Unser produced Penske's most improbable Indy victory in 1987
Roger Penske is well-known as a fierce competitor, and the Indianapolis 500 has special meaning to him.
“If they said they’re going to run garden tractors at Indianapolis, Roger would go get the best one,” retired Penske vice president Dan Luginbuhl once said.
During a turbocharger boost controversy years ago, with some complaining the Buick engine was given too much, team manager Larry Curry said, “If the Buick had an advantage, Roger would have one.”
But possibly never in the history of Penske Racing’s record 15 Indianapolis 500 wins did it take all the elements that came into play in 1987.
The team trotted out the new Penske chassis on Day 2 of the month and didn’t crack the top 10. The team kept practicing with it until Day 6, when Danny Ongais hit the Turn 4 wall and suffered a concussion.
It was enough for Penske to break out an ’87 March for Rick Mears, who qualified it on the outside of the front row. Danny Sullivan also switched to an ‘87 March and checked in 11th.
But what would happen to the Ongais’ entry?
On Tuesday of the second week, IMS Medical Director Dr. Henry Bock announced that Ongais was out for the month of May. The Penske team saw it coming.
The team had a 1986 March on display at the Sheraton Hotel in Reading, Pa., its hometown at the time. By this time, it had the car on the move to Indy, and 24 hours after Dr. Bock ruled out Ongais, three-time Indy winner Al Unser was saddled up and on the track. He qualified it comfortably in 20th place.
“It’s always good to look back and see you won something,” Unser said. “At Indianapolis, it’s a fairy-tale story. Anytime you win that race, it’s a scramble.”
His steed had a pedigree. Unser’s car had been driven to the pole by Mears in ‘86, driven to victory by Sullivan at the Meadowlands in ‘86 and put on the ‘86 Michigan 500 pole by Mears.
Unser said the car and the deal went together quickly and smoothly.
“Roger called me and got that car out of the showroom, and away we went,” Unser said. “It was a blessing because I’d been with the team for several years, so they understood me and I understood them.”
As the race unfolded, it came down to Unser and Roberto Guerrero at battle. Guerrero was almost eliminated from the race earlier when he hit a wayward tire, but he worked his way back into contention. It came down to the last pit stop, and Guerrero was leading.
“Unfortunately, I had a little trouble,” Guerrero said. “I hit that tire with my right front. All of our pit stops were fine, but the last time, we found out that the master cylinder was losing fluid slowly all day. On that (last) pit stop, I couldn’t get the car out of gear because I didn’t have any clutch.”
Unser had an uneventful final stop.
“When he had his bad pit stop, there wasn’t any way I could pass him or he could pass me,” Unser said. “We were equal on the racetrack. The only way he could catch me was if I messed up.”
So Unser had his record-tying fourth victory at Indy and became the oldest “500” winner in history, at age 47. And Guerrero had the second-best performance by a driver in his first four races at the Speedway: second, third, fourth and second.
“I knew the makings were there because of Penske,” Unser said.
“We still finished second, but that was the closest I came,” Guerrero said.
It was short-term employment for winner Unser. It was his last race until later in the season. Ironically, he drove for an injured Guerrero at Nazareth.
The day after the race at Indy, a sign went up in front of Unser’s motor coach:
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