The Unsers are the most successful family in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with a total of nine victories in the Indianapolis 500. The most recent two fell to Al Unser Jr., the son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, making the Unsers the only family to have multiple generations of Indy winners.
Al Jr. came up through midget and sprint car racing before switching his focus to road racing in the early 1980s in the SCCA Can-Am series. Team owner Rick Galles moved his operation into the CART Indy car series in 1983 and 21-year old rookie Unser qualified fifth for his Indianapolis debut in an Eagle-Cosworth.
Unser ran competitively in the race but ran out of fuel near the end to be classified 10th. Although he was a lap down, he memorably got involved in the battle for the lead between his father and Tom Sneva, who went on to win the race.
“Well, first off, I wasn’t blocking for my dad,” Unser later related. “If I was blocking for my dad, my dad would have won that race! We were the first father-son to race against each other at Indy and I was trying to help dad out, but he just didn’t go fast enough, really.
“I guess I introduced myself to the Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of its fans,” Unser added. “I’m very proud of the fact that I’m on a number of those paintings in the IMS Hall of Fame Museum without being the winner of the race. When you’ve done that, that means you’ve made an impact somehow - the people knew that you were there that year.”
Unser retired from the ‘500’ in 1984 and ’85 before earning top five finishes in 1986 and ’87. The next year that he made it onto the paintings without winning the race came in 1989, when he crashed in Turn 3 while battling eventual winner Emerson Fittipaldi for the lead on the 199th Lap.
Unser took the lead on Lap 196 and led the next three tours as he and Fittipaldi wove through heavy traffic. Headed for the white flag, the Brazilian moved inside Unser upon entry to turn 3; when Fittipaldi’s car pushed up the track, it made contact with Unser’s Lola-Chevrolet, which spun backwards into a hard impact with the wall.
“I feel that was really one of the best races that I had ever driven at Indy because Emerson dominated all day long,” Unser recalled. “We were on a strategy where Emerson would have to stop and we wouldn’t, but there was a yellow so we had to turn the boost up and race him. We passed him, and basically we got to a position where he couldn’t get me unless there was lapped traffic. But that’s exactly what happened. It allowed him to make a move on me. Everybody was going for the same piece of real estate there in Turn 3, and only one was going to come out.”
After clambering out of his crashed car, Unser ran to trackside and waited for Fittipaldi to pass by behind the Pace Car. Instead of angrily venting at the Brazilian, Unser clapped his hands and gave a thumbs-up approval of the exciting race for the win.
“After 1989, I knew I could win that race,” said Al Jr. “Prior to that, there was a doubt in my mind. A lot of talented drivers – Lloyd Ruby being one obvious guy – had won all over the place, but something bad would always happen to him at Indy. I can remember saying in previous years, ‘Great, I’m just another Lloyd Ruby!’ But in '89, that all changed. I quit saying it; I quit believing it. When I woke up that next morning, I was happy. I wasn’t on the Borg-Warner, I didn’t get to drink the milk and I didn’t get the million dollars, but I knew that I could do it. Even if I never won Indy, emotionally I had.”
Unser won the 1990 CART Indy car championship, but finished fourth at Indianapolis that year and again in 1991. In 1992, he finally got his cherished Indianapolis triumph, in the closest finish in Indy 500 history.
The 1992 race was among the coldest ever at Indianapolis and many of the favored drivers crashed out in the slippery conditions. Unser’s longtime rival Michael Andretti dominated before his car coasted to a stop with ten laps to go.
That left Unser in the lead, but he was being caught by young Canadian Scott Goodyear. Although Goodyear had a faster car, he fell short in his run to the finish line, with Unser staying ahead by 0.043 second.
In Victory Lane, an emotional Unser blurted out “You just don’t know what Indy means!” in a memorable television interview.
“I was thinking about my family,” Unser recalled. “It was the pressure that was on me, that I had put on myself to come here and do well, while being compared to my father, who is just a great champion and a legend at Indianapolis."
“In my family, the Indianapolis 500 is the biggest thing in the world,” he continued. “I grew up with Indy 500 on my brain ever since my dad got that go kart for me and started teaching me the desire and the sacrifice, and the level of concentration, all that that you have to have to be a winner and to be a champion. When I won Indy that first year and that wreath was going over me, all of a sudden there was a lot of pressure that was lifted off of me.”
Unser’s second Indianapolis 500 victory came just two years later. Team owner Roger Penske commissioned a special engine that could be used only at Indy. The engine, designed by Ilmor and badged Mercedes-Benz, had roughly 200 horsepower more than the competing engines from Honda and Ford-Cosworth.
Never renowned for his qualifying pace, Unser put the Penske-Mercedes on pole at Indianapolis. However in the race, Fittipaldi - now his teammate - was quicker and late in the race he moved to put Unser a lap down.
Unser resisted, and Fittipaldi, pushing hard, crashed on his own in Turn 4 on Lap 185. Unser reeled off the remaining fifteen laps to win the race, and he went on to dominate the 1994 CART season, winning his second series championship with eight wins from sixteen races.
However, in 1995, Penske did not have the advantage of the Mercedes 500I engine. In one of the most remarkable stories in the long history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, defending race winner Unser and his Penske teammate Fittipaldi failed to qualify for the ‘500.’
The blow was especially crushing for Unser because following the 1995 season, Penske Racing competed exclusively in the CART series and no longer entered the Indianapolis 500, which changed sanction to the Indy Racing League in 1996. Unser continued with Penske in the CART series through 1999, but his desire to race again at Indianapolis weighed heavily in his decision to switch to the IRL in 2000.
“Simply put, I wanted to get back to the Indy 500,” Unser said. “There was something missing. There was a hole in my chest from not being there. I had already given up five years. I couldn’t give up another one. What was on my mind for those five years was the last laps I did at the Speedway were failing to qualify for the ‘95 race. I never got the opportunity to come back here and test, nothing. Those were the last laps I had run. So I came back in 2000 and redeemed myself and my family name.”
Unser competed at Indianapolis seven more times between 2000-07, missing the 2005 race during a brief retirement from driving. He returned for one off-runs at Indy in 2006 and ’07, but his best Indianapolis finish during the IRL era was ninth place in 2003.
The latter stages of Unser’s career were marred by rumors of drug and alcohol use and he had several brushes with the law from 2002 onward. Unser embraced a sober lifestyle following a DUI arrest in 2007 and became an official and driver coach for the IndyCar Series, but another DUI arrest in September 2011 resulted in his being suspended from his duties.
"When I look back on my career, like I said earlier, I had some mammoth footsteps to follow in my father, my Uncle Bobby and my family. On Thanksgiving Day when the family gets together, I can hold my head up high and be proud of what we've done and accomplished.
It means so many things. Dreams come true. For myself, it was continuing the family heritage and tradition. All of it bolied down into one thing. My life was based around the Indy 500 from when I was a child, unlike say Michael’s or the foreign drivers. Their aspirations are more Formula 1. Michael has said to me that F1 was truly a dream of his because of what his father had done, and he did go over and compete. My father never really left the United States - it was all based around Indy. Kids emulate their parents and I emulated mine."
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