Memories Flow As Unser Returns To Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. -- Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. will make his 280th Indy-car start Saturday night in the Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Seventeen years ago, Unser made his second Indy-car start and first on an oval also at the same track. He had never returned to the 1.54-mile oval until this week for the seventh race of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series season.

Time has flown by like a blip on a radar screen for Unser, a future Hall of Famer.

In the ensuing years, there have been incredible highs -- the two wins at Indianapolis, CART and IROC championships, ABC "Wide World of Sports" athlete of the year honor -- and unbelievable lows -- daughter Cody's spinal ailment, divorce and failure to qualify at Indianapolis in 1995.

Through it all, the man they once called "Little Al" has not lost his determination to succeed as a driver or as a human being. At 38, he is at the other end of the career spectrum, still searching for yet another victory, another championship while accepting what life hands him -- good and bad -- as it comes.

"Everybody changes as he grows up," Unser said. "I've gone through the same challenges most people have gone through. I've had my ups winning at Indy and had my downs with my daughter getting ill. It 's good to be here 17, 18 years later."

Unser was stunned when he entered the track grounds Thursday. He said Atlanta Motor Speedway was the same place, but in many ways, it wasn't.

"I'm in awe of the facility," he said. "Last time I was here, it wasn't very pretty. It had one little grandstand. Now they have these great grandstands and condos. The whole track is totally different. It's very grown up these days."

Unser, who Thursday along with Scott Sharp and Jimmy Kite provided rides to the media around the track, remembers the 1983 race like it happened 17 minutes instead of 17 years ago.

He drove in his first Indy-car race, a road venue at Riverside, Calif., in the fall of 1982. The Phoenix race in March 1983 was supposed to be that season's opener, but flooding caused it to be canceled. Atlanta was next on the schedule in April as the preliminary race to the Indianapolis 500.

Unser was supposed to drive an antiquated 1982 Eagle because the 1983 car wasn't race ready. In practice, he strained but could not get the car to exceed 175 mph as the hot shoes seeking the pole were looking at speeds around 206 mph.

"Everybody's running 200, and I can't get my car above 175," he said Thursday, laughing at the thought. "We qualified dead last. Roger Mears qualified next to me, and he qualified at like 190, and then I qualified at 175. Phil Kreuger went out -- I was for sure going to miss the show -- he went out in qualifying and hit the wall and put me in the show."

A final practice session took place after qualifying. Just as today, he was driving for Rick Galles. The Galles Racing team was able to, as he put it, "get our hands on" a Formula 5000 rear wing. It was a huge banana-shaped rear wing, but it allowed him to run wide open around the track at 186 mph.

"That made it comfortable to race. Ended up finishing sixth in the race. I was probably six laps down," Unser said. "It was a heck of an experience. I was real happy because Indianapolis was our next race. I was real happy to get in my 1983 Eagle (there), and we ended up qualifying fifth and all that stuff (he finished 10th)."

Gordon Johncock won that Atlanta race, the last Indy-car event at the track until the Indy Racing League came to the facility in 1998. At that time, Unser was driving for Roger Penske in CART. He switched to the Indy Racing Northern Light Series this season and has a victory on the 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas. He stands seventh in the standings, 41 points behind leader Eddie Cheever Jr.

As the chase for the Northern Light Cup gets more intense with just three races remaining, Unser thinks it is imperative that he place among the top three Saturday.

"Definitely," he said. "We're winding down to the end. It's starting to get crunch time for the million-dollar points race. We're going to do the best job that we can to get a win and keep our hopes alive for the Northern Light championship."

With only 56 points separating the top 10 in the championship standings and the series returning to another 1.5-mile track, Unser expects another scintillating shootout like the one at Texas in early June.

"What made the race in Texas was the banking and the rules for these cars," he said.

"It's a big drafting game, and you can run wide open all day long. I think you'll see the same identical thing here that we saw in Texas."

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Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
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