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My Favorite Car: Al Unser Jr.

Note: This is the last of an IMS.com series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. Read other installments of "My Favorite Car" here.

Q: What was your favorite car you drove in the Indianapolis 500?

Al Unser Jr.: I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I don’t particularly have one favorite. I loved developing race cars. I loved developing the Indy car. So, in ’83, I had the only ’83 Eagle in the race. Had I known what I was doing, that car would have won the race. It was fast. But I didn’t know what I was doing.

Q: But of all the cars you drove, if someone said, “You must win the race this year,” what’s the car you would want under you?

AUJ: Well, that’s not fair because that’s just automatically the ’94 because it had 200 more horsepower than anyone else in the race. All I had to do was race my teammates.

Q: Yeah, that’s true. That’s a good point.

AUJ: The Indy car that I drove that was the most trick was the Penske 27, and it never saw the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because it was during The Split. That was John Travis, the head designer after Nigel Bennett at Penske. He came in, and it had the high nose on the front of it. What was trick about that car was the gearbox. Simply put, it was the gearbox. When they were warming up the engine, the oil in the engine ran through veins in the aluminum cast of the gearbox. So, when you’re warming up the engine, you’re warming up the gearbox at the same time. Then they took the gear cluster and they put it direct drive with the crank. They moved the gear cluster down to get the CG (center of gravity) as low as possible in the gearbox. All gearboxes are gear-reducted. The crank comes to a shaft, and the gear cluster sits above that shaft and some gear reduction slowing the gear cluster down from the crank. Except in the PC-27. That car, it drove great. It was a fantastic car. The reason why it didn’t win any races was because you had the Ilmor Mercedes, which was down 200 horsepower from the Honda and the Cosworth of that era. And we were on Goodyear tires, which were down from the Firestones in that era. The John Travis car, the PC-27, and I think there was a PC-27B, that was the trickest car. I had to get used to shifting it. I went through three or four gear clusters. It took me two or three tests to figure out how to shift it because it was direct drive with the crank. The wheel speed was the same as the crank, so you had to match it. When you’ve got the gear-reductive cluster, you can come close with the engine and the wheels, and you’re in. But once I figured out how to shift that thing, I only used three fingers. I didn’t have to grab a hold of the shifter at all. Once I figured it out, it was lovely. The ’92 winner, me and my teammate, Danny Sullivan, we were the only ones with the Galmer. We were developing the Galmer. That was cool. That in itself makes it special. And then in ’94, it was the Penske. This was a brand-new car from the year before. That car was quick everywhere. At Indy, the 209 (pushrod engine) made it super special, but we unloaded anywhere during that year, and we were the ones to beat. I won eight races out of 16. I batted .500 that year. The team won 12 out of 16. So, that car was a dynamite car.

Q: The quality of that chassis sometimes gets lost in all of the talk about the Mercedes-Benz “Beast” engine at Indy, doesn’t it?

AUJ: It does. When I joined Penske Racing, the first time I drove the ’94, wow, it just glued to the track. Everything about the car, the suspension, the aero, the shocks – it had super grip everywhere. Willy T. (Ribbs) and I are good friends. He talks to me about a practice session in the rain at Portland in ‘94. He said I passed him and pulled away from him, and he swore to God I had traction control. That’s the only way I could have that much grip in the rain. That car never had that. I kept telling him, “Willy, that was my right foot.” It was the car. The car just handled so well. That’s why I was having trouble coming up with a particular car for the Speedway. Even with ’92 with the winning cars. Then I jumped to ’89, which was the Lola against Emerson (Fittipaldi). That was the cream. I had the best car of the race. I just never showed it until the end. When we caught that traffic in Turn 2 and destroyed all my momentum, he’s got a run on me, and when I moved out to pass a car, Emerson actually passed me because he had that run. And from the second half of the straightaway down into Turn 3, I actually pulled him. So, I went: “All right. Now I’ve got a hot rod.” That car was fast, super fast. But then I lost the race. I consider ’89 as my best drive of the “500.” As a team, we did everything perfect. If that last yellow hadn’t come out, we were going to win that thing unchallenged. Emerson had one stop he had to make. I was going to cruise to victory.

Q: I must put you on the spot. This is My Favorite Car, so which one was yours?

AUJ: It has to be the Penske, the 209, in ’94. The development and the commitment and just the whole story around the one particular car for the one particular Indy 500, it has to be the Penske 209.

Q: How hard was for you to keep quiet about that car before Indy?

AUJ: It was easy for me. I was worried about my wife, Shelley. I said, “You will die if you tell anyone.” I couldn’t keep it from her because my first test was at Nazareth, and that was when we flew back from Europe with Roger (Penske) and the Christmas parties and all that stuff. We flew directly from there to Nazareth to test.

Q: What was your reaction during the first few laps of that test at Nazareth?

AUJ: Honestly, it was difficult at Nazareth because they had to plow the racetrack. It was 30-some degrees when I was out there for the first time. Roger asked the same thing. “Well, well, well?” I said, “Roger, it takes me 10 laps to get some heat in the tires, and I don’t even have heat in the tires after 10 laps.” Because Nazareth is so small, you’ve got to lift. Once we got it to Michigan, where we could leg it, that was impressive. When you pull out and throttle up the backstretch, it was strong. It didn’t make any noise. It was so low. There’s no RPM to it. It was just a grunt of an engine. It just pulled. You went, “Wow, this is going to be cool.” But it didn’t go any distance. It would blow up at 100 miles; it would blow up at 150. By the time we went 500 miles on the test, it was way detuned from what we started with. It wouldn’t live. So each time we went back and tested the car, it had a little less horsepower and torque. The first time that it went 500 miles was opening day at Indy. It had not gone 500 miles yet. When Emerson and Paul (Tracy) were pulling out onto the Speedway opening practice day, I was in Michigan doing a 500-mile test, and Roger was with me in Michigan. We went 500 miles, and we were just so happy. We finally got it.

Q: Was reliability the only main concern during that Month of May?

AUJ: Yes. That’s right. We did not know until Opening Day. That was the first time the engine went 500 miles on a racetrack. From that point on, it was just your regular failures (you worried about). Your 50-cent seal piece we couldn’t control. That’s in all of racing. Once it went 500 miles, then the reliability issue went away. Then it was all about not going too fast because Roger was scared to death they were going to reduce the boost. So, reliability, that problem was done. That concern was gone. Now the primary concern was don’t go too fast because they’ll reduce the boost. I would go out on a practice day, I would run five laps and be P1, and Roger would say: “You’re done for the day. Park it.” Emerson started doing his timing on the backstretch, off of Turn 2, because Roger would not let us run any speeds. As long as you stayed down on your speed, in those days, 228 was the fast time. So, as long as you stayed in the 26s, you were good. Emerson would time himself on the backstretch and run 26s on the frontstretch. He was doing 230 average. He got his working, and I didn’t get mine working. That’s why he was so much better than I was in the race.

Q: Was that the most invincible you ever felt in a car at IMS?

AUJ: Absolutely. One-thousand percent. We were Parnelli Jones in the turbine. That’s really what we were.

 

Facts about Al Unser Jr.’s 1994 Indianapolis 500 car:

Car name: Penske/Mercedes-Benz
Car number: 31
Team: Penske Racing
Qualified: First
Finished: First
Laps Completed: 200
Laps Led: 48
Status: Running
Al Unser Jr.’s career ‘500” starts: 19 (1983-94, 2000-04, 2006-07)

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