Could Al Unser III be making an open-wheel comeback?
A few years ago, as Paul Tracy’s driving career in the Verizon IndyCar Series began to wound down, the Canadian champion-turned-NBCSN analyst spent the winter providing a series of cryptic tweets about his plans.
He never let on exactly what they were, but the mystery was such that without a proper farewell tour behind the wheel, we were all intrigued by the process. It even led me to create the now-sparingly, but then-frequently used "#CrypticLikePT” hashtag.
Tracy, you may remember, was longtime teammates with Al Unser Jr. at Team Penske in the 1990s.
And via our third degree in the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this brings us logically to Al Unser III - a.k.a. “Mini Al” or “Just Al” - who’s been out of competitive racing for nearly a decade but is going full #CrypticLikePT following a return to Twitter after a seven-year hiatus.
On January 13, Al III posted this tweet:
You wouldn’t think too much of it as a one-off, but the fact that several subsequent tweets have followed adds more fuel to the fire.
Even though the high is only 18 degrees, I wish I was in Indy today!!— Al Unser III (@AlUnserIII) January 19, 2016
This is not a dive bomb pass. It's a full slingshot set up laps ago!!— Al Unser III (@AlUnserIII) January 20, 2016
The reference to Indy clearly indicates a desire - or at the very least, an interest - for Unser to return to the North American open-wheel scene.
Unser, now 33, raced in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires - then known as the Infiniti and later Indy Pro Series - over 21 starts from 2004 to 2008 with limited success. His best finish was third on five occasions. He also made 16 starts in Formula Atlantic from 2004 to 2006, with a best finish of fourth three times.
His most recent starts, in 2008, then featured one of the more bizarre racing stories in recent memory.
I remember this well because 2008 was my first year where I covered more than one IndyCar race on site, and the gap from the Indianapolis 500 to my home race in Milwaukee witnessed what we thought was the end of Unser’s racing career.
Basically, Unser drove for a team called Playa Del Racing in Indy Lights. The team was an Indy 500-only entrant in the pre-mergification years before 2008, when the Verizon IndyCar Series came back together to reunite IndyCar and Champ Car.
Playa Del Racing didn’t really have much going for it, running old Panoz chassis to more or less fill the field prior to 2008. They did at least provide a chance for underrated American driver Phil Giebler to make his Indy 500 debut in 2007, where he won race rookie-of-the-year honors.
A new guy not too many people had heard of called Eric Zimmerman reportedly purchased the assets of PDR’s IndyCar and Indy Lights teams going into the month of May, and rebranded the team as American Dream Motorsports.
Giebler, in the only Panoz entered, tried his damndest to make it into the field for a second year without much of a prayer and crashed hard to write off the chassis. It was the last time a Panoz chassis attempted to qualify for the race, and the Dallara-Honda spec era started then for the next four ‘500s. Unser, meanwhile, finished a forgettable 11th in the Freedom 100, but had advanced from 19th on a 27-car grid (yes, Indy Lights had 20-plus car fields and yes, I wish they could get back to that number as well).
The story got weird after Indy. Via a message board, tracked by Trackside Online and one of racing’s blogging pioneers Jeff Iannucci for the much-lamented My Name is IRL blog, from initial reports out of KVBC (now KSNV, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas), Zimmerman reportedly drove the team’s transporter himself from Indy to Milwaukee. Or at least planned to, because he got taken into police custody in Kenosha, Wisconsin on the way alleging from stiffing some kids in Nevada. Again, allegedly.
Unser was at Milwaukee but wasn’t driving, his place due to be taken by Tony Turco out of Cincinnati. But while the car was on site - somehow with the remaining patchwork group of ADM members taking the car and transporter to Milwaukee - it never turned a wheel on track. And then according to one of the ADM crew members, Turco up and left with the transporter after Milwaukee and drove it back to Cincinnati.
This all leads back, somehow, to this series of tweets from Unser III. It would seem right the 100th Indianapolis 500 would have an Unser in the field, even if the chances of Unser’s tweets referring to IndyCar aren’t set in stone. But this is a race where between Al Jr. (2), “Big Al” (4) and Bobby Unser (3), the Unser family has nine wins, and where three other family members (Jerry, Johnny and Robby Unser) have started the race.
In total, the Unser family has 74 starts in the ‘500 (Al 27, Al Jr. 19, Bobby 19, Johnny 5, Robby 3, Jerry 1), with at least one Unser in the field nearly every year from 1958 to 2007.
Will these tweets lead to anything more than a “pipe dream” post about “what if” Al Unser III can make a comeback of his own? It remains to be seen. But it would be a hell of a story if it does.