A legend of American sport will visit New Zealand next month.

Al Unser jnr was born into American racing royalty and established himself as one of the greatest IndyCar drivers of all-time during a career that lasted through the 1980s, 90s and into the 2000s.

He retired from fulltime racing in 2004 after a stellar career. While he visited a number of countries during his driving career he never made it to New Zealand which was why he was so quick to take up an offer to come to the Leadfoot Festival at Rod Millen's estate in Hahei.

"This will be the first time I will be down in New Zealand so I am super excited about that," said the 54-year-old.


"I can't thank Rod Millen enough for inviting me down.

"When he was talking to me about it I asked him for a really good race car to drive. So he called me back a few weeks later and told me he had a 1915 Stutz Indycar and I am very excited about driving an old Indycar like that - it is going to be super special.

"All I have heard is that it is one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand and from what I've heard about New Zealand all of it is beautiful - so if we are going to the most beautiful part then that is fantastic.

"I will spend about a week down there - I will come down a little early to acclimatise myself and take in some of the scenery."

Unser has known Millen a long time and they have had plenty in common over the years.

"Rod is a very special person as far as who he is and the success that he has had in the States. He is very well respected.

"Our connection is the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, in which Rod went up there and set records which is pretty much where the Unser family started. We have a long heritage there and when Rod came up he out-ran us and did a fantastic job.

"He is one of those all-round race drivers that competes in a lot of different things and we respect that."

The Unsers are racing royalty in the United States. Al Unser snr is one of just three men to have won the Indianapolis 500 four times. He also won three open wheel championships through a storied career. His elder brothers, Jerry and Bobby Unser, (Al jnr's uncles) were renowned drivers - Bobby won the Indy 500 as well. While Al jnr's cousins, Johnny and Robby, were successful racers as well.

When the Indy 500 rolls around that is the only time I feel in my tummy that I wish I was in that event.


"I was born into it and so I was racing go-karts at a very young age and I never really thought about doing anything else," Unser explains.

"I wanted to be successful at the Indianapolis 500 and so all of my racing was geared towards that.

"With my dad's success at Indy and my uncle Bobby it was only natural that I would come into it. Eventually - it took us a while - but we had some success there too."

Early in his career Al jnr raced alongside his father, who was still at the top of his game.

"It was really special. My dad taught me everything I know about racing. Having him there at the races in my first few years of racing really helped me. There was somebody that I could go to and I could explain what my car was doing and he could help me make it better.

"Having him there was a real big advantage for me."

After more than two decades competing at the highest level Unser retired from the sport although he still takes a keen interest.

Having competed during the golden era of open wheel racing in the US, Unser was racing during the ugly civil war that really hurt the sport in the late 1990s but he thinks the future is looking brighter these days.

"It is in good shape. It has been in better shape. In that golden era in the 1980s and 90s - it was special to be part of that. They really had their struggles when there was the split between the owners and Indianapolis in the late 1990s and that really hurt single seat racing in America. They are starting to come back from that - it is taking a lot longer than we thought it would.

"The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 last year was a very special event - it was completely full with spectators. When you get 400,000 people at one event on one single day it is extremely special."

Unser has special praise for IndyCar star Scott Dixon.

The New Zealander is quite clearly the driver of his generation and sits behind only AJ Foyt (67), Mario Andretti (52) and Michael Andretti (42) with 40 career victories.

In the past couple of seasons Dixon has jumped Al Unser snr, Bobby Unser and Al Unser jnr himself.

Unser jnr says Dixon belongs in that elite company.

"It is a true reflection - Scott Dixon is one of the best all-time in the world. I really love how he drives - he is always thinking. He drives hard when he needs to drive hard and he's easy on the equipment when he needs to be.

"It is all about winning the race and that is the ultimate goal and Scott seems to be able to do that in whatever conditions there might be - a short oval, superspeedway, a street course or a permanent road course - he really adapts to the situation at the time as well as anyone in the world."

Unser identifies the 36-year-old Kiwi, who has four IndyCar titles to his name, as the best driver of the new millennium.

"Whether it is down at Daytona 24 Hours, which he has won, or in IndyCars that makes an all-round race car driver and he is one of the best in the world."

Unser says there is only one day each year where he really misses the thrill of competing and that is the famous Sunday each year at the Brickyard. "Quite honestly when the Indy 500 rolls around that is the only time I feel in my tummy that I wish I was in that event. It is the only time I miss it. All the other races - no - I am an avid fan and I watch it on television and I attend some races but I enjoy that.

"I enjoy what we are doing now, which is going to these special events like Rod Millen's Leadfoot Festival."