Al Unser Jr. sounds as invigorated as he’s ever been since retiring from racing in 2007.
As a driver coach for Gabby Chaves and a trusted consultant for Mike Harding’s Verizon IndyCar Series team that is transitioning to a full-season commitment after running three races last year, “Junior” is ecstatic to have such an integral role.
“I fill in where I’m needed,” said Unser, 55, shown above talking with fellow two-time Indy 500 winner and INDYCAR steward Arie Luyendyk (left). “I’m helping the team try to obtain sponsorships. I relocated from Albuquerque to Indianapolis so that I could be with the team in the offices, at the race shop every day. I’m in the process of building a home in Avon.
“For me, it’s a dream come true. Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing. To be a part of it in this capacity where I’m wearing all kinds of different hats, I’m super busy, I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car."
As a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner in 1992 and 1994 as well as a two-time Indy car champion in 1990 and 1994, Unser is ready to impart any driving expertise needed upon Chaves, the 24-year-old Colombian who was the 2015 series rookie of the year in his only other full season while driving for Bryan Herta Autosport.
Unser saw tremendous potential last year in Chaves’ three oval starts, which included finishing fifth in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway and ninth in the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“I was super impressed with him right from the first practice session at Indy last year, how calm he is when he goes out and does five or 10 laps, comes in and he’s very calm, he’s very collected and he’s very precise in his rehab from the way the car feels,” Unser said. “Then when he’s racing, he’s always thinking when he’s driving. He has a tremendous amount of patience, which is key when you’re out there driving these cars in a traffic jam at 220 mph.
“When I used to do 10 laps at Indy, I said, ‘You guys give me a minute because I’ve got to catch my breath.' The maturity and the patience really stands out, and he goes out and stands on the gas.”
Unser also liked how Chaves handled finishing 15th in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway last year.
“When the car’s not right, and it wasn’t right at Pocono, this is what impressed me the most,” Unser said. “The car was an ill-handling car, but he didn’t put it into the wall. He realized what he had, he got the most out of what he had that day and the car rolled into the trailer (undamaged). When you can do that, as young as he is, that’s super impressive.”
Chaves and the team took a methodical approach to testing in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet on Feb. 8-10 at ISM Raceway with the rest of the series teams. In the 2018 car equipped with the new universal aero kit for the first time on a short oval, Chaves turned 235 laps over three days with a top lap of 184.672 mph to rank 20th of the 23 drivers.
The result on the time sheet didn’t faze Unser, who suggests Chaves doesn’t need as much input as one might think for such a young driver.
“So far, Gabby has been a step in front of me,” Unser said. “When I see something, he’s already corrected it when I come to mention it to him.
“He is a world-caliber driver. When you get the best in the world, they tend to have that sixth sense on what the right thing to do is, and I see that in Gabby. In the future, if he keeps doing what he’s been doing, he’s a Formula 1-caliber driver. A few years from now, we’re going to be doing everything we can to keep him in Indy car racing. That’s the kind of talent he has.”
Unser reiterates the optimism surrounding the Harding Racing venture. In addition to Unser’s involvement which began last year, Harding has hired an experienced brain trust that includes longtime INDYCAR race director Brian Barnhart as team president and engineer and former team owner Larry Curry as team manager.
“Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser said. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.
“Life is good. Life is very good. We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins in just three weeks with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The race airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET March 11 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.