Motorsports Column for 4/29/00

Last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Al Unser Jr. silenced all the critics that said he would never win again. The Las Vegas Indy 300 win was Unser's 32nd career open-wheel victory, and first in his Indy Racing Northern Light Series career.

It took one more distraction away from the 38-year-old driver as the team prepares for Indy.

"It feels so good to win the race right before Indy," Unser said. "You've always got it in the back of your mind that you're capable of beating everyone out there, but this win really helps the team."

But instead of resting on his laurels, Unser was back to work Thursday, running in a private test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Having skipped the open test at Indy two weeks ago, now the team will work on their Brickyard package and getting Unser up to speed.

Unser is a two-time Indy champion, but his last trip to the Brickyard ended with him not qualifying in his Team Penske car, and he intends to make up for it this season. After waiting for four years, Unser is excited to be back at the famed track.

- Another CART refugee who will run Indy this year is Richie Hearn. Having lost his CART ride due to lack of sponsorship, Hearn will end a personal three-year hiatus from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by running in this year's Indy 500.

Last weekend Hearn signed with Pagan Racing, and the official entry list change was registered on Wednesday, putting Hearn in the No. 75 Dallara/Aurora. He finished third in his only other appearance at Indy in 1996.

Hearn has signed a one-race deal with Pagan for the 84th running of the May classic, but the team may consider extending the agreement for more races in the 2000 IRNLS season.

- In NASCAR Land, A.J. Foyt continues to shake up his Winston Cup team in an effort to turn around a so-far dismal season. The latest casualty is team general manager Waddell Wilson, who got his walking papers this past week.

NASCAR veteran Wilson has been replaced by Foyt's nephew, 30-year-old Tommy LaMance, who has been with Foyt since 1994. Crew chief Larry Wooten was replaced a few races back by Phillipe Lopez. And so far Foyt has fired two drivers, Mike Bliss and Dick Trickle.

I wonder how secure Rick Mast feels after qualifying for only one race in three?

- Kyle Petty recently took on the current NASCAR management after a remark by a reporter on the death of Kyle's grandfather, the legendary Lee Petty.

The reporter wondered out loud whether 75 percent of the people in the stands even knew who Lee Petty was. Kyle picked this up and expanded on it.

"There's 85 percent of the people in the garage area who, if Jack Smith or Bob Welborn or Jim Paschal or Marvin Panch walked through here, they don't know who they are," said the third generation NASCAR racer. "Forget the grandstand. I'm talking about people who do the sport."

Having been closely involved with the sport for 31 years myself, I have to say I agree with Kyle. I remember the heyday of the Junior Johnsons, Bud Moores, Junie Donlaveys, Smokey Yunicks ... guys who had been around for years before the Felix Sabateses and Rick Hendricks showed up.

I also agree with Kyle's assessment of the current management of NASCAR, which has a tendency to sweep uncomfortable facts about its origins under the rug. As Petty said, "Everybody over there in NASCAR-land are revisionists," Petty said. "They don't want to tell the truth."

Today's drivers are creations of sponsors, of Corporate America, and are a far cry from the moonshine runners, farmers, mechanics and truckers who pioneered the sport.

It's unfortunate that the sport has grown so big and so successful that the people who run it seem to be embarrassed by those who went before. It's kind of like folks who got lucky and made it big trying to deny the existence of their poor, ignorant, poorly educated relatives.

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist.

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