The Racing Capital
of the World
July 07, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Tony Kanaan is attempting to become the second Triple Crown winner in IndyCar history. The only driver to accomplish that feat would gladly welcome Kanaan to a very exclusive club.
Al Unser was the only driver to achieve that feat when he won the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono 500 and the Ontario 500 in 1978 when Ontario Motor Speedway was in existence. Bobby Unser (1980) and Gordon Johncock (1982) won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown.
Unser, the only driver to win the IndyCar “Triple Crown,” believes Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan has a chance to capture the $1 million “Fuzzy’s Triple Crown,” the three-race series that includes the Indianapolis 500, Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco this weekend and the MAVTV 500 in October at Fontana.
“Tony is capable of winning at Pocono,” said Unser, a 39-time IndyCar race winner. “He showed he is capable of winning. But there are about 10 other guys there who will be chasing him. If he can win Pocono and California (Auto Club Speedway), I’d be happy to have Tony join me as a Triple Crown winner, for sure.
“I give IndyCar credit for bringing back the Triple Crown. It used to be three 500-mile races, and over the years the tracks and track distances changed. In the beginning it was three 2 1/2 mile tracks, then we lost Ontario and raced at Michigan. That was 2 miles, so we had to run 250 laps. I am glad it’s back, and maybe in the future they can make Pocono 500 miles to keep it all 500-mile races across the board. This is a start, a positive start, though.”
Unser did not attend this year’s Indianapolis 500 but watched the race on television back in Albuquerque, N.M. He was impressed with Kanaan’s drive that day and believes Pocono will produce a similar style of racing, which should mean Kanaan is a factor to win again Sunday.
“I think Tony’s a good racer, a real good racer,” Unser said. “He keeps learning how to win races. I thought the Indianapolis 500 was a pretty good show, I really did.
“For Tony to win after all his tries, it was really good for him. I am an old-timer: I thought he was going to be another Lloyd Ruby and just keep racing and racing at Indy and never get to drink milk or get his photo with the Borg-Warner Trophy in Victory Lane. When you come down to the end of the race and run like he did, and want to win that showed his spirit, he knew the Speedway didn’t owe him anything like that announcers said it did. He won based on his talent, hard racing skills and the team’s hard work.”
Unser’s Triple Crown season came when he was driving for Jim Hall, the famed sports car racer and innovator from Midland, Texas. Unser believes all the pieces were in place that year, which made the Unser/Hall combination tough to beat. But this dream team almost didn’t happen.
“You search out who wants to go racing and win – and when Parnelli (Jones) ended his Indy car operation at the end of the 1977 season, I talked to Jim Hall, who wanted to get into Indy car racing,” Unser said. “Jim came to Albuquerque, and we sat down and had a long talk about all parts of the future operation – engines, chassis, sponsors, personnel. Jim’s first proposal was way off, and I said, ‘We’re not going to make it,’ so Jim left and then he called me back two weeks later, and we met again. This time he had everything in line, it all came together - the right dollar figures, team members, sponsors, the engine department, and we were good to go racing.
“Jim got Huey (Absalom) and Franz (Weis) – they were key people in the success of our program. Jim wanted to win, he really wanted to win and made it happen. I felt that’s what drew me over to race with the team. In 1978, we raced the Lola. The Lola was a disgrace, and that car tried to kill me! We had Chaparral the next year, and that car was way, way beautiful to drive. The Chaparral and Lola couldn’t have been more different.
“I won the Triple Crown in 1978, all three of them, but what other race did I win? I didn’t even finish second or third in the others. You’d think if you had enough to win the 500 milers, you’d be able to at least run third or second in other races. No, but not in that Lola – we were always chasing ourselves and playing catch-up with that car, seemed like we were every weekend.”
Although A.J. Foyt remains the “Grand Champion” of IndyCar racing with his 67 career victories and was the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Unser was also a master at the 500-mile contests on the schedule and joined Foyt as the second four-time Indy 500 winner in 1987.
He believes Pocono presented a challenge unlike any other track where he raced.
“The Lola was a funny race car,” Unser said. “Take Pocono, that car scared the (crap) out of me. If people could see what it was like to drive that car, it would amaze them. If we had an onboard camera back then, people would see how that car darted and bounced around on that track – it was very rough. I kind of had to just hang on and let the car do want it wanted, and it was never the same – a constant handful; it had its own head.
“But I’d hang on, drive and let them (competitors) come back to me. I’d be driving around, and one by one, I’d catch-up to them, and soon enough, I’d be leading the race.
“Pocono was the trickiest track because Indianapolis and Ontario were smooth, and the corners were all kind of alike. At Pocono, it was rough, and each corner was so different – Turn 1 was like Trenton, Turn 2 reminded me of Indianapolis, and Turn 3 was flat like Milwaukee. But it was important to try to get the last turn right for a good lap, that’s one thing for sure. Indy was easier in the Lola than Pocono – the track was real smooth – it had all just been completely repaved a couple of years before, and the car didn’t dart around and bounce as much. I’d try to drive steady and smooth, and it just seemed like they kept coming back to me, and soon enough my pit board had a “1” on it and I was leading.
“Toward the end of the race, the car was pushing really bad. But with the car, that was common most of the time. My third Indy win coming the same year I won the Triple Crown was neat. If you remember, actually driving for Parnelli, I won the final race 500-mile race of ‘77 at Ontario – so I won four straight 500-mile races – one in ’77 then the Triple Crown in ‘78.
“At Ontario, we just ran steady all day – I remember running against (Gordon) Johncock and (Johnny) Rutherford for the lead, and Johncock ran out of gas at the end, so that made it easier for us. He had the boost turned way up and just ran it out of fuel trying to keep the lead. We finished, and he didn’t. He can say “if” all he wants, but we did finish and won. That’s what racing is about.”
Unser, whose family (with his brother Bobby and son Al Jr.) has captured an amazing 107 Indy car victories from 1965 to 1995, actually won four 500-mile races in a row with an Ontario victory in 1977 and wins in 1978 at Indy, Pocono and Ontario. Unser drove for Parnelli Jones in 1977 and Jim Hall in 1978.
“I remember the Pocono race in 1978, and we gambled by not changing tires,” Unser said. “We took a big chance, and it paid off. You never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who’s going to win. I got a ring that said I was the Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000, I think… you’d have to check. But I know for sure we didn’t get a million dollars. I am positive about that!”
Kanaan is now set in his quest for another Triple Crown win in his No. 11 Sunoco “Turbo” Chevrolet when the green flag drops at 12:15 p.m. (ET) Sunday. The 160-lap Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco will be televised live on ABC-TV.
Throughout his career, one of the drivers Al Unser had to beat was his brother, Bobby. While Al had a smooth and consistent driving style where he conserved the car in the early going; Bobby was a charger as he tried to get the car up front as soon as possible and lead as many laps as he could.
“More than anything, Al was so patient and so smooth in the long races,” Bobby Unser said. “Al was steady and turned the same laps and speeds all day long. He was a really smart driver. He drove 500 miles like no one else – he had smarts the whole time. Others just couldn’t drive smart all day long and do what Al did - Al’s record shows it. Pavement or dirt, 500-mile races or shorter, Al had success – more than anyone else, and you can read all about it in the history books. Al also drove for really, really good teams with great people owners and mechanics supporting him.
“Al was fast when he had to be, and fast at the right times. Al wouldn’t get caught-up in little worthless battles early in a race. Al ran so many smart races and broke so many records over the years in 500 mile races it was crazy. He won the Triple Crown in a car that wasn’t the fastest or best out there. He won the races with his skills and smarts. To win and do well in those races you had to be exceptionally smooth, exceptionally – Al was.”
Danny Sullivan was the last driver to win an Indy car race at Pocono in 1989 when he started seventh and beat Rick Mears to the checkered flag. But after a long hiatus, Indy cars are back at the unique triangle at Pocono. The 400-mile race Sunday should be spectacular.
And if Kanaan is first to the checkered flag, he will be one step closer to joining Al Unser as the only Triple Crown winners in IndyCar history.
“Tony is one of the very best talents out there,” Bobby Unser said. “He’s always had talent and won the championship in the 7-Eleven car by driving well all season. At Indy he finally got a little racing luck to go with his racing talents. It doesn’t matter if he won under yellow or not. When it rained in 1975 and they red-flagged it, I still was the winner. I was leading – not Rutherford or Foyt. That’s what matters. My name is in the record books.
“Tony won, and he has talent. He was leading when he had to be, and he is in the record books now forever.”