Al Unser – Indy 500 legend, Indy car ace

Fifty years on from the first of Al Unser’s record-matching four Indianapolis 500 triumphs, David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to one of his heroes.

Al Unser – Indy 500 legend, Indy car ace

No Indy 500 fan needs telling that last week was a weird one. For the media folks – who are merely Indy fans paid to write about it – it was very different too. Among the many pleasures of two-and-a-half weeks spent largely in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center, pitlane, garages, paddock or motorhome lot, is the chance to wear the latest Robin Miller/Steve Shunck-commissioned sweatshirts bearing ‘anniversary’ cartoons by the great Roger Warrick.

One of this year’s ones (available here) celebrates 50 years since the first Indy 500 victory by the great Al Unser. It depicts Al, his gorgeous Colt-Ford ‘Johnny Lightning Special’, team co-owner Parnelli Jones and legendary crew chief George Bignotti, who died in 2013.

Seven times an engineer of the Indy 500-winning car, ‘Big Nutz’ was renowned for regarding things in black and white – his way and the wrong way – and in retrospect it’s a surprise that he and AJ Foyt lasted six years together. Mind you, success is a super salve for wounded feelings, and together from 1960-’65, they scored three championships and 27 wins, including two Indy 500s.

After Bignotti ran Formula 1 ace Graham Hill to victory in the ’66 Indy 500 for the Mecom Racing team, he needed a Foyt-replacement full-timer who was mechanically empathetic, listened to advice and had the talent to follow that advice. Unser, who had made his Indy 500 debut in Foyt’s backup Sheraton Thompson Lola in ’65, fit all those criteria and was duly hired by the Mecom team under the banner of financial backer Al Retzloff.

Unser's Indy 500 debut came at the wheel of A.J. Foyt's back-up Sheraton-Thompson Lola. After qualifying 32nd, Al came through to finish ninth.

Unser's Indy 500 debut came at the wheel of A.J. Foyt's back-up Sheraton-Thompson Lola. After qualifying 32nd, Al came through to finish ninth.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“I would say it took Al about a year to really get in the groove,” the late Bignotti said of the young Albuquerque, NM ace, “but once he started winning… Boy! It was like he was winning everything. He was a very smooth driver. You didn’t see him thrashing the car when he was going flat-out. He came through the field until suddenly, when you looked up from your lap chart, he was there in the lead!”

Bignotti was right, Bobby Unser’s little brother would score nine runner-up finishes before finally breaking through to Victory Lane in 1968 with five straight wins spread between Nazareth, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Langhorne.

However, Al had already been made aware that success at Indy, the amphitheater that had claimed the life of his brother Jerry in ’59, was everything.

“In ’67, I finished second behind Foyt,” he recalled, “yet the next day, someone asked me where I had finished. I was amazed! That taught me there’s only one place, and that’s number one.”

Reflecting on his early experiences at the Speedway, Unser admitted he “got goosebumps on the grid” in his 1965 debut.

“It was a feeling of success just to be there already,” he explained. “First, you have to get the opportunity to go; then you have to pass the rookie test; then you have to qualify. Each is a very big stepping stone. There are many drivers who never got the chance to go, many who never pass the rookie test, many who never qualify.

“You might think you have the ability, but you don’t really know until you’ve done it. But once I had made it to the race that first year, then I wanted to finish it, which I was able to do. Then I wanted to finish the race well up. Then, of course, you always want to win it. And by then you’ve got that sensation of, ‘Gee, I’ve really done something.’ To compete against your idols and then finally beat them is a sensation that is unbelievable.”

Before that, however, he had to suffer the mortifying experience of missing a prime chance of success. Retzloff had gotten out of racing in ’68 and his assets – including Unser and Bignotti – had been bought up by Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, run by Vel Miletich and 1963 Indy winning driver Parnelli Jones. The following May, Al was fast in a Bignotti-modified all-wheel-drive Lola T150 throughout practice but during a rainout, he fell off his motorcycle in the IMS infield, broke his leg and had to miss the race.

Unser would be out for six weeks, but was then anxious to make amends for his gaffe. A win at the Milwaukee Mile in the turbocharged car was swiftly followed by two victories in the dirt car, another in the normally aspirated Lola and a further triumph in the turbo version at Phoenix. Remarkably, therefore, despite missing three rounds, Unser finished second in the USAC championship.

Carrying that momentum into 1970, Unser won the season-opener at Phoenix while the car for Indy was so heavily re-engineered by Bignotti and rebodied by ace aerodynamicist Joe Fukashima, that it warranted a new name – the Colt 70. Sponsorship from Topper Toys, who were attempting to steal a marketing march on Mattel’s Hot Wheels series, rendered the Colt-Ford the ‘Johnny Lightning Special’. A legend was born.

190 of the 200 laps in 1970 were led by the handsome VPJ Colt.

190 of the 200 laps in 1970 were led by the handsome VPJ Colt.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Unser took pole but only by 0.003sec, after a particularly brave effort from Johnny Rutherford in an Eagle. Bignotti remembered Unser’s P1 effort as a result of he and his driver being on exactly the same wavelength.

“In 1970, there had been no rain for the month of May so far, so the track was real greasy by the time we got to Pole Day,” said Bignotti. “I’d been listening to the on-track commentary and I’d hear a driver say things like, ‘My car had so much push I don’t know how I was getting through the corners’, and each time I heard this I would adjust our suspension some more.

“Eventually, it came to Al’s turn, and I said to him, ‘Be careful of it getting loose on that first lap, the second and third laps should be fine, and then on the fourth it’s going to be understeering like crazy.’ He listened, acted upon what I had said, and put it on pole.”

If qualifying was close, no-one else was truly in the running on race day, and Unser led 190 of the 200 laps, matching Jimmy Clark’s effort in the Lotus from five years earlier.

“You never know you will win Indy,” he reflected more than 30 years later. “There isn’t a driver who can ever say that. But even before practice started we knew if we did everything right, we had a very good chance of running up at the front. But we didn’t know we could lead the amount of laps we did.”

Unser went on to win the 1970 championship, five triumphs in the Colt being backed up by five more in the King dirt car. As is the way in racing, however, the opposition spent the off-season whittling away the VPJ team’s advantage, and when McLaren came forth with a striking new development of its M16s, Unser, Bignotti and co. were suddenly on the back foot.

Johnny Lightning struck twice, with the ’71 triumph over the McLarens owing as much to slicker pit work and strategy as to speed.

Johnny Lightning struck twice, with the ’71 triumph over the McLarens owing as much to slicker pit work and strategy as to speed.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“McLaren should’ve beaten us,” says Unser of Memorial Day in 1971. “They had a 10-times better car, because their interpretation of the rules produced a huge rear wing and lots of downforce.”

Qualifying revealed all: Peter Revson’s works McLaren took pole at 178.69mph, Donohue’s Penske-run McLaren was second; Unser lined up fifth in the reworked Colt 71, unable to break the 175mph barrier. Consequently, Unser draws far greater gratification from his second consecutive triumph at the Speedway. Donohue pulled away from everyone until quarter-distance, when his transmission failed, and that should have left Revson with an easy win. Instead, he didn’t even lead a lap.

“We led over half the race that year,” Unser chuckles. “Revson and the McLaren team just didn’t know what they were doing. They lost that race on sheer inexperience. It was a more satisfying win than the year before, because in ’70 we knew we could do it, which created pressure, but a different sort. In ’71, we knew we’d have to work incredibly hard and make everything count for us. That was a hard, hard day with the right result.”

Unser is still one of only five drivers (Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich and Helio Castroneves) who have won the Indy 500 in consecutive years.

Unser is still one of only five drivers (Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich and Helio Castroneves) who have won the Indy 500 in consecutive years.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Following another triumph at Milwaukee the following week, Unser’s year would dwindle away with a spate of DNFs and he’d finish only fourth in the championship. The following year, Miletich and Jones would run three cars for Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard and hired Lotus 72 designer Maurice Phillippe to pen the new car. Bignotti’s influence on the team’s output was further reduced when it was decided that engine tuning would be the job of an outside company.

“That’s when the nightmare started, when that ‘creation’ happened,” recalled Unser of Phillippe’s strange device that bore two 45deg wings mounted halfway between the rear axle and cockpit. “I knew that dihedral wing car wouldn’t work. I finished second at Indy in ’72, but if it had been the car it should have been, I might have given [winner] Donohue a decent run.

“There was Joe, Mario and myself and we were working for Parnelli, so it was being called ‘The Super Team’ and so on. Well let me tell you, there was nothing super about it.”

Bignotti, feeling marginalized despite helping Leonard win the ’72 USAC title, left at season’s end, but although he was annoyed at the time – and in retrospect, actually! – admitted he had enjoyed his working relationship with Unser.

“Al would never complain about the car,” he said. “He wasn’t the sort of guy to come into the pits and say, ‘Change these springs, do this, do that,’ which is good, because those sorts of things don’t go over too well! He would just tell me precisely what the car was doing, and I knew exactly what to do from what he was telling me about how the car felt. Then he’d go out and set his fastest lap.”

Unser stayed aboard the Super Team, and but a solitary win in ’73 would help persuade VPJ to switch to customer Eagles in ’74 and ’75. However, Al was never convinced that he had the exact same spec car as his brother Bobby had in the works Eagle team, and he added only more win in two years.

So he was more than happy to learn that VPJ was switching back to creating its own designs, especially when a youthful John Barnard – hot off some fine updates to the McLaren M16 – helped to ensure VPJ-6B was a winner. Over the next two years, Unser suddenly looked a force again at Indy (although third place was the best result), while elsewhere he racked up a total of four victories, eventually clocking fourth and second in the championship in consecutive years. For Unser, however, the relationship had run its course.

“Vel and Parnelli started doing things I didn’t like, so I quit,” he explained somewhat vaguely. “Parnelli and I are still good friends, and he was a great car owner, but at the time, I was tired of it. I had to move.”

Not a great car, but in 1978 the Lola T500 won all three 500-mile races with Al at the wheel.

Not a great car, but in 1978 the Lola T500 won all three 500-mile races with Al at the wheel.

Photo by: Ford Motor Company

Unser joined Jim Hall’s Chaparral squad for ’78 and was at his finest at Indy, despite a slight pitlane error when he bent his Lola’s front wing against a tire on his final stop.

“Actually, I didn’t know I’d hit it till later; it didn’t affect the handling at all!” he laughed. “Sometimes, when it’s your day, it’s your day. Earlier in the race, I don’t know whether I gained the speed or my rivals lost it, but all those cars just backed up to me.”

It was the first of three superspeedway wins for Unser that year, giving him the still unique Triple Crown of 500-mile Indy car races in one year – Indy, Michigan and Pocono. Elsewhere, however, the appropriately named Lola T500 was one he found very disappointing.

“It wasn’t too reliable, for one thing, and to get results you need to be there at the finish,” explained Unser. “But I also felt it didn’t handle well off of tighter turns on short ovals. I could have it so it was uncomfortable to drive and fast, but… it didn’t feel like that came natural. It’s difficult to explain, but you can tell a car has a basic handling issue when it burns off tires too quick whatever the track – except the superspeedways. The other reason it worked in those 500 milers is because the race was long enough for us to work on it and improve it each time we hit pitlane.”

That summer, Unser and other ex-VPJ guys such as ace chief mechanic Hughie Absalom persuaded Hall that he needed to hire Barnard if the team were to quit running customer cars and return to Chaparral’s tenet of progress through innovation. Barnard’s beautiful Pennzoil-sponsored ground-effect 2K was the result, and Unser caned everyone on its race debut at Indy in ’79 until an oil leak caused the transmission to seize at half distance. Throughout the year the car’s huge potential went unrealized until finally at the season finale in Phoenix the ‘Yellow Submarine’ earned its first victory.

And Unser departed. His relationship with Hall had deteriorated and, being a fan of Barnard, he hadn’t liked the way the young Englishman’s ingenuity on the 2K had been downplayed. With not only Barnard but also engine expert Franz Weiss heading for the exit, Al didn’t like the way things appeared to be heading…

To this day he insists he has no regrets about departing the team at the ‘wrong’ time; he’s a man of principle. But the fact is that he handed the keys to the best car in the paddock to a grateful Rutherford, who would win Indy and the CART Indy car title in 1980. Al, meanwhile, endured three fruitless and frustrating – albeit, personally happy – years with the new Longhorn team, helping owner, Texan oilman Bobby Hillin, chase his brave albeit brief dream of Indy car success.

Several times Unser looked on the cusp of winning, only for it to end in disappointment. Once this project folded at the end of ’82, Unser departed for Penske, and, as an underrated road racer, he triumphed at Cleveland and won that year’s championship by consistency – nine top-five finishes including four runner-up spots. While 1984 was a washout by contrast, teammate Rick Mears’ dreadful ankle-pulping shunt at Sanair persuaded Roger Penske to retain Unser for ’85. Remarkably, Unser won the title again but, now in his mid-40s, Al was aware it was time to throttle back to a part-time gig, especially now that Mears was back to full strength in ’86. At year’s end, Unser’s driving career appeared to be over, aside from some Indy-only opportunities.

Unser (almost completely) avoided the spinning Josele Garza at the start in ’87.

Unser (almost completely) avoided the spinning Josele Garza at the start in ’87.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

The one he didn’t expect came from Penske the following May. Already alarmed that for the second straight year his design team had created a dud, forcing yet another switch back to customer March chassis, Roger Penske had a further hurdle to overcome when, during Indy 500 practice in a third team entry, Danny Ongais put himself into the wall and into the hospital for the rest of the month. Full-timers Mears and ’85 Indy winner Danny Sullivan would qualify their Chevrolet-powered Marches in third and 16th, but to replace Ongais’ smashed machine, Penske would famously drag an exhibition car from a hotel lobby in Reading, PA, and fit it with a Cosworth DFX. The Captain called up Al to pedal it and he jumped at the chance – “Whenever you race for Penske, you know the car he gives you is the very best he can offer.” But having qualified 20th, it was nearly all over at the start, however.

“Josele Garza spun in Turn 1 and almost put me in the wall!” said Unser. “That’s always the problem with starting back there, and over the years I’d tried to avoid that by qualifying at the front, among the quick and experienced guys that you can trust. Garza’s car actually touched mine, and I said to myself, ‘Man, it’s gonna be one of those days.’

“So I took it easy. Too easy. I let Mario Andretti lap me after about 20 laps. And that’s when I got really pissed off and went after him. There’s no way I could have beaten him that day. He had us covered – had the whole field covered – but he never lapped me the rest of the race.”

But with just 20 laps to go, having led for 170, Andretti dropped out when his engine blew.

“That left me and Roberto Guerrero going at it for the win,” said Al. “Roger had been on my radio since Mears had gone out, so I knew I was running good enough. Roger tells you who’s around you, what you’re doing, what others are doing – actually, he never shuts up.

“Anyway, it was very even between me and Guerrero: if I was ahead of him, I could stay ahead; if I was behind, I couldn’t pass. Then Roger made a decision to make our final pitstop early to put pressure on Guerrero, and that’s exactly how it worked. He messed up in the pits.”

And there it was, win number four.

And there it was, win number four.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

At 47 years and 360 days, Al became the oldest-ever winner of the world’s most prestigious race and equaled Foyt’s record of four Indy 500 wins. For the next two years, he would qualify a Penske on the front row; he would also coax a Lola-Buick to finish third in ’92, the year his son Al Jr. finally won the 500, and the 54-year-old even led the race a couple of times in King Racing’s Lola-Chevy in 1993. But the decision to retire altogether was swift the following year.

“I found myself standing on the pitwall watching my son qualify and suddenly realized I was too interested in how he was doing,” says ‘Big’ Al. “People who lack the ability to give 100 per cent don’t win. So I quit.”

And he did so as an Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy car racing legend. More than a quarter-century later, Unser still lies fifth in U.S. open-wheel’s race-winner list (39) and tenth in the pole-winner list (27). Meanwhile at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as his record-matching four triumphs, an accolade shared with Foyt and Mears, Unser holds the record for most laps led at IMS (644), is fifth for most races led (11), holds the record for longest gap between first and last wins (1970 and ’87) and retains the record for oldest winner.

Unser once told me he’d trade all three of his series titles – 1970, ’83 ’85 – to have another Indy 500 victory. Given that, along with his four IMS triumphs, he scored seven other top-three finishes at the Speedway and suffered a heartbreaking DNF in 1979 while dominating, it would be easy to make a case for him being worthy of a fifth 500 win. Then you consider that Mario Andretti scored only one, while others such as Rex Mays, Ted Horn, and Michael Andretti scored none, and maybe Al’s record should satisfy him.

Unser, now 81, remains a quiet man, shy and genuinely introverted – “I wasn’t paid to sell myself. I was paid to perform” – but one who had to reluctantly accept that his ability and results rendered him a superstar. Half a century on from his first Indy 500 triumph, it’s only right to re-train the spotlight back on him and salute one of the true greats.

The three four-time Indy 500 winners Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, pose with the Borg-Warner Trophy and the 1911 Marmon Wasp of 500's first-ever winner, Ray Harroun.

The three four-time Indy 500 winners Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, pose with the Borg-Warner Trophy and the 1911 Marmon Wasp of 500's first-ever winner, Ray Harroun.

Photo by: Dana Garrett - IRL

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