Little Al loving a green-car competition

Published Jun. 2, 2010 3:15 p.m. ET

Al Unser Jr. has lived a pedal-to-the-floor life, toddling around the pits as his famous father raced around the track, winning his sport's biggest prize twice himself, becoming a teacher to the next generation of open-wheel stars.

So when he was asked to gear back during the Automotive X-Prize, a competition that's supposed to be more innovation than acceleration, well, you know what happened.

``I just wanted to see what it could do,'' Unser said.

Curiosity is what got Unser behind the wheel in the first place, pairing a man used to high-decibel, low-miles-per-gallon speed machines with a Star-Wars-pod-looking prototype electric car not much louder than a dishwasher.

Turned out to be a perfect match.

It started two years ago, when a friend told Unser about the Zap Alias, a prototype electric car that could hit freeway speeds and had a range of 100 miles.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was intrigued by a drawing of the car and contacted Zap, forming a relationship between one of the fastest drivers in the world and a company at the forefront of alternative-fuel transportation.


So when Zap needed someone to drive the Alias in the Automotive X-Prize, a $10 million competition to develop super fuel-efficient cars, Unser didn't hesitate.

``I told them I'd love to be a part of it,'' he said.

There is a certain irony to Unser's pairing with an alternative-fuel vehicle.

He is, after all, a member of a marquee racing family. His father, Al, is a four-time Indy 500 winner, his uncle, Bobby won it twice, and three other relatives have driven open-wheel cars, including his son, Al Unser III. Little Al won 34 IndyCar races and is currently a driver coach and consultant for the series.

Those cars they've been driving are made for speed and aerodynamic efficiency, not saving fuel. IndyCars get less than 2 miles per gallon, meaning it takes roughly 1.3 gallons of ethanol just to do one lap at the Indianapolis 500.

The X-Prize is a competition designed to foster development of clean, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 miles per gallon or the energy equivalent.

An odd pairing? Not to Unser.

``We all know what the addictions are to petroleum, oil, the spills, the reserves are going to be running out, all the bad things about the oil industry, and this is about protecting the future generations,'' he said. ``With the X-Prize competition, it's going to speed it up, allow it to hopefully become mainstream in my generation.''

The original X-Prize was a space race, a competition in 2004 to launch a reusable aircraft into space twice in two weeks. The Automotive X Prize was created in 2007 as an attempt to help the auto industry along in a quest to develop more efficient vehicles.

The competition includes two classes. The mainstream vehicles must carry at least four passengers, have at least four wheels and offer a 200-mile range. The alternative class, which the Alias fits into, must carry two or more passengers and have a 100-mile range.

The competition is broken down into three on-road stages, all held at Michigan International Speedway, that test everything from emissions and fuel efficiency to stability and real-world performance. The Finals Stage will take place in July and the winner will be determined after final technical testing in August.

Unser got his first spin in the Alias during the Shakedown Stage on May 5-6.

Though he had never driven the futuristic-looking, three-wheeled car before, Unser maneuvered it through the tests with ease, making it through the collision-avoidance course in one try while others needed up to 40 attempts.

Still, he wasn't satisfied. Being a race-car driver, he wanted to push the limits, see just what the car was capable of.

``The hardest part of the race was slowing Al down,'' Zap co-founder Gary Starr said. ``He did it the first time at 45 mph and got in line again. I'm like, 'what are you doing? You passed the test.' Well, I want to go faster.''

But Unser knows this isn't a race to a finish line. It's one to the future.

As much as his foot wants to press on that pedal, Unser is willing to gear back a little in the name of progress.

``That is what it's all about it as far as competition,'' said Unser, who'll drive the Alias again during the Knockout Stage, June 20-30. ``It's not about speed, it's about humanity and that's why I'm involved.''


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