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Unser, Goodyear Produced Epic Duel for the Ages in 1992 Finish

“I do get asked, of all the races, what was the one that meant the most? And, of course, it’s winning the Indy 500,” Al Unser Jr said. “The 1992 race was special because it was the closest finish and one hell of a race between Scott Goodyear and myself.”

The magnitude of that timeless finish, .043 of a second forever separating Unser and Goodyear, has only continued to grow in the 28 years since the two men drag-raced for glory across the Yard of Bricks.

Best remembered for its thrilling conclusion, the 1992 Indianapolis 500 also produced a bevy of drama-filled stories long before the checkered flag waved.

Beyond the leading headlines, it was the final run for the legend of legends, four-time 500 winner A.J. Foyt, the debut of future champions Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy, and the overdue arrival of Lyn St. James. It was Michael Andretti’s masterful performance, the win for a new and unheralded chassis manufacturer, the spate of spins and dreadful crashes. And the shivering cold.

Hours before the closest finish in the Indy 500 could be written into history, the 76th edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” would be shaped and influenced in every imaginable way by Mother Nature. Almost everything that followed in the ensuing 200 laps – good and bad – would be linked to the frigid air and icy track surface.

Race morning dawned with the mercury needle reading a misleading 50 degrees. With the windsocks standing vertical atop the bleachers, 33 drivers, led by polesitter Roberto Guerrero, were met by windchill-influenced air hovering in the high 30s and low 40s. The forecast meant slick tires and prodigious horsepower from the Buick, Chevy and Ford/Cosworth engines would be hard to contain.

By the end of the first parade lap, 1992’s first indelible image was captured as Guerrero spun and crashed exiting Turn 2 while attempting to warm his tires. Plummeting from first to last, the Colombian’s ignominious end, and retiring on the spot before the race had started, stunned the hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance and millions watching throughout the world. With the green flag still furled in the starter’s hand, it was already clear this was going to be a very different Indy 500.

“I had totally given up when it was so cold out there,” Unser said. “We pulled away from the starting grid there, and within seconds Roberto Guerrero crashes on the parade laps. The tires, they were just so cold, and you had to be super careful on warming those things up.”

Starting 12th for Galles Racing in his unique British-built, Chevy-powered Galmer G92 chassis, the son of four-time winner Al Unser was far from a favorite to visit Victory Lane. Burdened with extra aerodynamic drag, his angular G92 struggled to match the dominant Lola and Penske streamliners, but it also gave Unser and teammate Danny Sullivan an edge in the corners. With grip coming at a premium, the Galmer was one of few cars to remain planted while others teetered on the edge of disaster.

“I remember we started the race, and we had a lot of yellows there right at the beginning; in the first 50 or 80 laps there were so many yellows because it was so cold,” Unser said.

In fact, six cautions slowed the field for a whopping 43 laps during the first 89 tours.

Before the halfway mark, crashes ensnared eight drivers, including “500” winners Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears and Tom Sneva. And with a steady clip of engine failures, due in part to the big power being made from the cold air feeding the turbochargers, the field was starting to thin as the race moved past Lap 100.

Sporting the patriotic red, white and blue colors of Valvoline, Unser and his gorgeous Galmer steadily worked their way forward through the adversity. Ahead, as Lap 110 approached, race leader Michael Andretti and his rocket-fast Lola-Ford Cosworth came into sight. Biding his time, Unser was powerless to challenge his lifelong rival, whose Newman/Haas Racing entry pulled away with ease between caution periods, yet kept pressing as the pace began to quicken.

Behind them, and helped in part by the high attrition, Goodyear’s Walker Racing Lola-Chevy was like a stealth missile winding through the carnage. Starting 33rd, the Canadian stalked and passed his way to the rear of Unser’s G92 just as the final dramas were preparing to unfold.

“With 50 to go, I found myself in a race with Scott Goodyear, and it was for second,” Unser said. “Michael was gone. This was to finish second and get as many points as we could get. Scott and I were so equal together that if he was in front of me and we came up on lapped traffic, I was able to get by him. And then he would drive by if (I) got caught in traffic. That’s the way it went.”

The two protagonists, locked in a duel for runner-up honors, were in for a shocking surprise as the infamous “Andretti Curse” descended upon the Speedway.

“I had just passed (Scott) back when Michael’s car broke,” Unser said of Andretti’s drive of a lifetime coming to an end 11 laps from the finish when his engine lost fuel pressure and fell silent. “It was totally out of my control. God was coming down and saying, ‘OK …’”

Inheriting the lead, Unser circulated behind the Pace Car with Goodyear in tow. On Lap 194, the green flag waved to start an epic showdown.

“We had been making the car better all day, and I just thought, ‘We have a shot at this,’” Goodyear said.

Taking high lines, low lines and everything in between, the Unser-Goodyear freight train slithered around the Speedway north of 200 mph. A small mistake by Unser at his last pit stop—taking downforce away from the rear—would rear its head as the checkered flag approached.

“The car kept getting looser and looser as I ran,” Unser said. “And I was making my adjustments with my (anti-roll) bars, and I had gone as far as I could go with them. And then on the white flag lap, Turns 1 and 2, I could feel where the car was going. It was looser, looser.”

Less than 1 mile from a date with destiny—just two turns from joining his father and uncle as an Indy 500 winner, Unser was forced to give Goodyear a shot at spoiling his dream.

“Then I turned into (Turn) 3 and the back end finally slid up next to the wall, and I turned into Turn 4 and it stepped out on me,” he said. “And so I blipped the throttle just that little bit.”

The tiny lift settled the back of the Galmer, but the momentary pause in acceleration also erased Unser’s lead.

“Just that blip and I came off of Turn 4, and I saw the run that Scott had on me,” Unser said. “I honestly felt like Scott was going to beat me to the line. With the run that he had on me down the front straightaway there, he would have passed me going into (Turn) 1. If there would have been one more lap, Scott would have won that race.”

After three hours, 43 minutes and 5.191 seconds of ragged racing in perilous conditions, Goodyear had authored one of Indy’s rare miracles—a photo finish—from dead last on the grid. Unfortunately for the new Canadian hero, Unser completed his work in three hours, 43 minutes and 5.148 seconds.

That notorious gap of .043 has remained a record for more than a quarter-century. The sting is still felt by Indy’s most famous silver medalist.

“Life still today, honestly doesn't feel complete,” said Goodyear, who nearly won again in 1995 and 1997. “You look at it every once in a while and you just go, ‘I can't believe I didn't get it.’”

And what about Little Al? The 1992 win came with a seat at the table next to the giants who share his last name.

“Like I told Jack Arute, you just don’t know what winning Indy means,” he said. “After I won the race, I said, ‘Now I can go home and hold my head up at Thanksgiving dinner.’”

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