Racing Peers Mourn The Death of ‘Big Al’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 11 2021

Chris Economaki interviews Al Unser after the 1971 Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of ABC/ESPN)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser, second member of his family’s auto racing dynasty to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” died on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 at his home in Chama, N.M., following a 17-year battle with cancer.

A fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for three decades and still the all-time leader in laps-led during the Indy 500, “Big Al” was 82. Brother Bobby Unser, a three-time Indy 500 champion, died on May 2, 2021 at age 87. The brothers had long been neighbors in Albuquerque, N.M.

“We knew this was coming. Al had been battling it (cancer) for, oh gosh, years,” said Johnny Rutherford, 83, another three-time Indy 500 champion. “He had a couple surgeries…and it finally took him. Time marches on and we’re all getting a lot older. We’re in that era, that time, when you hate to lose good friends. Al and I were close; it’s just sad to lose a good friend like that.”

Born in Albuquerque on May 29, 1939, Alfred “Al” Unser followed his three older brothers and the generation of Unser brothers before them into auto racing.

Al Unser won his first Indy 500 in 1970, two years after Bobby won his first. Al Unser became the fourth driver to repeat as an Indy 500 champ in 1971, a feat no other member of his family ever achieved. Unser added Indy victories in 1978 and 1987 to join A.J. Foyt Jr. as the race’s second four-time winner. Rick Mears became the third member of the exclusive club with his 1991 victory. Brazilian Helio Castroneves became the fourth four-timer in May 2021.

“I was really sorry to hear about Al Unser,” said Foyt, 86. “We were able to catch up in July at the four-time winners deal (photo shoot) we did at Indy and I’m glad for that. I always thought a lot of Al, even when he first came to Indy. That’s why I was happy to give him his first ride there (1965).

Al Unser and A.J. Foyt were four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500.

“He was a nice person and well-respected because he was a cool, smart race driver. Always knew what he was doing, knew how to take care of a car. He was very smart and when he was winning you had to be because racing was a lot more dangerous back then. I always had a lot of respect for Al. It’s a sad day.”

As noted by Houston resident Foyt _ aka “Super Tex” _ Unser was known for his driving patience. But he also holds the record for most laps-led in the Indy 500 around the 2.5-mile IMS oval. Leading the final lap of the 1987 race allowed him to tie Ralph DePalma’s 75-year-old record (612). Unser led 31 more laps over his final five IMS starts to push the all-time mark to 644.

Unser made 27 starts in the race, third-most in history behind only Foyt (35) and Mario Andretti (29). Unser’s final Indy 500 victory allowed him to break brother Bobby’s mark as oldest race- winner _ 47 years, 350 days.

“We have lost a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track,” said Roger Penske, IMS/INDYCAR owner who fielded Unser’s winning March/Cosworth entry in the 1987 Indy 500. “Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“From carrying on his family’s winning tradition at Pikes Peak to racing in NASCAR, sports cars, earning championships in INDYCAR and IROC and, of course, becoming just the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Al had an amazing career that spanned nearly 30 years.

“He produced two championships and three wins for our race team, including his memorable victory in the 1987 Indy 500 when he famously qualified and won with a car that was on display in a hotel lobby just a few days before. We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory that day, and he will always be a big part of our team.

“Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”

One of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports; A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears and Helio Castronevers were the only four-time winners of the 500.

Unser won three INDYCAR season championships _ 1970, 1983 and 1985 _ and eight 500-mile races. In 1978, he won INDYCAR’s “Triple Crown” of 500-mile races at Indianapolis, Pocono, Pa., and Ontario, Calif. _ a feat that remains unmatched.

The Unsers initially were known for their prowess during the famed Pikes Peak Hill Climb, with Unser’s uncle, Louis Jr., the first to race up the Colorado mountain in 1926. Louis went on to win the sprint to the top a record nine times, and the family’s win total stands at 25, including two wins by Al Unser (1964-65).

The first generation of racing Unsers had been pointed toward competing at Indianapolis, but the pursuit was abandoned when Joe, the middle of three brothers, died testing a car in Colorado in 1929. Twenty-nine years later, in 1958, Unser’s oldest brother, Jerry Jr., finally brought the family to the 500.

Third son Bobby earned his first chance at Indy in 1963, with Al following him in 1965 as part of a decorated rookie class that included fellow future winners Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock; Formula One veteran Masten Gregory and motorcycle ace Joe Leonard, who qualified on-pole at Indy in 1968.

In 1992, Unser finished third in the 500, a personal accomplishment that failed to define the event’s 76th edition. The race winner on May 24, 1992 was Unser’s son, 30-year-old Al Unser Jr., making Unser the only driver in history to have a sibling and a son win Indy. “Little Al” won his second 500 in 1994, pushing the family’s total to nine IMS victories. No other family has won more than four.

The Unsers have made a combined 73 career starts in the 500, a figure eclipsed only by the 76 starts made by the Andrettis. The Unser participation is as follows: Al (27 races), Bobby (19), Al Jr. (19), Johnny (five), Robby (two) and Jerry (one).

“In the 112 years of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Al Unser’s career stands out among the others,” said IMS President J. Douglas Boles. “His four Indianapolis 500 wins and most laps-led in the 500 solidify him as one of the greatest of all time.

“Al achieved his successes competing against many of the best our sport has ever seen, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive. In addition, his quiet and humble approach outside of the car, combined with his fierce competitive spirit and fearless talent behind the wheel, made Al a fan favorite.

“He will be remembered as one of the best to ever race at Indianapolis, and we will all miss his smile, sense of humor and his warm, approachable personality. Our thoughts and prayers are with Susan Unser, the entire Unser family and all Al’s friends and fans.”

Unser’s racing career began in 1957 in modified Roadsters, Midgets and Sprint Cars. He made his Championship dirt car debut in 1964 at Milwaukee driving for the legendary J.C. Agajanian. That was Unser’s only start that season, one that lasted only 51 laps before the engine failed.

Coincidently, it had been at Foyt’s urging that car owners began to consider Unser for the sport’s better rides. Foyt had seen how smooth Unser had driven on the nation’s dirt tracks, and he praised Unser’s quiet, easygoing and disciplined style.

Foyt gave Unser his first ride at Indy in ’65 when the car Unser had been practicing in suffered several engine problems. It was a favor Unser never forgot, as it came at a time when Foyt was defending 500 champion after winning for a second time in 1964. Foyt explained to Unser that while the No. 45 Lola/Ford entry had a problem with handling, he thought it would qualify and they could fix the handling afterward.

Unser qualified the Sheraton-Thompson Special 32nd in the 33-car field, Foyt’s mechanics fixed the car’s handling issue and he finished ninth. Foyt, who qualified on-pole, finished 15th in his Sheraton-Thompson Lola/Ford after it suffered a gearbox failure in a race won by Formula One star Jim Clark in the No. 82 Lotus Powered by Ford.

Foyt also teamed with Al in 1985 _ along with Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen _ to win IMSA’s 24 Hours of Daytona in Preston Henn’s Porsche 962. They teamed again in 1987, along with 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan, when Foyt entered his own Porsche 962.

Unser’s first full INDYCAR season was in 1967, when he finished second to Foyt in the 500. The next year started a dominant period in the sport’s history. After winning five races for car-owner Al Retzloff, Unser joined Vel’s Parnell Racing for the 1969 season, winning five additional races with ace mechanic George Bignotti at the controls. The pairing might have won more often if not for Unser breaking his leg at IMS ahead of that year’s race.

In 1970, Unser added 10 more victories, including five in a row and eight of nine in a single stretch. Over a two-season stretch he won 11 of 13 and 13 of 16 races _ 25 wins over four years.

Unser’s first Indy 500 victory was scored in the popular No. 2 Johnny Lightning Special, a P.J. Colt/Ford that led 190 of 200 laps from the pole. The margin of victory over Penske Racing’s Mark Donohue was 32.19-seconds.

“Al was the class of the field,” said Rutherford, who qualified second but finished 18th in the No. 18 Patrick Petroleum Eagle/Offenhauser.

Starting on the front row of the 1980 Indianapolis 500 were three American auto racing giants: Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford.

Unser’s second Indy win was in a similar Johnny Lightning car, but its path to victory was not as smooth. Unser started fifth and only led 103 laps, including the final 83. Pole-sitter Peter Revson finished second, 22.48-seconds behind the winner in his No. 86 McLaren/Offy.

Unser nearly became the first and only 500 driver to three-peat in 1972, when he finished second to Donohue in Team Penske’s No. 66 Sunoco McLaren/Offy.

In 1978, Unser drove for Texan Jim Hall’s Midland-based Chaparral team in what was considered a second-tier ride. However, Big Al was competitive throughout the race in Hall’s No. 2 1st National City Travelers Checks Lola/Cosworth, dueling with Danny Ongais until Ongais’ No. 25 Interscope Racing Parnelli/Cosworth retired with engine failure after starting second.

Ongais’ exit after 145 laps handed Unser a commanding 35-second lead. Unser might have finished with that margin but, in a rare miscue, he struck a tire during his final pit stop. Pole-sitter Tom Sneva tried to capitalize in the No. 1 Norton Spirit Penske/Cosworth, but fell 8.09-seconds short.

Unser qualified third at IMS in 1979 driving Hall’s No. 2 Pennzoil Chaparral/Cosworth, the car that brought F1-based “ground effects” to IMS. But Unser finished 22nd at Indy when the car’s transmission failed after 104 laps. Unser won the season-finale at Phoenix, then quit Hall’s team over a philosophical difference.

“That’s the best thing that ever happened to me, or one of them _ for Al and Jim Hall to have a falling out, or a difference of opinion,” Rutherford said in an interview from Fort Worth with RacinToday.com. Rutherford was looking for a fulltime ride for 1980 following McLaren’s decision to exit INDYCAR and concentrate its efforts on Formula One.

“Al wanted certain crewmen to work on the car and Jim Hall did not want that,” Rutherford said. “So it came down to Al telling Jim if he couldn’t do it his way, he was gone. And about the same period of time, Tyler Alexander, my crew chief at McLaren, called Jim and discussed the possibility of hiring me.

“I went to Midland and sat down with Jim at the shop and we put it all together. Fortunately, Jim hired (mechanic) Steve Roby, who was with me at McLaren, and a really smart guy. He fell right in line with the ground effects car and did some great work on it. We got the thing where I liked it…and it all worked.”

Rutherford qualified on-pole for the 1980 Indy 500 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparral/Cosworth _ the famed “Yellow Submarine” _ en route to his third IMS victory. Unser started ninth and finished 27th in the No. 5 Longhorn Racing Cosworth that exited the race with a dropped cylinder after 33 laps. 

Rutherford went on to win the 1980 Championship Auto Racing Teams and U.S. Auto Club championships in the bright yellow car Unser had vacated.

Unser and Sneva locked into a memorable battle in the 1983 Indy 500 _ and this one included Al Jr. in his first IMS race. Unser had his son “protecting” him from the charging Sneva, who eventually worked past both to take his only Indy win in the No. 5 Texaco Star March/Cosworth. After the race, USAC penalized Al Jr. two laps for interference.

“My father taught me everything I know about racing,” Unser Jr. declared in the days leading into that race. “He just never taught me everything he knows.”

Mario Andretti chats with Al Unser Jr. and Al Unser Sr. at Indy.

The Speedway’s first father/son pairing was a preview of coming on-track attractions. In 1985, the Unsers battled each other to the CART season-finale, with “Big Al” passing Roberto Moreno for fourth place in the closing laps on Miami’s Tamiami Park road-course to beat his son for the title by a single point.

The elder Unser fought back tears describing the “empty feeling” of having to beat Al Jr. for the championship.

Al Unser won three races for Penske Racing, although the last one wasn’t scheduled. In May 1987 the team needed a replacement for Ongais, who suffered a concussion in a first-week crash in Turn 4 during practice. Unser _ unemployed but still in Indianapolis to help his son’s struggling March/Cosworth _ was upset with Roger Penske for releasing him at the end of the 1986 season. But Unser knew “The Captain’s” one-off offer at IMS was too good to decline.

Unser signed on with the condition that he would receive a new Cosworth engine to go with the year-old No. 25 March chassis _ a “show car” which had been retrieved from a hotel lobby near the team’s headquarters in Reading, Pa. On the second weekend of qualifying, Unser earned the 20th starting position in the Cummins/Holset Turbo entry, his second-lowest effort since becoming an Indy 500 winner.

Andretti dominated the race, leading 170 of the first 178 laps _ even lapping Unser _ who couldn’t believe he had been driving so slowly. “After that, I stood up in that car and started driving it like I should have to start with,” Unser said.

When Andretti’s pole-winning No. 5 Hanna Auto Wash Lola/Chevrolet Indy suddenly slowed with ignition issues, Roberto Guerrero assumed the lead in his No. 4 True Value/STP March/Cosworth. But Guerrero still had to pit one more time, and he had been nursing a failing clutch. Guerrero had trouble getting the car to leave its pit box, and the engine stalled. As Guerrero’s crew pushed him back to re-fire the engine, Unser sailed past on the front straightaway. Eighteen laps later, victory at IMS was his for a record-tying fourth time.

“Everybody said, ‘I can’t believe he won the race,’^” Unser said. “I said, ‘I can’t, either!’^”

In 1991, Foyt tapped Unser to replace him at Phoenix in the No. 14 Lola/Chevrolet after Foyt broke his shoulder in practice.

In 1992 at IMS, Unser replaced injured Formula One World Driving Champion Nelson Piquet at Team Menard. Unser finished third in the No. 27 Menard-Conseco Lola/Buick to give John Menard’s organization and the “stock-block” Buick V-6 engine program their best 500 finishes.

Unser drove for eight different teams in the late stages of his career between 1987 and 1994, finally deciding to retire on May 17, 1994 when he couldn’t get the underfunded car he was driving at IMS up to speed. Fittingly, Al Jr. won the race 12 days later from pole in the “stock block” No. 31 Marlboro Penske/Mercedes-Benz on his father’s 55th birthday.

Unser finished with 39 INDYCAR wins, sixth on the all-time list. He also won the prestigious Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds four consecutive years (1970-73).

“Al was one of the smartest drivers I ever raced against,” Andretti said. “I often said that I wished I could have had some of his patience.”

Unser illustrated his versatility by finishing fourth in NASCAR’s 1968 Daytona 500, one of his five Cup Series races. He also finished fourth in a Cup road-race in Riverside, Calif. He was USAC’s Stock Car Rookie of the Year in 1967 and won the International Race of Champions title in 1978.

Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. His collection of trophies and cars is housed at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.

Rutherford said that, unfortunately, he and Unser did not cross paths during the 105th running of the Indy 500 in May. The race’s official program cover featured artwork designed by Rutherford honoring four-time winners Foyt, Unser and Mears.

An accomplished artist, Rutherford used a pencil method to draw the cars of the race’s winningest drivers _ who all shared an anniversary in 2021 _ including the No. 1 Johnny Lightning P.J. Colt/Ford Special in which Big Al earned his second Indy win 50 years ago.

“Gosh, the memories,” Rutherford said. “There’ll be a lot of things come up over Al Unser’s passing _ memories we shared and good times.”

Unser is survived by his wife, Susan, and son, Al Jr. He was preceded in death by daughters Mary and Deborah.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 11 2021
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