X Prize leads Zap Alias driver Al Unser Jr. to say his best days as a driver are ahead

As a way of wrapping up my preparation to report on the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, which is now in its Knockout Round (media days tomorrow and the next day at Michigan International Speedway), I spoke on June 18 with Al Unser Jr. and Gary Starr. Unser is driving the Zap Alias in the competition’s Alternative Side-by-Side class. Starr is founder and development director of Zap Motors, of Santa Rosa California.

Here’s the transcript from our conference call:

Al Unser Jr. twice captured the Borg-Warner trophy at Indianapolis.

Baggy Paragraphs: Where are you, Al?

Al Jr.: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Baggy Paragraphs: How many wins have you had at MIS? Did you ever win the Michigan 500?

Al Jr: I did, I did. I won the Michigan 500 in 1990, I believe. We set a speed record that day for 500 miles.

Baggy Paragraphs: Was that up around 180 mph?

Al Jr.: Yeah, 189. I think it still stands. [The record appears to have toppled in 2002 at California Speedway.]

Baggy Paragraphs: I think I do remember that, and you may be right. And then, even later, when you guys were running the Hanford wing, there was a race where you just barely lost at the end and I remember you saying that you “did him” too early—whoever that was who won the race because of the slingshot stuff that was going on.

Al Jr.: Yeah, yeah, it was Scott Pruett. [1995]

Baggy Paragraphs: What about IROC?. Did you ever win an IROC race here?

Al Jr.: Ah, yep. I won an IROC race there. I don’t know what year it was, but I passed Darrell Waltrip in Three and Four on the very last lap. Or it was Rusty Wallace? One of the two, one of the two. I think it could have been Rusty. Which was an exciting finish! [Cackles.]

Baggy Paragraphs: Yeah, my point is that you’re returning to the scene of past triumphs here. In fact, this could be your third series that you win.

Al Jr.: Well, we sure hope so, you know. I mean, it’s great to be part of the X Prize competition … [Al’s cell breaks up] … and I’m driving for a great company, Zap. And the car itself, the Alias, it’s a real treat to drive, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s truly, it’s something that I would want to own for sure. They’re set to go with a [breaks up] and a lot of people can have, straightaway, in today’s market. It’s very competitively priced with other low-priced, regular cars out there.

Al Jr. stepping from his Zap Alias during X Prize Knockout Round competition June 24. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Baggy Paragraphs: Do you want to try to describe what it is like to drive and how it’s different from anything else you’ve driven?

Al Jr.: It’s easy to describe how different it is. First off, of course, it’s an electric motor. And it’s got a lot of torque to it, and it’s of course a three-wheel vehicle.

Gary Starr: I just want to add the other funny thing, Al. You always say, “Is it on? It’s so quiet.”

Al Jr.: For sure. It’s a lot of fun to drive. Let’s just put it that way. It did the avoidance test, which is like a lane change—from the right lane to the left lane, back to the right lane at 45 miles an hour—and it just breezed right through there. It handles extremely good. I was very impressed with it, you know. And it’s not only green, but it’s super green because of the electric. So it’s something that is definitely going to—that’s the way the direction of the world is going, and it needs to.

Baggy Paragraphs: So in driving competition, as you try to eke out, next week it’ll be 67 miles per gallon equivalent, is this like fuel setting four as you trying to stretch a load of fuel in an Indy car race where you’re really light on the throttle and that sort of thing?

Al Jr.: It is, in a way, because in the race car there’s fuel strategies that you have to do. We’ll be seeing what the Alias can do. We’re very confident that it’s very fuel efficient, as far as that’s concerned. It’s going to be something that the X Prize, that they convert electricity over to miles per gallon, and so we’re very confident that we’re going to exceed everything that they have for us to do. It’s going to be normal driving conditions. The way that the X Prize has it set up, you’re not going to be in an unreal world as far as being easy on the pedal. You have to get it up to speed. You have to drive it at a certain mile-per-hour for a certain amount of distance. And so, you know, yeah, you can be light on the pedal, but you can’t be so light that you cheat the testing. That’s really the great thing about the X Prize, is that it puts all the competitors in a real-world situation.

Unser Jr. makes an early track test during development of the Gallmer chassis.

Baggy Paragraphs: Have you guys done some testing so that you can predict you’ll advance to the finals?

Gary Starr:  Anything in a race, you never know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty of a race. But our testing shows our efficiency quite a bit more than you need to do.

Baggy Paragraphs: I wondered if you’d had it on a dyno.

Gary Starr: We’ve run those calculations ourselves; as Al mentioned, it’s kind of a complicated formula that converts electric miles per gallon into the equivalent gas miles per gallon. We feel we have more than enough as far as the efficiency. In fact, we’ve done some things that have made the vehicle even more agile over the last 60 days even.

Baggy Paragraphs: Al, what in general is your impression of the other cars that are involved? Have you paid much attention to your competitors?

Al Jr.: Yeah, we’ve watched them. We’ve seen what is showing up out there. They’re good cars. I think really the real difference between the Alias and my competitors is the Alias is not high-priced. It’s not exorbitant in the cost to the consumer. Ours is very, very low-priced and very competitive as far as getting it out on the street today. Like I said, it’s fun to drive. It’s very futuristic in what it looks like, and it’s low-priced. It would be something that I definitely want in my driveway very, very soon.

Baggy Paragraphs: I’ve seen the Associated Press story, but I wonder if you could tell me again how you got hooked up with Zap. I’ve seen a photo of you at the NADA [National Automobile Dealers Association] convention—a couple of years ago, I guess that was. You say a friend told you about the car in the first place. Could you just go into a bit more detail about that?

Al Jr.: Yeah. It’s a friend that I have in Albuquerque. He was looking at the cars and so on, on the Internet, and he came across the Alias in the drawing form of it, and he called me up and said, “You need to look at this car! It’s really exciting, and it’s a good-looking car!” So I went on the Internet and found Zap and just sent them an e-mail that I’d be interested in looking at the car further and so on. They responded right away to me, and we just hooked up. It was just something that seemed to be a very [unintelligible] mutual friendship and so on, and we just carried it forward from there. They invited me to be a guest of theirs at the NADA in 2008. It was easy for me to get to, you know, living in Las Vegas and I went up to San Fran and really enjoyed it. So it’s just continued from there.

Baggy Paragraphs: Gary, you must have been pleased when Al expressed that interest unsolicited.

Gary Starr: Well, what was fun is, like Al said, we met at the NADA show, and at that time we took out a little model of [the Alias], and a little show model of the frame, and he looked at the model and said, “I like the way that car looks! If you ever need a driver, let me know.” So as things progressed I called him back. I said, “Were you serious?” He goes, “Absolutely!”

With Al Jr. behnd the wheel, final preparations are made for the Zap Alias to start an EPA cycle during X Prize competition. Entries ran the Urban, City, and Highway cycles and a durability test. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Baggy Paragraphs: You mean that call was made somewhat recently here, as the X Prize neared?

Gary Starr: Yeah, this year.

Baggy Paragraphs: I’ve got to ask, on behalf of the average [magazine’s name withheld] reader, the guy’s going to say, “How can an Unser possibly mean all that stuff about going green?” What would your reaction be, Al?

Al Jr.: My reaction would be: Just look at the world today. Our addiction to the petroleum products is just outrageous, and the [unintelligible] that it’s doing to our environment is just incredible. It’s destroying the planet, and we need to get away from that. So with my knowledge in the automotive industry [breaks up], I sit back and I look and I see what’s the biggest contributors to the pollution in today’s world, and it’ the automobile that is the most polluting item out there as far as energy’s concerned with. I felt that with my family’s history and so on in the automotive industry, it would be something that I could get involved with and I could help speed things up as far as getting these cars out on the highway by endorsing a good car manufacturer. That’s basically what I’ve done and that’s what my thinking is. And I can also let you know that the Indy Racing League is the number one, doing the most effort to go green. And that’s really what the Indy 500 is all about is developing the automobile and doing things that are going to help the future generations. It was just, you know, it’s a match, a good match.

Baggy Paragraphs: Does your Uncle Bobby have anything to say about all of this? Just curious.

Al Jr.: [Cackles] I did introduce my Uncle Bobby to Gary, and I can tell you that my Uncle Bobby’s very excited about this. He loves the aspect of new and innovative ideas and so on. So, yeah, he’s very excited about it.

Gary Starr: Yeah, in fact, not only did Al introduce us to his uncle, Bobby Unser, he’s given us some tips on how to make the vehicle more energy efficient. So Al’s absolutely right: The time has come that everybody knows that energy efficiency is very important and that we need to be moving away from oil. Of course, the spill in the Gulf really highlights that. We see the day where you’re going to see electric-vehicle racing happening. It’s already happening on a small level, but we see the day that it’s going to see it on a large level.

Baggy Paragraphs: The New York Times just had a story about the electric motorcycle that ran at the Isle of Man in the TT. It was fascinating. A last serious question, and then I just have a couple of kind of joking questions. What if you don’t advance to the Finals? Is there an element, Al, of personal disrepute involved if you don’t make it?

Al Jr. brings the Alias through the MIS tri-oval. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

: Not at all, not at all. The whole thing about the X Prize competition is that you [breaks up] get out and compete with other car manufacturers and to advance our product, our car, at a competition level. Because of the X Prize, Zap and the Alias has speeded up its potential. All we’re going to do, if we don’t advance, we’re going to keep moving forward; if we do advance, we’re going to keep moving forward. Like I said earlier, this car is very competitively priced to be bought today, in today’s market. And it’s fun to drive. It’s a great little car.

Al Jr.

Gary Starr: And the other thing, Al [feedback through my phone] about racing in general is that it pushes technology. Gas car races have always pushed technology, and now we’re seeing this energy-efficient race really push technology. In fact, we actually helped three other teams in the last round, because we think that’s what it’s about. It’s about helping the technology move forward as well as competing.

Baggy Paragraphs: Gotcha. I think that’s quite evident here—Al mentioning that the Indy 500 forces the technology ahead. Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’m wondering if you guys are going to finish up here in Michigan in time to get the Alias entered in the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb.

Gary Starr: Well, it’s funny. We actually talked about that. Maybe not this year, but we actually talked that that would be a fun race to enter.

Baggy Paragraphs: My question is slightly in jest, but it turns out that I’m anticipating, I’m thinking the way you guys are.

Gary Starr: That’s right. You’re thinking right on our same lines.

Baggy Paragraphs: I think your career as a driver, Al, is finding new legs.

Al Jr.: It’s something that is way different. It’s still on a competition level, but it’s a totally different purpose and so on. This is one of those things that I can honestly say that my best days as a driver are still in front of me, they’re not behind me. I’ve had some really great days, winning the Indy 500 a couple of times, the IROC championship—all the races that I’ve won. But this is bringing something that can help generations and generations in the future, and it can start immediately. That’s what I truly love about the X Prize.

Baggy Paragraphs: Interesting. I never knew there was that side to you. I’ve never been close enough in the media to really know you, so it’s mostly through TV, you know, and I didn’t realize you had that yearning or, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but that intent interest in advanced technology and social causes tied into it. So that’s kind of interesting to hear.

Al Jr.: I’ve always had it, Ron. When I was driving Indy cars and coming up, it was a time that car builders built their own cars. Roger Penske built his own car. Dan Gurney built his own car. And that’s what I Ioved about coming up in Indy car racing especially: you got to develop your own cars. [End of tape and nearly of the conversation, too, but he also mentions Gallmer racing cars and then says he “loves developing the automobile.”]

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