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‘Big Al’ Unser still revved up about Indy, 50 years after 1st win

In this May 30, 1970, file photo, Al Unser Sr. is congratulated by his mother after winning the 54th running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Ind. (AP Photo/File)

No family in open-wheel racing is as revered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Albuquerque-based Unsers.

Six members have run at the fabled 2.5-mile Brickyard, with three teaming to win the Indy 500 nine times.

Standing tallest is Al Unser Sr., a four-time champion who this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first opportunity to guzzle milk in Victory Lane.

Or rather he’s trying to celebrate.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a get-together scheduled this spring at the Unser Racing Museum was postponed indefinitely in light of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s edict limiting the size of gatherings.

Even the Indy 500, which often has had gatherings of close to 300,000, was pushed back from its traditional Memorial weekend green flag to Aug. 23. And then came word Aug. 4 that track owner Roger Penske opted to nix plans that would have allowed fans at the venue.

“I do enjoy going back there,” Unser said in a recent phone interview. “I love it and I love racing still. … I’ve only missed going back once.”

But because of virus issues, wife Susan said they were unlikely to make the trip this year, especially with most prerace hoopla nixed. The race is Sunday.

These days, Al keeps busy at his spread in Chama.

“I have 100 acres to mow and maintain,” he said, “so it’s not like I just sit down and go to sleep.”

The beginning

Unser, born in Albuquerque in 1939 and the youngest of four brothers, attended Albuquerque High, played some football and later raced on nearby dirt tracks with siblings Bobby and twins Jerry and Louie.

He got his first taste of driving at Indy in 1965, following in the footsteps of Jerry and Bobby.

In one of A.J. Foyt’s rides, he qualified 32nd and finished ninth.

“I’ve known Al when he was running midgets and sprints and all that, and him and his relatives,” Foyt said in an email Friday. “… They had a Ferrari motor or something like that, and it kept blowing up and they worked hard, but there was no way he was gonna be in the race, and we had a spare car. … I told him if he wanted to try to drive it he could. And he said, ‘Yeah.’

“Just through the years of knowing him, I felt like he was a super guy.”

After Al finished 12th in ’66, he had the first of three runner-up finishes in 1967.

The next two race seasons were filled with broken dreams and broken bones.

“At Indy in 1968 I went into the Turn 1 almost head-on, with 75 gallons of fuel, jumped out and stood on the wall,” he said. “Why it didn’t catch fire I don’t know. That was one of those bad days.”

But not for Bobby, who earned the first of three Brickyard wins.

At Indy in 1969, Al had an accident that kept him out of the 500, only it didn’t occur in qualifying or practice. Or even in a car.

“I was riding a motorcycle on the infield with team owner (Parnelli Jones) and fell off and did a wheely. The kickstand went through my left leg,” he said of the injury. But he still wound up winning three races later that season.

For sure the kickstand experience didn’t deter him from riding bikes in the future. He was a regular entrant in the Colorado 500 Invitational Charity Dirt Bike Ride, directed by president Wally Dallenbach Sr., one of his close friends on the open-wheel circuit. “We would ride a lot together,” Dallenbach said. “He was a pretty serious guy, but he did have a funny bone. Back in the day we carried wine skins when we were out, but they didn’t have wine in them. It was Grand Marnier and we had a couple of sardine cans.”

High praise

Another good friend Mario Andretti, the current self-proclaimed “official cheerleader” at Andretti Motorsports, marveled at Unser’s driving style and demeanor.
“Al was a damn good race driver all the way around,” Andretti said in a phone interview. “I felt his race craft was second to none and it paid off for him handsomely.
“Another part about Al was he one of the cleanest drivers I ever raced against. Wheel to wheel, I was totally comfortable driving with him.”
But Andretti jokingly said he didn’t miss Al in the Indy field on the day of the 1969 race: “It probably was a blessing for me or maybe I wouldn’t have won.” Later, Andretti and Unser were teammates in Formula 500 racing. “He was an all-arounder,” Andretti continued. “He could win on a paved oval, dirt oval, road racing … He made very few mistakes.”

The breakthrough

The 1970 500-miler was a “storybook” experience.

By now he teamed with famed chief mechanic George Bignotti, who won seven Indy 500s in his career, along with Jones, who drove to the title in 1963.

“The easiest (Indy) race I won was that year,” Unser said. “Regardless of what decision I made that day it worked out.”

Unser started from pole and led 190 of the 200 laps. He won again in 1971, making him the fourth driver at the time to win back-to-back Indys.

“We were outclassed by Mark Donohue, Peter Revson and the McLaren cars,” said Unser, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the race. “I had to run hard all day.”

Unser won again in 1978 and then in 1987.

Al Jr. joins the mix

By 1983, Al’s son, Al Jr., had entered the fray at Indy, with national media referring to them as Little Al and Big Al. The younger Unser wound up winning Indy in 1992 and 1994, giving the family those nine Borg-Warner trophies.

Al Sr., meanwhile, was still to be reckoned with.

In May 1987, though, he arrived at the speedway without a ride after being released from his association with Penske’s race team. But since Al Jr. hadn’t yet qualified for the race, Al Sr. said he hung around longer: “I stayed to see if I could him get in the race.”

Little Al eventually qualified and Big Al got a ride too at the expense of Penske driver Danny Ongais, who got hurt in practice and was unavailable to drive in the race. Penske then offered Big Al the seat and he started in the middle of the seventh row, one ahead of Al Jr.

In a car that had a qualifying speed of almost 8 mph slower than pole sitter Mario Andretti, Al Sr. saw his hopes dim quickly.

“He had me lapped in 25 laps and that made me mad,” Unser said. “No one passed me again.”

It came down to a sprint to the finish between Al Sr. and Roberto Guerrero, but when Guerrero had trouble with his final pit stop, it gave Al Sr. the opening he needed in becoming the oldest driver to win the race in Indy 500 history, five days shy of 48.

“I wound up winning after being told I was an old has-been with no talent – even my brother (Bobby) told me to retire,” he said.” I told them to leave me alone and that I’m not going to quit till it’s right.” That wouldn’t come until seven years later.

In addition to being one of three drivers in race history to win four times, along with Foyt and Rick Mears, Unser holds the record for laps led with 644. His 4,356 career laps in the event equate to 10,890 miles, which would be more than four round trips from Albuquerque to Indianapolis.

“I got along with Indy’s racetrack,” he said. “I lived it. Some days it brings a smile and others it will frown on you. You just hoped the day is going to be yours.”

THE UNSER RACERS

Al Unser Sr., 81

The younger brother of Bobby and Jerry, and one of six members of the family to race in the Indy 500. He also is one of three drivers to win Indy four times (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987), and the oldest to win the event, at age 47. He is one of five drivers to win Indy in consecutive years.

He also is the career leader in laps led at Indy with 644 and he entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame America in 1991 and seven years later into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Bobby Unser flashes a big smile as he is feted in the Victory Circle on May 30, 1968 in Indianapolis after winning the Indianapolis 500-mile Speedway race in record time. Unser, from Albuquerque, N. Mex., had a time of 152.882 miles per hour. He won twice more. (AP Photo)

Bobby Unser, 86

Younger brother of Jerry and older brother of Al. He was the first of three family members to win at Indy, taking the checkers in 1968. He later won in 1975 and 1981, making him and Rick Mears the only drivers to win the 500-miler in three different decades. He retired the year of his final Indy victory and became a celebrated TV and radio commentator for open-wheel races and NASCAR, even winning an Emmy along with his on-air partners.

Jerry Unser, 1932-59

The oldest of the three racing brothers (born in 1932), raced once at Indy, finishing 31st in 1958 after getting caught up in a first-lap multicar crash and famously cart-wheeling over the wall in Turn 3, but suffering no injuries.

The next year he lost his life as a result of a crash at Indy on a practice lap during qualifying. He hit the fourth-turn wall and his car burst into flames. He died 15 days later.

Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., right, celebrates with car owner Roger Penske in victory circle May 29, 1994 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Al Unser Jr., 58

A West Mesa High alum, he ran first Indy in 1983 and won the race in 1992 and 1994, giving the family a record total of nine victories in the event. In 1986, at age 24, he became the youngest winner of the International Race of Champions. He won again in 1988.

Robby Unser is shown at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1999. (Jim Haines/Journal)

Robby Unser, 52

One of Bobby’s two sons and a two-time starter in the 500-miler. His best finish was fifth in 1998. He also won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb nine times.

Al Unser Jr. and his cousin Johnny Unser kid around with other drivers before the start of the qualifying in 2000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Johnny Unser, 61

Son of Jerry, he had five starts at Indy from 1996-2000. His top finish was 18th.

 


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