If the Unsers have often been called “Indy’s First Family,” then Al Unser is the leader, with four of the Albuquerque-based clan’s nine Indianapolis 500 victories.
Al, frequently called the ‘quiet’ Unser in comparison to his older brother Bobby, dominated the 1970s by winning Indianapolis in 1970, ’71 and ’78. He added another triumph in 1987 and continued to run at the front at IMS through the end of his long career, finishing third in his next-to-last Indy start in 1992.
The Unser family operated a garage in Albuquerque and began competing in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1926. Like the rest of the Unsers, Al came up through traditional oval racing ranks when he started racing in 1957, though in the family tradition, he did post a pair of overall wins at Pikes Peak in 1964 and ’65. That was also the year that Unser made his Indianapolis 500 debut in a stellar rookie class that also included Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock; Unser finished ninth after qualifying 32nd.
A year later, Unser was teammate to defending Indianapolis champion Jim Clark in the factory STP-Lotus team. Unser was running third late in the race when a lapped car in front of him blew its engine, the debris spinning Unser into the Turn 4 wall.
Unser cut a tire in the 1967 race, but recovered to finish second behind AJ Foyt. Al crashed out of the 500 in 1968 after just 40 laps and had to watch while brother Bobby went on to score the Unser family’s first Indianapolis win.
Unser missed the 1969 race due to injuries suffered in a crash – but not a racing crash. After running the third fastest practice lap, Unser was horsing around on motorcycles in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield with team owner (and former Indy 500 winner) Parnelli Jones when he fell and broke his ankle.
His return to Indy a year later was highly successful, as Unser qualified on pole position and led 190 laps to win in one of the most dominant performances in Indianapolis 500 history. He backed it up a year later, driving an updated Johnny Lightning Special Colt-Ford to the first back-to-back Indy wins since Bill Vukovich in 1953-54.
Unser finised second at Indianapolis behind Mark Donohue, but he failed to finish the next three years. In 1976, he made history by becoming the first driver to run the Indianapolis 500 using the Cosworth DFX engine that would become the mainstay of Indy car racing for the next decade. Unser finished seventh in a Cosworth-powered Parnelli.
Al joined forces with legendary team owner Jim Hall in 1978 and drove a Lola-Cosworth to victory in all three 500-mile races on the USAC Indy car schedule, scoring an unofficial Triple Crown. Unser’s 5th place qualifying speed at Indianapolis was 6 mph slower than pole winner Tom Sneva, yet Unser led 121 laps and held off a charging Sneva by 8 seconds to become a three-time Indy 500 winner.
Unser hit a tire in the pits during his last pit stop and said he was lucky the damage to his front wing was not severe.
“We were very fortunate to win this race,” he said. “If we wouldn’t have had the (30 second) cushion on Sneva that we did, we couldn’t have beaten him.
“There was a whole list of guys I thought were going to be tough and when they didn’t catch me and go by me, I was puzzled for a while,” he added. “Then I finally realized we must have be going pretty good ourselves. When you sit up here and talk about winning the third one, you wonder why you haven’t won all 13 of them!”
Unser’s dominant Indianapolis form carried through the first half of the 1979 race, which he dominated in Hall’s new Chapparal 2K-Cosworth. But a transmission oil seal failed and Unser was out.
Al was fifth at Indy in 1982, then went on a run of sustained success when he joined Penske Racing. He finished second in 1983, memorably taking advantage of some blocking tactics by his son, Al Unser Jr., who was making his Indianapolis debut. Eventual winner Tom Sneva was finally able to pass both Unsers and pull ahead.
Unser was third at Indianapolis in 1984 and fourth in 1985, but he failed to finish the 1986 race. He wasn’t even entered in the 1987 Indianapolis 500, but fate took over early in the month of May when Danny Ongais, his replacement at Penske Racing, crashed the prototype Penske-Chevrolet.
The team prepared a 1986 March-Cosworth that was being used as a show car in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. Unser qualified on the second weekend, and when Mario Andretti dropped out with 23 laps remaining, Al found himself in second place, a lap behind leader Roberto Guerrero.
Disaster struck for Guerrero when his car stalled during his final pit stop. With no clutch, it took a long time for his crew to push start the car, and the 69-second pit stop allowed Unser to streak past and lead the final 17 laps, tying AJ Foyt with his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
“The 1987 win was amazing,” recalled team owner Roger Penske. “We were in trouble. Ongais had wrecked the car, and the sponsor didn’t want to continue. We had this show car sitting in the Sheraton hotel in Reading, we brought it in and Al cranked it into the race. We needed a sponsor, and at that point, we had a relationship with Cummins. We had a dinner with them, and gave them the sidepods for $50,000. Then we went out and won the race and they became our biggest competitor in the engine business when we bought Detroit Diesel!
“But that was a good race won on strategy,” Penske added. “We put the pressure on with a good pit stop, then Guerrero came in, stalled it and we were long gone. Al was so good in those races. That’s why he won four times there, like Rick (Mears) and AJ.”
Unser raced part-time for the rest of his career, finishing third at Indianapolis in 1988 and 1992. He finished 12th in his final Indianapolis appearance in 1993 and retired somewhat abruptly during the month of May 1994 when he and his Bernstein Racing teammates had trouble getting up to speed.
Unser’s 27 Indianapolis 500 starts rank third on the all-time list, and his four wins came over the span of 17 years (1970, ’71, ’78 and ’87), the most of the trio of four-time winners. Unser is the all-time lap leader (644 in eleven races) and he ranks second in terms of miles completed. He led 190 laps from pole position in dominating the 1970 race, and his 1971 victory made him one of only five drivers to win back-to-back “500s.” Unser was also running at the finish of the race more times (18) than any other driver.
Al Unser’s 30-year Indy car career was longer than his brother Bobby’s, which spanned the years 1963-81. Al Unser was often called ‘Big Al’ in the latter stages of his career due to the arrival on the scene of his son, Al Unser Jr., who went on to many great achievements of his own, including two Indianapolis 500 victories.
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