‘Little Al’ Helps Rookies Get Up To Speed On Ovals

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 28 2010

Al Unser Jr. is helping young drivers cope with high speed these days. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Kansas City, Kan. – Al Unser Jr. had a big smile on his face and a cigarette in his hand as he sat in a white Buick van behind the pit wall at Kanas Speedway Wednesday. Nothing unusual about any of that.

It was the cause of the smile which was significant.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion (1992 and ’94) started to explain the reason for the smile but then had to pause as a couple of IndyCars screamed past on their way out onto the track. Once past, Unser said, “They’re all looking really good.”

The “they” would be the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series crop of rookie drivers. They took to the track at Kansas as part of a series-mandated oval-orientation program.

See, when they take to the track at Kansas this weekend to drive in the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300, the rooks will all have several driven in several races this year. But all of those came on road courses.

With the Kansas race being the first oval on the schedule, and with the Indianapolis 500 being the next race on the schedule, the rookies had to show they could handle the challenges of going 200-plus mph just inches away from concrete walls

On hand were Indy Racing League technical director Kevin Blanch and Unser, who is the IRL’s driver coach and consultant.

On the track were Mario Romancini of Conquest Racing, Simona De Silvestro of Stargate Worlds/HVM Racing, Alex Lloyd of Dale Coyne Racing, Bertrand Baguette of Conquest Racing and Takuma Sato of KV Racing Technologies.

“All,” Unser said of them from the Buick, “got up to speed fairly quickly.”

Getting up to speed on an oval can be tricky for drivers. Even drivers who have been racing high-powered open-wheel cars all their loves – like Formula One veteran Sato. It can be, Unser said, “eye-opening”.

“This is the first time they will run over 200 mph,” Unser said. “They’re eyes are big already just walking into a place like this.”

The eyes were certainly big on Wednesday afternoon as they prepared to leave that place.

Walking from the pits to the Kansas garage, Sato talked about his first laps on a high-speed oval.

“It was so different,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expected. Was it weird? If you want to use that word, yes, it was weird.”

Sato’s team owner, former open-wheel driver Jimmy Vasser, liked what he saw Wednesday.

“He was very consistent,” Vasser said. “He was very methodical in the way he worked his way up to speed.”

De Silvestro said that she went 200 mph in a car for the first time in her life on Wednesday. Scary at first, she said, “But then it got to be fun.

“Yes,” she said, “I got the big eyes, that’s for sure.”

Unser said he saw a lot of big eyes the year that the IndyCar Series and Champ Car merged. Several very good, very experienced drivers came over to the IndyCar Series that year but for them, ovals were brand new.

The oval orientation was at Homestead-Miami Speedway that year. It didn’t go well.

“A couple were stuck at 180 to 190,” Unser said. “They didn’t go fast enough to get the car to work properly. These cars need to go that fast to work. The 180 to 190 is a tough wall to break through. You have to have trust in your car that it’s going to grip.”

Unser called Kansas the perfect place to host the rookie orientation. Good banking, lots of grip, lots of speed.

There was a hitch on Wednesday, though. Winds were howling. Worse, they were gusting. Up to 40 mph.

“It makes it tough,” Unser said of the wind. “If it’s consisent, then that’s OK. But the gusts.”

It was not just rookies at Kansas on Wednesday. Joining them was John Andretti, who will be driving a car for Richard Petty in Saturday’s race and then again in the Indy 500.

The Petty Blue No. 43 car Andretti will be driving is being fielded for him and Petty by Michael Andretti.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 28 2010
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