The National Auto Sport Association’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill has established itself as one of the better pro-am offerings on the endurance racing calendar, using its early December date to draw domestic and international entries after the major professional championships have concluded their seasons.
Nearly 250 drivers are entered for this weekend’s 25-hour race at the Northern California road course, and among the better known participants, a certain two-time Indy 500 winner and two-time CART Indy car series champion will make his return to competition as part of the JFC Racing/Wolf Racing Cars entry (ABOVE, pic: Wolf Racing Cars).
?This will be my first race since the Indianapolis 500 in 2007 with A.J. [Foyt],? Al Unser Jr. told RACER. ?I’ve been in the gym training really hard and can’t wait to get my feet back under me. This is a really fast car, which I’ve had a chance to drive before, but this is really the first serious race for me in a longtime and it’s with a great group of people, including my son.?
Unser Jr. will share a 3.0-liter V8-powered Wolf GB08S chassis, something akin to an LMP3 chassis, with car owner Miles Jackson, Ivan Bellarosa and his son, former Indy Lights driver Al Unser III (BELOW with his Dad) around the 3.0-mile, 15-turn circuit. The opportunity to race at Thunderhill, which has reignited Unser Jr.’s desire to compete behind the wheel, came from a chance encounter at Portland International Raceway.
?I was the grand marshal for a vintage race at Portland in June, and while I was there, lo and behold, I saw my 1982 Can-Am Frisbee, which was beautifully restored, and went over to take a look,? he explained. ?I met Miles Jackson, who owns the car, and we got to talking and he asked me to drive the car. I said no, told him I was retired, and then finally, I said since we’re talking about endurance racing, if I could bring my son to race with us, I’d be interested.
?It’s all because of Miles, who happily invited me and my son to race with him at Thunderhill, and for me it’s very special because of all the things we’ve done together, we’ve never raced a car together as father and son. I got to race with my dad (four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser) just once at the Daytona 24 Hours in a Porsche 962, and the race itself didn’t go so well, but the experience of racing with dad was great. I wanted to have the same experience, and here we are.?
In addition to his well-known achievements in Indy car, Unser Jr. was a regular sports car participant throughout a career that spanned four decades. His greatest result came at the 1987 24 Hours of Daytona where he shared the win with Al Holbert, Derek Bell and Chip Robinson in Holbert’s Porsche 962. His last sports car race would come in 2006 at Watkins Glen where he shared a Daytona Prototype with the Frisselle brothers”a nice bit of synergy as Brad Frisselle, father of Brian and Burt, designed the Frisbee GR2 chassis Unser Jr. used to win the 1982 Can-Am title.
After retiring from Indy car racing, Unser Jr. would go to work for the IndyCar Series, working as part of the race control team until personal issues intervened in September of 2011. Unser Jr. spoke publicly of his battles with alcoholism in 2007, sought treatment and had been in the clear until 2011, which led to his suspension from IndyCar Series duties. Healthy once again, he says getting back to racing has been a powerful motivator in his recovery process.?After what took place in 2011, 2012 was the worst year of my life, hands down,? he added. ?Those were some very dark days for me. I had to start my whole life over again ” start from scratch. And I can’t lie; it has been really tough, but with meeting Miles [Jackson] and the confidence he showed in me, it got me back in the gym, getting my health in the right place. I’ve been getting better, one day at a time. (BELOW, Al with Miles Jackson and Ivan Bellarosa.)
?My life started all over, and I mean every aspect of my personal life”cleaning out”and it took my mom visiting me a week ago to help me to understand how far I’ve come from even a year ago. I’m driving racecars again, I have a great relationship with my son again and things are getting back on track.?
After the checkered flag waves at noon on Sunday at Thunderhill, Unser Jr. says he’ll be looking for more opportunities to keep his comeback going into 2014.
?What this has done is inspire me to get more involved in racing,? he continued. ?Sports car racing really intrigues me. With what’s going on in that new [TUDOR United SportsCar Championship] series, that looks really interesting to me, but the LMP2s and the DPs are so far up in the air right now, there’s a lot of issues they need to resolve first. The GTs look really good, and I’d like to look at something there if there were opportunities.
?But you know what series I’m really liking? World Challenge. I really like the cars there, it’s sports cars, it’s sprint races, and I think there might be an opportunity for me and my son Al to race there. I’m investigating that series; the cars are cool and they have a good TV package. I love racing”Indy cars, NASCAR, NHRA?I love it all, but I also realize that at 51, my age might not be perfect for [the TUDOR Championship], but I know World Challenge is something I could do competitively.?
Unser Jr. will share the track with more than 60 entries, including some teams, drivers and manufacturers that are familiar to endurance racing fans.
Honda, through its Honda Research West group, will race a pair of Acura ILXs, Lexus, via Lexus USA, has an IS F entered that will have Scuderia Corsa TUDOR Championship driver Jeff Westphal at the helm, and Mazda, through its semi-works Mazdaspeed Dealers and works Mazdaspeed Factory entries, will field a trio of production-based Mazda6 diesels (not the Rolex GX cars).
World Challenge and TUDOR Championship entrant GMG will bring two of its Audi R8 LMS GT cars which team owner James Sofronas and Alex Welch will share with an assortment of co-drivers, recent World Challenge and IMSA GT3 entrant TrueSpeed has a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup entry in place for Kelly Collins, Phil Fogg Jr. and Tom Haacker, Team SPOON has a fascinating lineup for its Honda CR-Z with former Indy car driver Naoki Hattori as well as Formula D drifting champion Daijiro Yoshihara, new Spirit of Daytona driver Michael Valiante will pilot a Norma M20F prototype for Davison Racing along with Mark Wilkins, Anthony Lazzaro and Burt Frisselle. Brian Frisselle will share the sister Davidson Norma with Randy Pobst and Valiante, who will perform double duty.
Rotek Racing will bring its awesome VLN-spec FWD Audi TT RS for World Challenge and BTCC driver Robb Holland, former factory Jaguar prototype and Indy 500 runner-up Davy Jones will drive a Factory Five GTM along with former GM pilot Paul Edwards, Indy car and sports car ace Memo Gidley will drive a Porsche 997 GT3 Cup car for former overall race winner Pierre Ehret, and other renown drivers, including Craig Stanton, Tyler McQuarrie and Mike Skeen will be in attendance.
? Live timing for the December 7-8 event can be found at http://www.nasa25hour.com/
BELOW: Al Unser Jr. heads for victory at Denver in 1990, the year of his first title. Pic: LAT