Could Al Unser III be making an open-wheel comeback?

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A few years ago, as Paul Tracy’s driving career in the Verizon IndyCar Series began to wound down, the Canadian champion-turned-NBCSN analyst spent the winter providing a series of cryptic tweets about his plans.

He never let on exactly what they were, but the mystery was such that without a proper farewell tour behind the wheel, we were all intrigued by the process. It even led me to create the now-sparingly, but then-frequently used “#CrypticLikePT” hashtag.

Tracy, you may remember, was longtime teammates with Al Unser Jr. at Team Penske in the 1990s.

And via our third degree in the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this brings us logically to Al Unser III – a.k.a. “Mini Al” or “Just Al” – who’s been out of competitive racing for nearly a decade but is going full #CrypticLikePT following a return to Twitter after a seven-year hiatus.

On January 13, Al III posted this tweet:

You wouldn’t think too much of it as a one-off, but the fact that several subsequent tweets have followed adds more fuel to the fire.

The reference to Indy clearly indicates a desire – or at the very least, an interest – for Unser to return to the North American open-wheel scene.

Unser, now 33, raced in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – then known as the Infiniti and later Indy Pro Series – over 21 starts from 2004 to 2008 with limited success. His best finish was third on five occasions. He also made 16 starts in Formula Atlantic from 2004 to 2006, with a best finish of fourth three times.

His most recent starts, in 2008, then featured one of the more bizarre racing stories in recent memory.

I remember this well because 2008 was my first year where I covered more than one IndyCar race on site, and the gap from the Indianapolis 500 to my home race in Milwaukee witnessed what we thought was the end of Unser’s racing career.

Basically, Unser drove for a team called Playa Del Racing in Indy Lights. The team was an Indy 500-only entrant in the pre-mergification years before 2008, when the Verizon IndyCar Series came back together to reunite IndyCar and Champ Car.

Playa Del Racing didn’t really have much going for it, running old Panoz chassis to more or less fill the field prior to 2008. They did at least provide a chance for underrated American driver Phil Giebler to make his Indy 500 debut in 2007, where he won race rookie-of-the-year honors.

A new guy not too many people had heard of called Eric Zimmerman reportedly purchased the assets of PDR’s IndyCar and Indy Lights teams going into the month of May, and rebranded the team as American Dream Motorsports.

Giebler, in the only Panoz entered, tried his damndest to make it into the field for a second year without much of a prayer and crashed hard to write off the chassis. It was the last time a Panoz chassis attempted to qualify for the race, and the Dallara-Honda spec era started then for the next four ‘500s. Unser, meanwhile, finished a forgettable 11th in the Freedom 100, but had advanced from 19th on a 27-car grid (yes, Indy Lights had 20-plus car fields and yes, I wish they could get back to that number as well).

The story got weird after Indy. Via a message board, tracked by Trackside Online and one of racing’s blogging pioneers Jeff Iannucci for the much-lamented My Name is IRL blog, from initial reports out of KVBC (now KSNV, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas), Zimmerman reportedly drove the team’s transporter himself from Indy to Milwaukee. Or at least planned to, because he got taken into police custody in Kenosha, Wisconsin on the way alleging from stiffing some kids in Nevada. Again, allegedly.

Unser was at Milwaukee but wasn’t driving, his place due to be taken by Tony Turco out of Cincinnati. But while the car was on site – somehow with the remaining patchwork group of ADM members taking the car and transporter to Milwaukee – it never turned a wheel on track. And then according to one of the ADM crew members, Turco up and left with the transporter after Milwaukee and drove it back to Cincinnati.

This all leads back, somehow, to this series of tweets from Unser III. It would seem right the 100th Indianapolis 500 would have an Unser in the field, even if the chances of Unser’s tweets referring to IndyCar aren’t set in stone. But this is a race where between Al Jr. (2), “Big Al” (4) and Bobby Unser (3), the Unser family has nine wins, and where three other family members (Jerry, Johnny and Robby Unser) have started the race.

In total, the Unser family has 74 starts in the ‘500 (Al 27, Al Jr. 19, Bobby 19, Johnny 5, Robby 3, Jerry 1), with at least one Unser in the field nearly every year from 1958 to 2007.

Will these tweets lead to anything more than a “pipe dream” post about “what if” Al Unser III can make a comeback of his own? It remains to be seen. But it would be a hell of a story if it does.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.