It's really overwhelming. I mean, Rick Mears is our driver coach for the Infiniti Pro Series and he's just the nicest guy in the world. He helped me out a bunch. It's weird you're sitting there talking to a four-time Indy 500 champ, pretty much one of the best race car drivers alive. It was really overwhelming, and to know that I'm just sort of one step away from being right there with all of these guys that are in it right now is just, you know -- like I said before, I was a fan before I was a race car driver. I still go to the Indy car races and sort of watch in amazement.

MODERATOR: Can you talk about your excitement of running the Freedom 100 this year in Indianapolis.

LEONARDO MAIA: Yea, there's going to be one of the best moments in my career. We were doing a Skip Barber race in Putnam Park over in Indianapolis, like an hour north, I think. We all went -- all of the drivers sort of went down there for pole day or the day before pole day or the day after, I can't really remember. As soon as you sort of cross, you go into the tunnel and come out the other side of the speedway. It's different than any other track in the world. You just feel like -- it's almost tangible, sort of the history there and like the tradition and all that. So, I mean, I'm super excited. As soon as I signed with Brian Stewart that was the race, I was looking forward to the most, doing one lap at the Indy 500 Indianapolis in a race car has pretty much been my dream. To realize that is pretty cool, pretty exciting.

MODERATOR: Can you talk, too, about teaming with Brian Stewart who has really got a history of grooming young drivers in open-wheel racing?

LEONARDO MAIA: Yeah, I called up the series, and was like, I'm interested in running, do you guys have, you know, any teams that may be interested in running me. When Roger Bail (ph) came back and he told me that I could do it with Brian Stewart, at first I didn't believe it, and then I was really excited. I mean, he's coached -- you know, Formula I drivers have driven for him, Champ Car drivers. He's just -- he has a history of taking the best drivers and making them into stars. So hopefully I can learn as much as I can and follow in the footsteps of his previous driver.

MODERATOR: Leo, we appreciate it and we will see you in May when you run the Freedom 100. Mr. Unser has announced he is teaming with long time racing owner Pat Patrick for the 2004 racing car series season. He will start the 2004 season at the eight eighth running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Thank you again for joining us today.

AL UNSER, JR.: You bet. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Congratulations on the announcement that you'll be teaming with Pat Patrick that you made over the weekend. Can you give us your overall thoughts about rejoining the season beginning in May?

AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I'm very, very happy, obviously. I'm thrilled to death to be driving for Pat Patrick. He's been a long-time car owner, and my family's history goes back with him quite a ways, and so, you know, also, I've competed against that 20 car for many, many years. You know, most of the time it's been in front of me, but it's been competitive in my entire career. So I'm very proud to be driving it now.

MODERATOR: Over the years, we all know how much Indianapolis and the 500 means to you. You have to be ecstatic about perhaps winning that race again, teaming with Patrick, who has won the race three times. But can you talk about Indianapolis, I know you've talked about it so many times before, but how much that race really means to you?

AL UNSER, JR.: Well, it's hard to put into words what Indy means. You know, it was a dream come true for me just to compete, and then to be successful there is very special. And so, you know, starting our season there, it's really great that we are able to go there and be with a competitive team like Patrick Racing.

Q. Were there moments in the last few months where you wondered: "Would I get a ride for 2004; will I be back at the Indy 500?"

AL UNSER, JR.: Honestly, sure, I mean, you know, you never know what's around the corner and so on. There were times that I had opportunities to form a new team and so on, but quite honestly, Pat and I have been talking since last October and, you know, I just wanted to do everything I could to be with Pat. And so, you know, we basically stuck it out with him and gambled or rolled the dice, per se, and just worked really hard on putting a deal together with Patrick Racing and Pat himself. So, you know, just by staying in communication with him and his positive attitude helped me in staying with him, and so there were times that I was doubtful, but, you know, all I did was just give Pat a call and he'd say, "Hang in with me, Al, we'll get it together." You know, there was a couple of times that even Pat said: You know, we can sell both of ourselves really good. It's just going out there and selling the sponsors. And so, I really feel now that we have committed to doing Indy and the rest of the season and we'll be able now to go out and show the sponsors that we're serious and we'll be competitive and we made a commitment and to join a winning team.

Q. Because of the injuries that you received in the off-season, was that a hindrance? And physically, how are you?

AL UNSER, JR.: Physically, I'm doing great. We're definitely capable of driving race cars today. The first part of your question, no, it wasn't a hindrance. I mean, you know, there was about, you know, four to six weeks there that if there was a sponsorship meeting, I really couldn't walk in to a board room and present myself. I'd be on crutches and so on and that's not a good thing. But we didn't have any sponsors to go in and present ourselves to, so it didn't hinder us at all.

Q. When you think about coming back to the Indy 500, and we've all reached that age where, myself included, where we look to some day say, enough is enough, when will enough is enough be for Al Unser, Junior?

AL UNSER, JR.: I guess when enough is enough is when I quit enjoying what I'm doing and also that I get out there on the track and I'm not competitive. You know, then it will be very obvious that, you know, it would be time to hang it up. But, you know, now, right now, I feel as strong as ever. I truly love getting out there and competing and driving the open-wheel cars. And I'm competitive. I can run with the leaders. I can win races and win championships, and so, we're going to keep going until it's obvious that we can't do it.

Q. You haven't spoken much about your sponsors, and maybe you can or you can't, but do you feel like you'll have a strong effort in your program?

AL UNSER, JR.: I definitely feel that we are going to have a strong effort. We have been talking to sponsors, but we are not at liberty to say who they are at this time because we want them to get the full benefit of the announcement. And so we are not at liberty to say.

Q. Do you feel like you're pretty strong as a driver to come back and finish up a season and go longer?

AL UNSER, JR.: You betcha. I truly love racing in the IRL. You know, we are definitely capable of running with these boys out there. And so, you know, I look forward to starting the season. I wished we could start in Japan. I wish that we would have been able to be at Homestead at Phoenix. But logistically-wise we were not able to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. You know, mainly because Pat is moving over from CART over to the IRL and he sold all of his assets and equipment that he had from his CART team. So we are basically starting from scratch. So it's disappointing we were not at the first three races, but what a place to begin the season with the Indy 500. It's going to be great.

Q. Will you approach this 500 any different than you have any other, thinking this may be the last chance for you to win?

AL UNSER, JR.: No, not at all. Even though we are going to go to every single race, trying to win every single race that we enter just like I have my entire career, and I really feel that with Steve running the team and Pat's backing, that we are going to be competitive.

Q. How hard was it to watch the races on TV and you were not in a car?

AL UNSER, JR.: It was pretty tough. To be real honest with you, I felt that, you know, I was missing out. Really, all that it did was remind me of the time that I had to watch those few races in 1999 when I had my broken leg. You know, that was pretty painful to watch that go on. But, you know, we have done it before, and so all it did was make me more determined to put a deal together with Pat and so here we are at the second race. We were able to announce our place and go from there.

Q. How do you drive differently now than when you were a 22- or 23-year-old coming in?

AL UNSER, JR.: Quite honestly, I don't feel that I drive that much differently. You know, when I was younger, when I was 21 and a rookie and so on, you know, I may have put my nose in a more risky spot early on in the race than I do now. I feel that, you know, now the race, I look at it as a whole race where, you know, my father always told me, straight from the very beginning, there's one lap you want to lead, and it's the last one. And so you make -- you make that happen during the race. And so, you know, when I was a kid, I would want to lead every single lap, the first one, the second one, the fifth one and so on. But I guess now, you know, my dad is extremely smart person and when it comes to winning races, so if there's anything different, I won't risk as much at the beginning of the race as I do at the end of the race. At the end of the race I feel that my driving is identical to when I was 21, 22 years old.

Q. You've won the race twice the 500 twice, you have an uncle that's won it three times and a dad that's won it four times, does it then to motivate you to try to catch up with them?

AL UNSER, JR.: No, not really. I mean, I really felt that fat family pressure was off of me with my first win in '92, the family heritage was upheld in its bright colors and so on. And being a second generation winner, you know I really felt the family pressure. I could sit at the Thanksgiving table and hold my head up at that point. You know, of course, we want to win Indy again, and we want to win Indy four or five times. That's the whole object, and also the championship. You know, Pat made a good point there at our press conference in Phoenix. A lot of people think that he's too old. A lot of people think that I'm too old, and so both of us have something to prove this year and next year and the years to come that we are not too old, that yellow cabs can still get out there and mix it up.

Q. On a personal note, I checked out at Indy and ten times against car #20, you finished ahead six times and behind four times.

AL UNSER, JR.: All right. (Laugh willing).

Q. Good luck in the #20.

AL UNSER, JR.: Thank you.

Q. There's a lot of talk about the field -- inaudible -- do you have any sentiments on that or any feeling on that for the 500?

AL UNSER, JR.: I guess, you know, meeting with Tony, I don't feel that he really cares a whole bunch, the 33-car field, that number came from the 40s and it was a number that was just kind of -- dropped out of the sky or whatever. You know, quite honestly, when you look at the IRL today, it's the most competitive series that I've ever competed in, and with the single seat open-wheel cars, we run closer and really the field is extremely deep. There's 20 guys that can go out there and run with the pack and are capable of winning. So, you know, never in the history has it been really that competitive for the No. 1 spot. So, you know if, there's not 33 cars there, whatever cars will be there, are capable of winning the race, and it's going to be the greatest spectacle in racing like it always has been.

Q. Putting new engines in for Indy, does that mean everybody will be on kind of the same page to start out there and experience may be a factor in who does what?

AL UNSER, JR.: Quite honestly, I don't think anybody truly knows where they are at on their engines. You know, the 3.0 litre engine, nobody has gotten out on the racetrack and run them yet. And so, you know, we don't know competitively where Chevrolet is, Honda, Honda with Toyota, Toyota, all of them on the same day, that's a question that is going to be answered in the open testing that's coming up. All during practice, qualifying we are definitely going to find out who has got the power and who doesn't. Pat and I are banking that Chevrolet is going to deliver to us the power that we need to sit on to win the race.

Q. The grid has gotten enlarged in terms of quality, as you said earlier, who do you think will be your toughest competitor out there?

AL UNSER, JR.: Well, right now, from observing the first would two races, there's three teams that are really kind of a notch above everybody, and that's the Marlboro Penske team, the Andretti Green operation and Chip Ganassi's Target team. Those three teams seem to be the ones to compete. You know, when you look at it, that's eight cars that are very, very strong and very, very competitive. And so, those I believe are going to be the ones that we're really going to be aiming for.

Q. Will you be missing not racing against Michael?

AL UNSER, JR.: That's a twofold. Mike was a very strong competitor and he's definitely capable of being competitive. And so, no, I don't miss that because he's one less guy that I have to beat on the track. On the other hand, Michael is a great friend, and like I said, a competitor. So I do miss him out there again.

Q. What are you doing in terms of rehab from your injuries from last year, are you still on some kind of a program?

AL UNSER, JR.: I'm back on my regular regimen of training. My hips are completely healed. I'm just doing my regular cardio work on my cross trainer and my weights and so on. So we are back to our normal schedule.

MODERATOR: You haven't been in a car since Texas in October; is that right?

AL UNSER, JR.: That is correct.

MODERATOR: Do you feel like it's going to take very good to get it up to speed, or a place that's so familiar to you it's going to come back right away?

AL UNSER, JR.: No. We'll get right up to speed right away. In 2001 in November, Rick had pulled from me and so -- Rick Alice (ph) had decided not to go racing in 2002. So I pretty much spent the same period of time actually it been one month more now than it was n when I started in 2002. But, you know, we get in and we get in the car and it's like riding a bike; you're right there in speed.

MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us today and looking forward to having you back at Indianapolis in May.

AL UNSER, JR.: I'd like to thank everybody for joining us today and I hope to see you at the track real soon.

MODERATOR: Very good. We'll see you in about a month and a half.

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