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True Racers: Unser, Papis, Fisher, Tracy Relish Driving in Vintage Race during Rare Off Weekend from IndyCar

Max Papis doused himself with water and sounded exhilarated after a sweltering Saturday drive in the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.

In a normal race week, he and Al Unser Jr., Sarah Fisher and Paul Tracy are involved with the Verizon IndyCar Series. But on this blistering, 94-degree day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Papis didn’t have to be a race steward. He teamed up with Curt Vogt to finish second in the Indy Legends Charity Vintage Pro-Am Presented by RACER Magazine.

“I never retired. I’m just between sponsors,” Papis said, repeating a familiar refrain. “This is just a reminder for all the guys out there that the race steward can still drive the crap out of a car.”

All four have won this Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) event at some point. Papis and Fisher each prevailed in respective classes last year. Tracy won two years ago, proclaiming the accomplishment his second victory at the track in reference to losing the 2002 Indianapolis 500 amid controversy. Unser, a two-time “500” winner, won in the inaugural year in 2014.

Unser is usually immersed with being a consultant and driver coach at Harding Racing. Tracy is a TV analyst for NBCSN. Fisher is a part-time pace car driver and will lead the field in the KOHLER Grand Prix on Sunday, June 24 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

“I’m used to going the other way,” Fisher said, referring to driving these Corvette and Camaro muscle cars clockwise on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile IMS road course. “It was fun, regardless.

“It’s a lot of fun. I don’t usually drive a car that heavy, so it was a little bit of a learning curve. They put me in a car with Debbie Cloud and the Cloud family that actually fit, so it was a lot more comfortable and I got to drive a lot more laps. We didn’t end up winning it like last year, but I was a lot more comfortable and could do more laps. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about this weekend, to have fun and get back on track.”

Unser’s fun amounted to just four practice laps Friday. His car’s owner, Velocity TV personality Peter Klutt, encountered a mechanical malfunction four laps into the event, so Unser never got to drive this time.

“I was able to escape moving into my house,” Unser said. “It was a wonderful four laps – what can I say?

“These things happen. That’s racing. Peter Klutt does a great job with his car, and it’s really an honor to drive his car.”
After years of being out of the sport, Unser is thrilled to have a vital role at Harding Racing. He doesn’t consider his regular job a routine. But at 56, “Little Al” also still gets a serious kick out of competing.

“Every chance I get to drive, I love doing it,” he said. “This is a weekend where, yes, I can get away from the everyday world and get behind the wheel and get on a racetrack. It allows me to have an escape from everything and everybody.”

He’s got another “escape” on the calendar, too. Unser will drive the Speedway Motors Camaro on an Autocross course June 29 in Des Moines, Iowa.

“That’s cones in a parking lot,” he said. “No matter what I get to do, I just love getting out there and driving the cars like I’ve done my whole life.”

Unser ended up 21st out of 23 cars. Tracy, who also drove in a Trans Am race, was forced to the pits early with a mechanical issue and placed 15th.

Fisher finished sixth in class and 10th overall while husband Andy O’Gara tended to the family.

“It’s Father’s Day weekend, so all the fathers get to come here and race,” she said. “Our dad, Andy, he’s taking care of the kids.”

Papis brought his family with him. He was also proud to show his two sons that “Daddy” can still drive at age 48.

“I gave it all I had,” he said of losing in a duel with 24-year-old Matt Brabham for the overall victory. “I was sideways everywhere. It was a great battle.

“My fire is always the same. I’m happy for what I have, even if I don’t race anymore. I’m just proud to be a part of this and proud to help the sport.”

What’s ironic about his SVRA race history is that Papis, now entrusted with Arie Luyendyk to ensure fairness for Verizon IndyCar Series competitors, has also received a black flag in this SVRA event.

“I don’t remember,” he said with a chuckle. “I just remember today.”

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