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Unser to receive ‘Baby Borg’ celebrating 1970 Indy 500 win

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Unser to receive ‘Baby Borg’ celebrating 1970 Indy 500 win
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May 29, 2020, 11:55 PM

Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser is to receive a miniature Borg-Warner Trophy 50 years after his first victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Unser dominated the 1970 event in the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Colt-Ford, the Albuquerque, NM native leading 190 of the 200 laps in the George Bignotti-engineered machine in his fifth 500 start. Unser’s previous best result had been runner-up in 1967 behind A.J. Foyt.

Read Al Unser at Indy 500 tribute here

First seen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1936, the legendary Borg-Warner Trophy stands 5ft 4.75in tall, weighs 110lbs and carries the bas-relief sterling silver faces of all Indy winners since the race was first held in 1911. From 1936 to 1987, winners were given an ornate wood plaque, 20 inches tall and 10 inches wide, incorporating the facade of the Borg-Warner Trophy. Then the Baby Borg was introduced in 1988 at the suggestion of that year’s Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears. It is an 18-inch high replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy and is also made of sterling silver, but is set on a marble base with a trapezoidal silver plaque for the winning driver's image, name and race information. The bas-relief image is from the same mold and therefore identical to the image on the full-sized trophy.

Parnelli Jones with his Baby Borg in 2013

Parnelli Jones with his Baby Borg in 2013

Photo by: BorgWarner

Mario Andretti receives his Baby Borg from president and CEO of BorgWarner, Frederic Lissalde.

Mario Andretti receives his Baby Borg from president and CEO of BorgWarner, Frederic Lissalde.

Photo by: BorgWarner

A.J. Foyt has a winning team-owner’s Baby Borg from his win in 1999 with Kenny Brack, while Bobby Unser has a Baby Borg he received in 2003. But the retro Baby Borgs commemorating the 50th anniversary of Indianapolis 500 wins began in 2013. That January, Parnelli Jones (above left) was presented with his Baby Borg by reigning 500 winner Dario Franchitti during the North American International Auto Show. Last year, on the morning of the Indy 500, Mario Andretti accepted his retro Baby Borg for his 1969 victory from BorgWarner president and CEO Frederic Lissalde as part of the pre-race ceremony, before a worldwide audience on NBC (above right).

Originally BorgWarner planned to present Unser’s Baby Borg to him in April at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque, but the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed this plan back to summer.

Unser, who scored his four Indy wins for three different teams – Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing (twice), Chaparral and Team Penske – told Motorsport.com: “It’s nice having the wooden plaques for the wins, but this is gonna shine a lot nicer!

“It’s a real honor and I’m very grateful that the people at BorgWarner are doing these Baby Borgs in retrospect, long after the wins. They mark the most important days in a race driver’s career.”

Today (Friday) marks Unser’s 81st birthday, while tomorrow (May 30) marks 50 years to the day since his first Indy victory.

Michelle Collins, BorgWarner’s director of marketing and public relations, The Americas, told Motorsport.com: “This is something we’re very proud of, and BorgWarner wants to keep the tradition, connect the past with the present, and take the opportunity to honor the drivers who won the race before these smaller versions of the trophy were introduced.

“We first presented Parnelli Jones with a retro Baby Borg in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his win, then last year we gave Mario Andretti one to commemorate his ’69 win, and now of course it’s Al Unser’s turn. It’s a real privilege to respect the tradition of the race and BorgWarner’s association with it. We enjoy it, and we consider it a responsibility, as keepers of the Trophy.

“It’s also really an honor for me to be able to call these drivers when it comes up to their anniversary and let them know that BorgWarner wants to do this for them. Like I say, we consider it a responsibility but the drivers are very emotional about it, very thankful for it, and it gets you a little bit choked up when you give them a call and hear their reaction.”

William Behrends shapes Al Unser's image for his Baby Borg.

William Behrends shapes Al Unser's image for his Baby Borg.

Photo by: BorgWarner

Sculptor William Behrends, who has produced all the Borg-Warner Trophy’s faces since 1990 but also the retro visages Jones and Andretti, sculpted Al Unser’s sterling silver likeness using photos taken during the month of May in 1970, in order to craft an authentic period likeness of him. Behrends admitted that there is a difference between bringing the most recent winner in to his studio, compared with producing a sculpture almost a half a century on.

“One thing I notice is that Al has aged remarkably well,” he said, “but I found the best photographs I could from the period. I looked at the image that’s on the Borg-Warner Trophy, and it’s a different style than mine. The technique of how these images are created has not changed; the creative part is where the differences lie.

“Being able to capture the driver the day after the race and do a series of photos specifically for this purpose, getting uniform lighting to show him from all different angles, is really an asset to me. And then also being able to talk to the drivers if they’re doing a sitting in my studio – that’s the best of all worlds for me, and really does help a lot.

“Doing it the way I’ve done for the retro Baby Borgs is longer, more painstaking, but the goal is still the same – I’m still looking for that same degree of likeness and character.”

Behrends, who has also sculpted statues and busts ranging from Willie Mays to Ben Hogan to Spiro T. Agnew, added: “Al deserves to be remembered. He’s one of the greats.”

Unser on 1970 (and ’71)

 

Photo by: IMS Photos

Unser, who holds the record for most laps led at Indy (644), retains clear recollections of his championship-winning 1970 season, in which the 500 was one of 10 victories. He also believes the Bignotti-modified VPJ Lola T150 (which was the foundation of the Colt 70) had been a winning prospect in ’69, but his leg-breaking tumble from a motorcycle in the IMS infield during a qualifying rainout meant he missed out on even starting the race.

“We thought we had the car that year,” he said. “We took the four-wheel-drive system out and just ran it two-wheel-drive and it was great. Breaking my leg on the motorcycle… I wasn’t even playing around, which is what made me so sick about it!”

Five wins on his racing return that year – two in the dirt car, one in the Lola with the normally aspirated 255cu.in. Ford and two in the Lola equipped with a turbocharged 159cu.in Ford – suggested what might have been.

Then victory in the ’70 season-opener at Phoenix provided further momentum. Unser qualified second at the one-mile track, stalked early leader Mario Andretti, then passed him and led 136 of the 150 laps. Further modification to the car – more Bignotti masterpieces, beautiful aero work from Joe Fukashima – created the ‘Johnny Lightning Special’ Colt, and meant Unser arrived at Indianapolis in confident state of mind.

“When we won Phoenix, the first oval of the season before Indy, and the way we did it, meant that we had a good car and a good team,” Unser recalls. “That was a hard place to win. You had to work hard there and we were very good. Then we went to the Speedway and we sat it on the pole.

“That Colt, or Lola as it started out, just seemed to work in whatever specification we ran it – two-wheel-drive or four-wheel drive, bigger normally-aspirated engine or smaller turbocharged engine. We’d be fighting for wins and poles all season on speedways, short ovals, road courses… It was just one of those cars that are built right from the start, so each track we came to, we just needed to make little changes to the car and fine-tune it.”

And the efforts were all for Al. While Joe Leonard would sign with the VPJ team in 1971 and the pair would be joined by Mario Andretti in ’72, back in 1970 the team ran only one entry. Asked if that focus brought additional pressures – no partner with whom to pool feedback, the responsibility of steering the team’s technical direction at each venue – and Unser replies that flying solo was not a negative.

“You never think about it like that,” he replies, “or I didn’t, anyways. Whether you have a teammate or you don’t, you have to make your car work and that’s why the team and I got along so well. Bignotti and the team and myself all cooperated, fully focused on getting this car as fast as it could be. And like I said, we had a great design to start with so we could all just work on getting the details right for each track. We understood each other, and everything we did seemed to be good.

“Some people don’t understand. They think a great performance is all down to the engineer, or all down to the pitcrew or all down to the driver. No: it’s about working together great as a team. The feedback of the driver, the engineer’s understanding of that feedback and the mechanics’ ability to make the necessary changes. Everyone helps everyone else make the right decisions. Honestly, with George, Parnelli and Vel and the crew, we all worked so well together and it was all so straightforward, that you look back and wonder why you don’t get that formula right every year!”

 

Photo by: IMS Photos

By 1971, several principal rivals had caught up with VPJ, none more so than McLaren, which arrived at the Speedway with cars that had sprouted large rear wings. While slightly draggy, they provided so much downforce that drivers were able to get on full power sooner than their rivals out of the turns, compensating for extra aero resistance on the straights. So while the Colt 71 allowed Unser to run more than 4mph quicker than his pole speed from 1970, Peter Revson’s pole-winning mark in the works McLaren was a further 4mph beyond that. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing had to make the best of what it had, and Unser lined up fifth.

He remembers: “In 1970, we’d had to put a fuel tank on the side because the tub wasn’t big enough to hold the 75 gallons of fuel that we had to carry, but for ’71 we had a whole new tub, and Bignotti did some of his trick stuff that only he knew about to change the car, and got the fuel tank better situated within the car, without upsetting the handling. 

“Even so, in the race, we were no match for Mark Donohue in the Penske McLaren. He had us covered that year and went racing away from everyone, but he fell out early [gearbox let go just past quarter-distance] and suddenly it was an open deal. Honestly, Revson should have been able to beat me. There would have been no contest if he and McLaren had more experience. Our team had the experience and we made no mistakes on pitroad, and boy, I ran so hard that day – probably twice as hard as I did in ’70.”

And so Revson failed to lead even a lap, while Unser led 103 – yes, a Johnny Lightning Special sat out front for 293 of the 400 laps over the course of two Indy 500s – and became only the fourth driver in history to rack up consecutive wins in the Memorial Day classic. Unser’s Colt would win just once more, the following week at Milwaukee, but the design had fulfilled its purpose to the nth degree.

Repeat performance in 1971.

Repeat performance in 1971.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The mysteries of Indy continue

Looking back on his 29 Indy 500 starts that stretched from 1965 through 1993, and included not only four wins but also seven other top-three finishes, Unser says there has been one constant.

“The Speedway has very funny habits about it,” he says, “and that hasn’t changed over the years. I remember even when we had two weeks of practice, you’d go out one day and everything was fine and you’d be fastest, and then you’d go out next day with the same car and same settings and you’ve lost five to eight miles an hour. Where did it go?! The speeds are closer now, but the teams still have that problem relative to each other – some of them will be fastest one day, next day they’re 12thor 15th and no one knows why.

“So that’s why when you can control how things play over the Month of May and then in the race you get that checkered flag, you’ve accomplished a lot. And that’s why I still say I’d exchange my [three] championships for another Indy win. One day there’s gonna be a five-time winner – and it’s not gonna be Foyt or Mears or me because we’re a bit old now! – but it will happen. But it won’t be easy: Foyt had to wait 10 years to get number four, and I had to wait nine years.”

Because of the weird characteristics of the Speedway, Unser is therefore not ready to state who he believes will triumph in the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, currently delayed until Aug. 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He cites the IMS record of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon as a reason to not lay a bet on any one driver.

“I’m so far away from the current scene that I don’t want to pick this guy or that guy, whether it’s Helio [Castroneves, three-time winner] or whoever,” he states. “That place is funny. You can sit and try to figure it out and pick a winner each year, but you’re kidding yourself if you think you know for certain.

“Look at Dixon – he drives for one of the great teams and he’s won a lot of championships [five] and he’s running up front almost every year but the right pieces have only fallen into place for him at Indy just once.

“Like I say, that place just has its funny ways about it.”

Race winner Al Unser, Colt-Ford TC

Race winner Al Unser, Colt-Ford TC

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Event Indy 500
Drivers Al Unser Sr.
Author David Malsher-Lopez