When Johnny Unser leaves the race control booth of the USF 2000 series, one of the support races for this weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore, he will head to the garages to help young drivers understand how to compete.
The USF 2000 series is part of the Mazda Road to Indy, a four-part program which is set up as a path to the big league, the IZOD IndyCar Series. USF 2000 corresponds to high school and is followed by the Star Mazda Series (college varsity) and Indy Lights (semi-pro), which are all designed to train drivers to compete in IndyCar.
Unser, 53, has a lot of knowledge to share. He grew up in racing. He is the son of the late Jerry Unser and the nephew of famed Indy Car drivers Al and Bobby Unser. He is also a former race car driver in his own right, having competed in the Indy Racing League from 1996 to 2000.
This season, he is also a steward for the IndyCar Series, with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, working with new IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield during races, deciding whether a driver's on-track action deserves to be penalized.
"I do kind of take off my official's hat when working with the kids," he said, referring to the USF2000 series that features primarily teenagers, some of whom are still in high school. "There are rules and then there is the way the game is played."
Unser points to the start of the race as an example. The official rules say a driver "may not display your speed until the green flag." But Unser said, "In actuality that's not the way it's done."
If a driver doesn't have his foot on the gas and speed built up, he's going to be left at the starting line.
"They have to get on the gas and outgun the guy beside them," he said. "It's something a driver learns from a pretty young age. A driver learns the rules and then learns -- not to bend the rules, but to work within the rules. "They've got to use everything they have to do their best. If they don't learn it from me, they have to learn it the hard way."
Besides his work with young drivers and the IndyCar Series, Unser is also a technical director for Cooper Tires, which supplies tires to the USF2000 series, helping it to learn and assess countless details that can be transferred in the creation of tires used by the general public.
"Many of the things we learn with the race tires translate to the street in terms of durability, comfort and security." He said. "If we can make it work in a racing tire, we know the basic foundation will work in a street tire too."
Unser said he is fascinated by the different rubber compounds and the different reactions tire applications have in rain, snow and heat. But as he talks, it's pretty clear the human element of his job, the part that takes him into the garage to work with young drivers holds a special place.
"It's fun working with the kids," he said. "It's real rewarding when you see them prosper."
Note: For race fans wondering what Al Unser, a four-time Indy 500 winner, and Bobby Unser, a three-time winner, are doing these days, Johnny Unser has the answer. Al is happily running the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque, N.M., while Bobby is always on the go, with promotions and product endorsements.