Unser Jr. Joins IRL

Actress Marcia Gay Harden arrives at the 43rd Annual Publicist Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 1, 2006, in Los Angeles. Harden presented the international medi award to Brazilian journalist Paoula Abou-Jaoude. Army Archerd was given a Lifetime Achievement Award.
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Al Unser Jr. is coming back to Indy.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, as expected, signed with Galles Racing on Tuesday and will compete in all 10 races in the Indy Racing League series next season. Unser said the deal with Galles is for five years.

Unser drove six seasons for car owner Roger Penske in the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams series and has not competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since his second victory in 1994. He and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi did not qualify for the race in 1995, and most CART teams and drivers have not raced at Indy since Speedway president Tony George founded the IRL in 1996.

A number of CART teams are expected to return to the 500 next May, albeit using IRL equipment.

Unser, whose family has accounted for nine victories at Indianapolis, previously drove for car owner Rick Galles in the early 1980s and from 1988-93.

"The Indianapolis 500 is an event that has played an important role in my life and family history, and I'm thrilled that I am going to compete in it again," Unser said.

Unser has won 31 open-wheel races, including 12 since he teamed with Penske in 1994. That first season, he had a CART record-tying eight wins, including his second at Indianapolis, and his second series championship. His first title was with Galles in 1990 and his first 500 win came in 1992, also with Galles.

"I'm really excited to be back with Rick Galles," Unser said. "Rick gave me my first ride in the Indianapolis 500 in 1983 and we have won every championship title we have ever gone after. Rick operates a first-class organization, and I know his system well."

Unser won four races and finished second in his second season with Penske, but has gone winless and fallen deep into the standings finishing 21st in 1999 in the four years since.

Galles, who has had little success since Unser left to join Penske, said the contract the two negotiated shows he still has confidence in the 37-year-old driver.

"If you look close at Al's career with Penske, he never got beat by a teammate," Galles said. "That is always the first thing you look at. They just didn't have the right package."

"Al still has the eye of teh tiger in him. Our job is to give him the equipment to be competitive."

Galles already has made one big move to get Unser back to victory lane by signing longtime designer Alan Mertons, who also left following the 1993 season. Mertons will fill the position chief engineer.

"That's one of the things that Al was able to do, get Alan Mertons to move to Albuquerque," said Galles, whose team remains headquartered in that New Mexico city.

With the retirement of two-time winner Arie Luyendyk following this year's Indianapolis 500 and the departure of former series champion Tony Stwart to NASCAR's Winston Cup series, Unser becomes the biggest name in the IRL, even with his current streak of 71 races without a victory.

"We're excited to have Al back with us," said Galles, who like Unser lives in Albuquerque, N.M. "He is a great driver with tremendous leadership, and that is what our team is all about. We have both made a huge commitment to this program, and I think it is a great opportunity for the team, Al and the IRL."

Galles recently formed a new partnership in Scottsdale, Ariz., with Roger Elliot and Tommy Constantine, who are trying to line up sponsorship for current Galles driver Davey Hamilton, the fourth-place finisher in the IRL this season.

The second operation will be set up in Phoenix, but the teams will share data and work together at the racetracks.

Unser's cousins, Johnny Unser and Robby Unser, also compete in the IRL.

Johnny's rather, Jerry Unser, was the first member of the family to compete at Indianapolis and was killed in practice at the Speedway in 1959. Robby's father, Bobby Unser, won Indy three times, and Al Jr.'s father, Al Unser Sr., won four times and now is an IRL consultant and driving coach.

"The IRL has come a long way in four years," said Galles, who also won the 1981 Super Vee title and 1982 Can-Am championship with Al Unser Jr. behind the wheel. "The engine and chassis specs make this series the most affordable program in racing, and the competition speaks for itself."

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