Unser pays tribute to Power, Penske; Power feels honored, determined

Bobby Unser has praised Will Power who matched his IndyCar win tally last weekend, while Power says he is “humbled” by the tribute from a legend, and explains the importance of Portland International Raceway in his career – then and now.

Unser pays tribute to Power, Penske; Power feels honored, determined
Bobby Unser, Penske-Cosworth

Bobby Unser, Penske-Cosworth

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd / LAT Images

Power’s third win of the season, at Gateway Motorsports Park, pulled him up to joint seventh in IndyCar’s all-time victory standings with Unser, each on 35. This came just a month after arch rival Scott Dixon passed Michael Andretti for third in the all-time list, and currently sits at 44, although Dixon has started 302 races since his debut in 2001, compared with Power’s 202 since his debut in late 2005.

There is one active driver between them on the win chart, Sebastien Bourdais, who has scored 37 wins in 175 Indy car starts, largely due to his domination of the final four years of the Champ Car World Series.

The 83-year-old Unser retired from racing after the 1981 season, the year he scored his third Indy 500 win, and was an Indy car TV commentator until 1997, first on NBC, then ABC. He still avidly watches all the Verizon IndyCar Series races and said he was pleased to see Power’s latest success.

“Naturally I watched the race [Gateway] and I was happy for Will, he really drove one heck of a race,” said Unser. “Will’s fast and one of those drivers who finds a way to win races, he showed that, no question. Will’s a total racer and for someone like that to share 35 Indy car wins with me is special.

“Look, Will won Indianapolis this year, he won the road course at Indy and now on a short oval, I like that – he has confidence and knows he can win anyplace and anytime – like Bobby Unser did! He makes good decisions and is for sure fun to watch.

“Certain drivers are standing out – Dixon, [Alexander] Rossi and Will are all super-talented, at the top. They are probably the best drivers on the track right now. But it’s just not those three, there is a lot of talent on the track and racing in IndyCar this year.

“Robert Wickens was very fast and talented before his accident at Pocono. He showed me a lot. The cars are so equal now that the best drivers are rising to the top. Racing is in the drivers’ hands, not just the team they race for or the car they are in, because this year the cars are now more equal than ever. Good drivers with talent and skill are winning races.

“Again I’d like to really, really congratulate Will on his win, he’ll win lots more races. He’s a complete driver!”

Power grateful for praise from “one of the legends”

Bobby Unser speaks at the PRI Show

Bobby Unser speaks at the PRI Show

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Power’s win came just a week after he qualified fastest at Pocono, and thereby matched AJ Foyt in second place in the all-time pole-winners’ roster on 53.

Power told Motorsport.com: “Yeah, Bobby’s words mean a lot, I’m really stoked to hear that from one of the legends, but also because he knows what he’s talking about – he still follows the series real closely.

“I like that bit about saying I’m a complete driver, because he was one of those guys, like Mario [Andretti], who was great on all types of track. Back when Indy car mainly raced on ovals, Bobby was one of the few guys who were still really fast whenever they went to road courses. I guess all those years racing up Pikes Peak helped, right?!

“So, you know, being a complete driver is what IndyCar is all about, you’ve got to be versatile. You’re not going to be contending for championships each year if you’re not able to get it done on all types of track.

“I was coming from a different direction than Bobby, because I was fast on road and street courses but I had to work really hard to raise my game on ovals, and it’s been really satisfying to do that. I said last Saturday night how much I love ovals. I love all the work you have to do with your engineer at the race shop and then at the track to build a strong car for different shapes of oval, ready to deal with different conditions over the weekend. There’s a lot of thinking involved as well as driving.

“And then you’ve got to go out and get the job done, making little changes in the cockpit to keep the car at its peak. Obviously, the strategists and the crew and the spotters have got to be on their game time, too, so I’m lucky to be with Team Penske.”

Unser and Power on Roger Penske

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet with team owner Roger Penske

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet with team owner Roger Penske

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Unser also praised Penske, for whom he raced the last three years of his career, scoring 11 of his 35 wins, 15 of his 49 poles, and twice finishing runner-up in the championship standings.

“Roger Penske provides his drivers the very best prepared cars, week in and week out, every single race, every single year. This gives his drivers the best opportunity to win when they arrive at the track.

“Roger doesn’t play favorites, everyone gets the exact same thing. Everything is top of the line. Roger gives you what it takes to win – totally, totally first class 100 percent of the time. Roger’s 17 Indianapolis 500 wins set the standard for all of racing – IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1, anything with wheels. Indianapolis means so much to Roger – since 1969 his goal has been to win that race every single year, be in Victory Lane and take home a Baby Borg. His team is all about preparation and perfection and that means wins, lots of wins everywhere, including the Indianapolis 500.”

Said Power: “Yeah, Bobby obviously knows what it’s like to be at Penske. The technology’s changed a bit since his day but honestly, the attitude among the people here is the same, and probably the same it’s always been back to when Roger started it up. All the engineers and crews want to go out and kick everyone else’s ass. I can imagine Bobby on Day 1 walking into Roger’s raceshop and thinking, ‘Yeah, this guy gets it! I can do a lot of winning here.’

“I read something where Enzo Ferrari said the most important win is always the next one, and I thought, ‘Yup, Roger’s like that.’ He’s proud of the team’s wins and championships, and so on, which is why he’s kept a lot of cool trophies and helmets and cars, and he’s got that museum [in Scottsdale, AZ]. But for Roger, the big thing is for everyone on the team to keep up that desire to work hard for more wins and more championships. That’s how you make history – to not keep looking back at it, but just focus on the next race, the next year, and so on.

“So it’s a relief to get that first win with Roger on my stand. He was obviously on the #3 car with Helio [Castroneves] for my last two wins, and we’ve come close, got some good podiums in races since then, but you can always tell Roger’s as hungry for it as any of us drivers. I mean, it was funny: I could hear it in his voice even when he came on the radio [at Gateway] and told me to forget fuel saving and just go for it!”

Beating rivals, joining the legends

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda celebrate in victory lane

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda celebrate in victory lane

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Power said that when he started, he never dreamed of achieving statistics that put him up with some of the icons of the sport.

“No way, I didn’t even think about that kind of stuff,” he commented. “I was just trying to do my best and win races. That was it. I had to beat the guys who were there already like Bourdais, [Justin] Wilson, P.T. [Paul Tracy], [AJ] Allmendinger, Bruno Junqueira. Then when Champ Car and IRL merged, I had more people to try and beat – Dario [Franchitti], Helio, Dixon, [Tony] Kanaan, the two Ryans, [Briscoe and Hunter-Reay]…

“A lot of good drivers there, and obviously we’ve had more join since then, like Josef [Newgarden] and Simon [Pagenaud], and [Alexander] Rossi. I think when I looked at the stats, it was about ‘How did I do this season?’ in terms of wins and poles and laps led and that kind of thing. I wasn’t looking at the big deal."

Asked when he did start paying attention to the all-time IndyCar statistics, Power replied: “Hmm… probably fairly recently, just the last two or three years. I think it was when Helio [30 wins, 51 poles] and I realized our stats were starting to look pretty similar and we were both trying to be the first to overtake Rick [Mears – 29 wins, 40 poles] as Penske’s most successful IndyCar driver. And Helio’s still trying to match Rick’s four wins at Indy. I’ve got a way to go on that one…

“But yeah, I’m humbled and honored to hear Bobby’s comments, and to hear that my name’s up there with people like him and AJ. It’s strange, not something I ever expected, not even when I joined Penske and knew how good it was here. First I just wanted to be good enough for Roger to turn my part-time ride [2009] into a full-time ride, and then I wanted to justify Roger’s faith in me when he did decide to expand the team to three full-time cars.”

Back to where Power’s U.S. adventure began

Will Power, GP of Portland, practice, 2006

Will Power, GP of Portland, practice, 2006

Photo by: Kurt Dahlstrom

This weekend sees Indy car racing return to Portland International Raceway, and the 1.967-mile road course venue has special memories for Power, as it was where he first tested a U.S. open-wheel car, 13 years ago. Derrick Walker needed a strong Australian for his team, at that point branded Team Australia, and Marcus Marshall had been struggling to adapt to the 750hp turbocharged cars, especially since so many races were on street courses where no one could test.

With the Australian Champ Car race at Surfers Paradise just a couple of months away, Walker was desperate not to let down principal sponsor Aussie Vineyards. He called up Trevor Carlin, who was running Power in World Series by Renault over in Europe, and on hearing high praise for the 24-year-old, arranged for a very secret test at PIR.

Rob Edwards, now team COO for Andretti Autosport and Rossi’s strategist, was Walker’s team manager back in 2005. Interviewed for Power’s 2015 biography, The Sheer Force of Will Power, Edwards recalled: “We went to Portland because it was important to keep it under wraps that we were testing Will. We went straight up after the Denver race, in the middle of August, and because we were using the spare car, the old Reynard [rather than the Lola that had become virtually the spec chassis in the series], we took along Mario Haberfeld’s data from 2004 as comparison.

“As I recall, by midday, Will had proven he was a very special talent because his time would have put him in the top six on the grid for the 2005 race! And remember, this was with a very unfashionable Reynard…”

Power still remembers the excitement of driving a car with at least 300 more horsepower than his World Series by Renault car.

“Yeah, it was a lot of fun to have that much power, fantastic feeling,” he said 13 years later. “Driving down the back straight at Portland, I was thinking, ‘Man, I could get paid to do this!’ Awesome beast of a car.

"We didn’t make many technical changes, I don’t think. Derrick and Rob and me, we just focused on getting miles in, understanding how to drive the car. The Reynard had a lot of understeer because it had such a solid rear end which didn’t totally suit my style, but I remember looking at the times and feeling ‘OK, yeah, I could do this.'”

The following year, in a Lola and at last encountering a Champ Car venue on which he had previous experience, Power outqualified team incumbent Alex Tagliani for the first time, and went on to set fastest lap – a new lap record, in fact – although a mechanical issue at the start left him several laps down. In 2007, Power led three laps at Portland but ultimately finished fourth.

Portland prospects

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / LAT Images

Since then, Power hasn’t been back and says he’s looking forward to this weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland, and indeed the test on Thursday.

“Yeah, it’ll be nice to go back,” he said. “It’s a good flowing circuit, fun, and the long corners make it a bit like an oval where it’s very important to get a good balance on the handling. Obviously it’s bit different now it’s been resurfaced so we’ve got some learning to do. As usual, there’s going to be a lot of detail work to get it just right.”

Lying 68 points behind Dixon and 42 behind Rossi – and only 10 ahead of teammate Newgarden – with just two races to go means that Power admits he has “no alternative” but to go flat out for pole and the win.

“You don’t want to be in the middle of the pack down at that [Turn 1/Turn 2] chicane on Lap 1,” he said. “If you’re at the front you can hopefully keep clear of trouble. But to be honest, that’s my aim every race – win the pole, win the race – and that’s all I can do.

"I mean, I can sit here hoping that Dixon and Rossi have bad days, but that’s a waste of time and effort because that bit is out of my control. All I can do is my best – in the engineering truck, on pitlane and on the track.”

– Bobby Unser comments via Steve Shunck

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