American motorsport great Al Unser jnr is the latest high-profile signing to join next year’s Leadfoot Festival in Hahei.
Son of Al Unser snr and nephew to Bobby Unser, the 54-year-old is celebrated in American oval-racing history — his dual Indy 500 victories in 1992 and 1994 his most well-known achievements.
In an ironic twist, Unser jnr will once again find himself behind the wheel of an IndyCar at Leadfoot — though instead of it being one of the more modern machines he drove during the 90s, it will be a 1915 Stutz.
“I told Rod [Millen] ‘Okay we’ll see if it can go sideways’, and I could hear the silence on the phone,” laughed Unser, speaking to Driven. “I’m just kidding, Rod, I’ll take care of it!”
“I saw the picture of it and it looks beautiful. I asked Rod if he can get me a leather helmet and goggles so we can get completely into the time period.”
Al Unser Jnr, Indy 500 Champion in 1994.
Unser and Leadfoot Festival founder and organiser Rod Millen became household names in American motorsport in the early ’90s via successes in their respective fields of IndyCar and hill-climb rallying. Despite this, the pair only recently met.
“Of course I had heard of Rod, and we crossed paths a little bit. I was in the IndyCars and he was doing his own thing with Toyota. Pikes Peak means a lot to the Unser family, so each year that race runs the whole family is interested in it.
“For Rod to go up there and have the success that was extremely good.”
Their paths eventually crossed for the first time at the Toyota Celebrity Race that ran alongside the IndyCar Series at Long Beach earlier this year. It was there that Unser jnr accepted an invitation to compete at Leadfoot.
“We got talking and he mentioned to me that he does this once a year. He said, ‘Al would you be interested?’ and I said ‘Sure!’
“I’ve never been to New Zealand. I’ve been to Surfers [Paradise] of course, in the years that the IndyCars were there, but I never went over to New Zealand. So I’m excited about coming, and being a part of this whole thing.”
Unser jnr, whose career also boasts two CART championship titles, laments the direction that modern motorsport has taken, including IndyCar.
Al Unser Jnr, pictured more recently in 2007.
“I love IndyCars, of course. I love the Indy 500. [But] I wish the innovation was in the series, like the ’80s and ’90s when I drove.
“With all of them being Dallaras, spec cars, it’s kind of lost the excitement for me. Because I think the IndyCars and the Indy 500 is all about developing the automobile and taking it to places it’s never been before.
“With how expensive racing is I can understand why they’ve gone with spec cars, but I wish it was the way it was when you could build your own car and own engines.”
“Any kind of event that can bring back the old cars that were the most advanced cars of their time — for people to be able to see that and the development of the automobile and how it’s gone forward, I think when they get up there and they hear them run and see them run, I think it’s great.”
The 2017 Leadfoot Festival is on February 4 and 5, with several more historic names to be announced.