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‘Big Al’ Let His Incredible Numbers, Skill Do The Talking during Incomparable Career

Simply put, Al Unser possesses just about the finest Indianapolis 500 record by any driver ever.

As the second of three who have won the "500" four times (the other two being A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears), the very down-to-earth gentleman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, remains either at the top or very near the top of just about every major statistical category there is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In addition to those four wins (1970, '71, '78 and '87), he also was runner-up three times and third four times, his grand total of "top threes" therefore amounting to 11. There are not a great number of drivers who have started the “500” 11 times, let alone recorded that many finishes among the top three.

While generally perceived as the cagey strategist who did not necessarily lead but ran near the front and was able to position himself exactly where he needed to be in order to win, Unser led more laps than any other driver in “500” history. At the very moment he passed beneath the checkered flag to win for the fourth time in 1987, he was also recording his 613th lap as the race leader, surpassing the record of 612 held by the late Ralph DePalma since 1921. Considering that the great DePalma had taken over the laps-led category in 1912 – adding to it in several subsequent years – no other driver had sat atop that category until Unser came along to unseat the Italian-born icon three-quarters of a century later.

And Unser wasn't done yet. He led again in three of his last five “500” starts, his final count topping out at the current record of 644.

Between 1965 and 1985, he won a total of 39 National Championship events and claimed the United States Auto Club (USAC) title in 1970, plus the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) title in 1983 and 1985.

In 1970, he won 10 of the 18 races on the schedule, demonstrating his versatility in the final year in which certain 100-milers on dirt tracks still awarded points toward the national title. In addition to the Indianapolis 500 (starting from the pole and leading 190 of the 200 laps), he won on the paved ovals of Trenton, Milwaukee and Phoenix, the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park and all five of the point-paying dirt track races. Not only that, but he almost won the inaugural Ontario (California) 500, enjoying a substantial lead when a mechanical problem knocked him out only 13 laps from the end.

That amazing 1970 season came during the period he was paired with chief mechanic extraordinaire, George Bignotti, with 25 of Unser’s 39 National Championship wins coming while they were together between 1967 and 1972.

In 1978, while driving for retired sports car-driving standout, Jim Hall, Unser pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning all three USAC Championship 500-mile races in the same season, capturing his third Indianapolis 500 and the races at Pocono and Ontario, each for a second time.

Winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1964 and '65, after having been runner-up in 1960 and '62, Unser proved to be extremely proficient on road courses in numerous outings over the years.

Partnered in 1975 with Mario Andretti on the Vel Miletich/Parnelli Jones-owned team, he took part in the Formula-5000 “stock block” road-racing series co-sanctioned by USAC and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), winning at Road Atlanta and finishing second in five other events to wind up third in points, behind Brian Redman and Andretti. In 1976, he backed up a win at Riverside, with a pair of second-place showings to complete the season as a runner-up behind Redman and ahead of Andretti. In 1980, he won the Can-Am event at Laguna Seca, with all of its twists and turns and dramatic changes in elevation, and in 1985, shared the winning car in the 24 Hours of Daytona with A.J. Foyt, Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen.

A semi-regular in USAC stock cars in the late 1960s and early '70s, Unser won four events there, including the 1971 Governor's Cup 250-mile event at Milwaukee. He even made a few appearances in NASCAR. Despite competing in the Daytona 500 just once – with a Cotton Owens Dodge in 1968 – he posted a very impressive fourth-place finish.

Who knows what else Unser could have accomplished had he returned for more outings at Daytona and other such venues, or taken seriously some of the calls placed by Formula One teams after he so frequently demonstrated his obvious talent for road racing? Truth is he was just as happy roaring around dirt tracks like the Indiana State Fairgrounds where he dominated the Hoosier Hundred for four straight years between 1970 and 1973. Unser came tantalizingly close to winning that event for a fifth straight year in 1974, banging wheels with teammate Andretti on the final lap as both tried unsuccessfully to get around a determined and victory-bound Jackie Howerton, who had led for the entire distance. They crossed the line, nose-to-tail, Howerton, Unser and Andretti.

History was made in 1983 when Unser became the first person ever to drive against his son in an Indianapolis 500. When Al Unser Jr. won the “500” the first time in 1992, third-place finisher “Big” Al thoughtfully declined to visit Victory Circle because he didn’t want to do anything that would detract from his son’s glory.

A few years after his May 1994 retirement from competition, Unser was one of several veteran drivers who were invited to serve as “gurus” for the fledgling Indy Racing League. What an unbelievable opportunity for the newer drivers? How many other forms of any sport can there ever have been in which the likes of Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser would be made available to the current participants throughout an event weekend for consultation and words of wisdom?

Unser is a man of few words and never one who gave the impression of having any particular affection for the past or being someone who would want to preserve historical artifacts and memorabilia. So, it was a bit of a surprise when it was learned that he and wife, Susan, were spearheading the creation of a museum.

Who would have guessed?

But there he was at the very impressive Unser Racing Museum in northwest Albuquerque, a modest and laid-back survivor of a most treacherous profession, greeting racing fans and busloads of school children and giving little indication that he was one of the very best ever.

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