SIBLING RIVALRY PUSHED AL UNSER TO INDY GREATNESS INDIANAPOLIS, May 13, 1998 -- When Al Unser started racing, there was only one driver he wanted to beat. "I wanted to outrun Bobby," said Unser, the youngest of the four racing...
SIBLING RIVALRY PUSHED AL UNSER TO INDY GREATNESS
INDIANAPOLIS, May 13, 1998 -- When Al Unser started racing, there was only one driver he wanted to beat.
"I wanted to outrun Bobby," said Unser, the youngest of the four racing brothers from Albuquerque, N.M. "Bobby always was the oldest, and he set the pace and I wanted to outrun him."
Now that their careers are in the rearview mirror, Big Al can say that in the Indy 500 he outdid Bobby. But it took a record-tying fourth victory in 1987 to make that statement.
The Unsers, of course, have won more Indy 500s than any other family. Add Al Unser Jr.'s two victories, and they have combined to take nine checkered flags or 11 percent of the 81 races since 1911.
When Al Jr. joined his father in the 1983 Indy starting field, it marked the first time a father and son competed in the "500" together. But Big Al said he didn't have that same burning desire to beat his son as he did to beat his brother.
"It just wasn't the same with my son," said Al Sr., who will be honored Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of the track's Parade of Champions. Unser will drive two ceremonial laps in the Cummins Holset Turbo car that he wheeled to victory in 1987.
Growing up as a member of the Unser clan, it was difficult not to want to be a race driver. Even when he was young, there was no doubt in Big Al's mind that he was going to race.
"I wanted to be one," he said. "My Lord, when I went to school I told my teachers you can't teach me what I want to do in life. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be a race driver."
Today, Unser is the teacher. He is driving coach and consultant for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. He has taken many of the rookies at Indy around the track for the first time in a passenger car and pointed out the places where they can drive fast and places that can send them into the wall.
He has helped them through the rookie orientation tests and offered advice whenever requested. He's respected by everyone because a driver doesn't win Indy four times without having special talents. He and fellow four-time winners A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears are auto racing's equivalent to baseball's .400 hitter.
And, oddly, it was Foyt, due to become the first to receive four checkered flags, who gave Big Al a break when he was a struggling rookie in 1965. Unser, who passed his rookie test in the Arciero Brothers Special, was trying to find a way to make the race in a substandard car when Foyt offered his second car to him.
"Still today, I say, why did A.J. do that?" Unser said.
"Bignotti (chief mechanic George) was against it. He threw a fit. He was with Foyt and didn't want that car to run. I took it over. Louie, my brother, came over (as a mechanic)."
The rookie Unser proved Foyt's was correct to believe in him. He beat Foyt in the event, finishing ninth to A.J.'s 15th.
"The three of us (also brother Jerry, who was fatally injured in a 1959 practice crash at Indy) never dreamed of winning the '500' four times," Unser said. "We just wanted to go there, make the race and do well. It was not easy. There were 32 other drivers who wanted to do the same thing."
Big Al said driving for an owner who was willing to spend money was crucial because in a "nickel-and-dime" operation some small part was apt to break. Free-spending owners were hard to find, he said.
The irony of Unser's career is that five years after Bignotti was so upset about Foyt putting Big Al in the seat of the second car, he and Unser joined forces to form one of auto racing's toughest teams ever. Unser, Bignotti and the Johnny Lightning Special were the terrors of the 500-Mile Race in 1970-71. Unser Sr. won both years, setting a winning speed record of 157.735 mph the second year. He won from the pole the first year and then from fifth.
Two generations of drivers have passed through the Speedway in the ensuing quarter-century, but no one has been able to win two in a row since.
"George Bignotti knew what it takes to win, the technique," Al Sr. said. "He knew how to make it happen. I respected him and he respected me."
Will anyone win two straight again?
"All records are made to be broken," Big Al said. "It will happen. I hoped my boy would do it, but he's off in another world. Arie (Luyendyk) is capable. He's a good race car driver."
The 1971 victory was the tougher of the two "by a bunch," Unser said. Unser noted that Mark Donohue owned the race until his McLaren broke and that Peter Revson had a faster car but lacked experience. Unser outran him.
In 1978, Tom Sneva set the first qualifying record over 200 mph at 202.156, but the crafty Unser, who qualified 6 mph slower, beat him to the checkered flag by eight seconds. Unser's car was a beast on the short tracks, but in the three 500s that year (Indy, Pocono and Ontario) it performed marvelously. He became the only driver ever to win three Indy-type 500s in a single season.
"I totally hated that car, and it won me three races," he said.
In the 1980s, Big Al had consecutive finishes of 5-2-3-4, but it appeared his career with Roger Penske had wound down in 1987. To provide Unser a car on the second weekend, Penske had to pull a show car from a display in the East. Unser qualified it 20th, then incredibly he drove his usual steady pace and was in position to pull off a stunning victory at the end.
"It was a story book race," Big Al said recently. "With Danny Ongais getting hurt, Penske hired me. That was the car that with Mears everywhere he went it won. That was a golden car. With (pace setter Michael) Andretti falling out, I could handle every one else.
Unser Sr. recorded another good finish of third in 1992, but time was squeezing down on him. He ran one more time (12th in '93). But the next year he practiced a couple of days, then stepped out of his car and called it quits.
"It was tough," he said about retiring. "Before I won the last time, Bobby wanted me to retire. I said I was happy and still wanted to do it.
"I knew this time it was time. I had never given up before. I didn't care. I was more interested in other things. It is difficult to face yourself that you were no more what you were."
Big Al now has one wish -- that CART standout Little Al will return to Indy.
"God, I hope so," he said. "I hope they all come back someday." ***
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