The Pit Box – Al Unser Jr. and Paying it Forward
Al Unser Jr. – Paying It Forward
Words: David Barr (@daveabarr)
Every IndyCar team needs “that guy”. A person well known to everyone who can act as a mentor, ambassador, salesman, translator and can even help change a tire or two. Al Unser Jr. is just that for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. A jack of all trades and fortunate for Colton Herta – master of them all.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was brought on board by team co-owner Mike Harding as an executive consultant. A rejuvenated Unser is filling a very important role for a young team who will experience many firsts in 2019 – a guy who has seen and done it all.
“Where I try to help the most is if we’re in a debrief, Unser said. “The engineer and Colton are going over the car and what the car’s doing. If the engineer kind of looks at him with a deer caught in headlights look – that’s where I can come in and I can I can try and ask what the engineers asking. Maybe in a different way you know – from the drivers’ point of view and so I can ask questions in a different way of what the cars do and try to pull more out of the Colton to relate to in a way that the engineers will understand.”
It’s not only in the garage that Unser is having a dynamic effect on the team. He is, in a way the face of the team. Nowhere does that experience play bigger than when you’re trying to find great partners.
“We’re diligently working on sponsorships which is what I did when I was driving Indy cars,” Unser said from team headquarters. “You’re always looking for sponsorship so I’m helping out with presentations. I’m helping with decks. I’m walking through the shop talking to the guys you know finding out where the car is, how they’re doing where they are with the car and just offering my help and my assistance and my experience in any way that I can. I’m wearing a lot of hats as I’m walking through the shop and I’m always changing them out but it’s a true blessing and I can’t think Mike Harding enough for this opportunity.”
Being around a talented driver like Herta is keeping the 56-year old Unser young and full of energy. In his racing career, Unser drove cars in IROC, World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, NASCAR, Can-Am, Cart and IRL. That experience and passion for racing is something Unser sees in the Harding Steinbrenner driver every day and was demonstrated in a big way this offseason with Herta winning a watch and title at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
“It’s huge and, and I love seeing it. The more versatile of a racecar driver you can be the better racecar driver you’re going to be in your chosen car,” Unser said beaming with pride. “I enjoyed running the IROC series. I enjoyed running in all of them because they made me a better driver at the Indy 500 and I think Colton is in the same mindset. It’s the ability to adapt your feel and change with the kind of car that you’re driving. So, you know, the IROC car didn’t have the cornering speeds that the IndyCar did because of the grip so you had to adapt to that and learn and acquire a different feel for it. The 24 Hours of Daytona and the sports cars that I drove, each car feels different because of its own formula, its own grip levels and speed down the straightaways and all that kind of stuff, so you have to have the ability to adapt to that particular car in order to be the quickest one out there.”
All that makes you a better driver. Never was that kind of experience more evident than at IndyCar Spring Training at the Circuit of Americas where Herta placed P1 in three of the four sessions and P2 in the only session he did not lead.
“I loved watching Colten run at COTA because he showed a lot of experience even though it was his first time at track and first time in an IndyCar at that track. Everyone was on a learning curve except for a couple of drivers who had been there prior. He showed great resolve and was cool and collected. That experience at Rolex and driving other cars transfers with the IndyCar. It’s your ability to adapt to change during any race with the car. Sometimes, on a fuel stint, it’s not handling as well. So, you got to get the most out of it for that time. And then come in, make your changes during your pit stop. And then hopefully, you make it better and then adapt to that feel and get the most speed out of it and in all situations. I was so proud of his performance in Texas.”
Unser’s bond with the up and coming pilot is growing stronger and is very familiar. He understands the family legacy that was passed on to him by his father Al and nephew Bobby – both Indianapolis 500 champions with Colton whose father Bryan is an Indy 500 winning owner and whole also raced in CART and IndyCar Series.
“I don’t think there’s pressure from the outside when you have a racing family. I think its pressure from inside that he wants to be a race winner and with his father being successful, it adds a little bit, but it really just flat comes down to how bad do you want to win yourself. You know, when you get to this level you want to win and that’s all that there is. It’s all about winning.”
The one thing that Herta has is talent and ability. Some of that is learned but much of it is from birth says Unser.
“Yeah. I mean, there’s just like any sport just like any industry, any business. I think Robert Downey Jr. was born to be an actor. This kid we’ve got running for us, he was born to be exactly where he is – at the highest level of single seat open wheel racing. He reminds me of myself or Michael (Andretti). We came in to IndyCar Racing right about the same age. We started very young. We had a deep desire to go out there and win. Colton has exactly that same thing. Yea he reminds me of myself and Michael a lot.”
Reminiscing with Unser is a lot of fun. The passes, the close calls, the joy of winning and drinking cold milk at the Brickyard. His last race was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007. There are some similarities to IndyCar then and some great differences too.
“The main difference between when I was in my prime and where we are today is the field is definitely deeper. There are more teams but there are drivers that can actually win the races than in the in let’s say the early 90’s. You had 12 to 15 guys that could that could win during the season. Today anybody in the field can win every time out. You’ve got 23 teams, 25 cars out there, 30 plus at Indy and in the end these cars are going to finish. The reliability of these cars is just through the roof. They’re all the same identical car and so the differences in them really comes down to the people on the team and really having a race with few to no mistakes. Back in my day it was the one who made the least number of mistakes won the race. Everyone makes mistakes but today, those mistakes are fine mistakes. I wouldn’t really classify them as mistakes you know, they’re just little missteps and it can cost you three four positions just like that.”
No matter the role, Unser is a willing teacher and cannot be more excited about the future of Harding Steinbrenner Racing, it’s team and driver. It’s all about paying it forward.
“I’m in a time in in my life right now where I really get the biggest kick out of this. My whole thing is giving back to an industry and a profession that has given me so much. Taking lessons that I learned from my father, taking lessons that I learned from Rick Mears when I was with Penske Racing and just try to duplicate how they passed on their knowledge and their success on to me. My goal is to help Harding Steinbrenner Racing be as successful as we can be and to pass on everything that I know and have learned to Colton. It’s that simple and man is it a lot of fun!”