Video: Little Al Straps In with Mario
Al Unser Jr. has experienced almost everything in U.S. auto racing, from sprint cars to Indianapolis 500 victories to INDYCAR season championships to NASCAR’s Daytona 500, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and virtually every major racetrack along the way.
But Unser added a new experience during last weekend’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES event at the Road America circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He rode with Mario Andretti in the Indy Racing Experience’s two-seat INDYCAR Experience around the 14-turn, 4.014-mile permanent road course.
Unser didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t -- hide his enthusiasm for the high-speed tour in the Ruoff Mortgage Fastest Seat in Sports.
“It was so much fun,” he said of the lap around the venue loaded with elevation change. “I literally laughed the whole time, and I was waving to all the fans.
“It was so good, so fun, a bucket-list item, for sure.”
Unser was at Road America with Vintage Indy, a group celebrating the history of the sport, when he decided to ask Andretti to give his girlfriend, Norma, a ride in the two-seater. Over the years, Unser has himself given hundreds of INDYCAR Experience rides, but he had never climbed into the back seat. He did so after realizing he might never have a better opportunity.
“You just never know when you’d get a chance like this,” Unser said.
Unser was in line to be the second passenger of the session, but Andretti decided he wanted Unser’s turn delayed. Part of that was based on getting the brakes to his liking after someone else had driven the car, but Andretti conceded he wanted everything perfect for this special guest.
Unser is believed to have been only the second former driver to ride with Andretti. The other was Andretti’s son, Michael, prior to last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“I always give 100 percent – everyone gets the same ride because I don’t jack around out there,” Mario Andretti said. “But yeah, I wanted to give Al a ‘quick’ ride.”
That there was a large camping crowd on hand made it even more exciting, Andretti said.
“The hills were alive,” he said.
Unser said Andretti pushed the pace on his ride, which was exactly what he wanted from the legend. Unser added it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as being a passenger in Andretti’s ultralight plane in a visit to Andretti’s lake home in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1993.
Interestingly, Road America is one of the few tracks where Unser was never able to reach victory lane in any type of car.
“(Unser) tweeted about doing it, but people thought it was a joke,” Andretti said. “It was no joke. He did it, and it was a lot of fun for both of us.”
Unser’s weekend included driving the 1986 Domino’s Pizza Lola in which he won the Miami race.
“It all made the trip really special,” he said.