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The next Unser takes more gradual path

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- He's 20 and he's got a lot of catching up to do. Such is the fate of a young man whose grandfather, granduncles, father, uncle and cousins are synonymous with checkered flags.

There was Al Unser, four-time Indianapolis 500 champion. He became Sr. when Al Unser Jr. came along. They called him Little Al. He won Indy twice. And when the latest Al came along, they called him Mini Al.

That's not him, he says. Nor is he Al Unser III. Forget all that. "It's just Al," he said before Friday's provisional qualifying for today's race in the Barber Dodge series, the first step in CART's ladder system. The race is a preliminary to Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

In fact, it's not just Al. It's Just Al. His father pointed to the emblem on his shirt: Just Al Racing, the name of his unsponsored team.

"Early on in my racing career I felt a lot of pressure, that I was automatically supposed to go fast," Just Al said. "I'm just trying to learn, get some experience. each time I get in the car I get a little bit faster. The Unser name definitely does open some doors for me in terms of ride and getting some money here and there."

As for living up to the family name, "I haven't had the experience they had. I did karting when I was really young, 10-12. I remember even being on the track. I started doing the Skip Barber (driving) school when I was 17. My dad was racing go-karts at 9; by the time he was 15 he was in a sprint car with 350 horses, 100 more than I've got now."

Al Jr. is helping his son, but not pushing him. "He's not saying what I'm doing wrong; he's telling me what I'm doing wrong and asking me what I think I need to go faster."

Winning Indy? A dream, for sure, but the youngest racing Unser wants to race Champ Cars for CART. "Maybe in three, four years I can join up with a team that runs Champ Cars and goes to the Indy 500." When he asked Al Sr. and Al Jr. how it felt to win Indy, "they said it was the greatest moment they've ever felt. That's really cool."

The Phoenix-born Just Al calls Corrales, N.M., home. He has been attending Technical Vocational Institute, an Albuquerque community college and, having withdrawn to pursue his own checkered flags, he'll be registering online to work toward a degree in business management. "I could run my own team," he said. "That's exactly what I'm looking for."

Al Jr., 40, is running a full IRL season starting March2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Once he was the son of a racer; now he's the father of one. "People used to tell me my dad was a bit nervous (when Al Jr. raced). I'd ask, 'What are you nervous for?' 'Well, I know what you're going through out there.' I'd think nothing of it.

"Now, on the flip side of things, I'm walking around here like an expectant dad, not knowing what's going to happen because I know what he's going through. It's come full circle. I'm extremely proud of the job he's doing. ... but now I'm getting the goosebumps."

Can Al Jr. imagine his son winning an Indy 500? "That would make me the proudest father on earth," he said.

BACK IN THE PACK FOR NOW: Unser finished 15th with a lap of 1 minute, 16.228 seconds (85.291 mph) in Barber Dodge qualifying. Drivers run a 10-race series in identically prepared single-seat open-wheel Reynard Dodges with 265-horsepower engines.

Josh Beaulieu had the best lap at 1:14.972 (86.720 mph) followed by fellow Canadian Dan Di Leo at 115.041 (86.641).

"I love this track," Beaulieu said. "I love racing on the street track in Vancouver, my hometown, but I think this is the coolest layout of a circuit I've ever seen on a temporary street circuit."

Di Leo said being a front-row starter isn't that big of an advantage on this track. "Traditionally street races tend to race single file, and it's very hard to make overtaking maneuvers," he said. "This track, there are a lot of options; I think there are three very possible overtaking zones."

There was debris on the main straightaway, the Albert Whitted Airport runway, for much of the qualifying; an engine cover or sidepod, the front-row drivers believed. "It was in the middle of the track so you could take the inside or outside (path around it)," Di Leo said, "but it got a little dicey when you'd get a draft on somebody and pull out and what you see is a sidepod in your way. But after as few laps you know it was there."

A DIFFERENT BREED: Jaguar historically has had the image of an upper-crust car tooling comfortably along en route to a board meeting or Parliament. Not like your Mustang, Corvette or Camaro.

Things change. This is Jag's third year in Trans-Am.

"I think it's a different market than it has been," said Johnny Miller, driving one Sunday in the race after the Champ Cars. It had to do, in part, with Trans-Am's Panoz Esperante and Qvale Mangusta, no longer running the series.

"They were more upper class so the demographic of the fan watching a Trans-Am race is probably a little different than in was 20 years ago. They're a little close to the CART fan and that person is looking at Jaguars, the way (American Le Mans Series) fans look at Audis and Porsches."

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