Al Unser (b. 1939)
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A. J. Foyt

Al Unser

AI Unser

AI Unser began racing at the age of 18, racing Supermodified cars from 1957 to 1963. His business, however, was the running of a scrap yard which his father had purchased for him. In 1960 he ran at Pike's Peak for the first time, finishing second to Bobby. He was runner-up to his elder brother again in 1962, but in 1964 he broke the hill record and Bobby's run of six successive victories.

The Arciero Brothers and A. J. Foyt's Lola T80-Ford

In 1964 he entered the world of USAC racing, competing in both the Sprint and National Championship divisions, and the following season saw him tackle his rookie's driving test in a machine entered by the Arciero brothers and powered by a Maserati engine, but the Italian unit blew up and as there was no spare it seemed Al would not make the official qualification runs.

At the last minute he was offered a ride in A. J. Foyt's back-up Lola T80-Ford, qualified 32nd on the 33-car grid and soldiered through to finish ninth. His only win that year was at Pike's Peak. In 1966 Al Unser offered his services to Lotus, who had a vacancy alongside 1965 winner Jim Clark in the STP-backed works team of Lotus 38-Ford. Al climbed as far as third place before crashing.

George Bignotti

In other USAC National Championship events he was second in the Hoosier Grand Prix, the Trenton 200 and the Phoenix 200, finishing fifth in the points table. In 1967, as number two to Jackie Stewart in the John Mecom Lola T90-Ford team, Al finished second in the Indianapolis 500. In this team he began to work with George Bignotti, the famed preparer of USAC cars.

The first USAC win for Al Unser came in 1968 - the year brother Bobby won the Indianapolis 500 - when he won at Nazareth on a mile dirt-track. He later won two races at Indianapolis Raceway Park (a separate track to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and two at Langhorne. At Indianapolis he escaped injury when his four-wheel-drive Lola T150-Ford lost a wheel and was destroyed when it hit the wall. For 1969 the Al Unser/George Bignotti partnership joined with Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones, who fielded a new Lola T152-Ford for Unser to drive at Indianapolis.

After setting rapid practice times he fell off a motorcycle fooling with Jones and broke his leg. Angry with himself, he put his all into his racing when he returned to the tracks later in the year. He won five of the final six races in the USAC National Championship - at Milwaukee, Sacramento (with broken suspension), Seattle, Phoenix and DuQuoin - and was a close second in the sixth at Riverside to Mario Andretti. Despite his curtailed season, Unser was second in the championship trail.

Winning the Indianapolis 500

There was no stopping Al Unser in 1970. Racing the Bignotti-developed Colt, based on a Lola, Unser won at Phoenix, was second at Sears Point, third at Trenton and then won the Indianapolis 500. It was the highlight of his career, at a time when brother Bobby's fortunes were in the doldrums. And like Bobby in 1968, Unser went on to take the USAC National Championship, winning ten of the eighteen rounds. He won at Indianapolis Raceway Park, won on the Springfield, DuQuoin, Sedalia and Sacramento dirt tracks, won at Milwaukee by a margin of three laps and conquered brother Bobby in the Trenton 300.

In the inaugural California 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, Unser would have won again if his turbocharged car had not failed fourteen laps from the finish. Once again racing Vel's Parnelli Colt-Ford, Unser began the 1971 season on top form. He won the opening USAC National Championship round at Rafaela in Argentina and hammered brother Bobby at Phoenix. Then he won the Indianapolis 500 for the second year in succession, driving a confident race and never dropping lower than fourth throughout the 200 laps.

In 1972 the Vel's Parnelli team fielded new Maurice Phillippe-designed VPJ-001 cars for a formidable array of three former USAC Champions, Mario Andretti, Joe Leonard and Al Unser. It was a disappointing year for AI. He failed to win a single championship race, best place being second in the Indianapolis 500, while his brother won four races. The 1973 season began well with victory in the Texas 200 in April, but the new Offy-engined Vel's Parnelli VPJ-002s suffered from under-steering problems as well as gearbox and engine failures and Al failed to win another USAC National Championship round.

Most galling was his luck in the California 500 at Ontario. He was a contender for the lead until the closing minutes when the gearbox broke. Some consolation was his clinching of the three-race USAC National Dirt Track Championship from team-mate Andretti. A change to the ubiquitous Eagle chassis brought better fortune in 1974, Al winning the Norton 250 at Michigan and taking sufficient place results - including second 10 brother Bobby in the California 500 - to be fourth in the end-of-season points table Unser also added another string to his bow, racing in Formula 5000 in late 1974 and 1975 and proving to be a strong contender.

In the last rounds of the 1975 USAC championship Al drove the Cosworth DFX V8-engined Parnelli, a car which he used throughout 1976 when he won three championship rounds, including the Schaefer 500 at Pocono to give the turbocharged Cosworth engine its first USAC victory. 1977 saw Al Unser and the Parnelli VPJ6B gain only one USAC victory, in the California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway at an average speed of 154.7mph, although he did manage third place at Indianapolis behind A. J. Foyt and Tom Sneva, and came second in the championship behind Sneva.

First to win the USAC Big Three

A move to join Hall's Chaparral Cars' Lola for 1978 gave Al a much better season, and he became the first man in USAC history to win the 'big three' races - the California 500 (for the second year running), the Schaefer 500 at Pocono, and Indianapolis. The speed of the Cosworth powered Lola enabled Al Unser to round off the season by coming second in the USAC Citicorp Cup National Championship.

In 1987, Penske's slate of drivers included Mears, Ongais and Danny Sullivan. Unser was dropped. Ongais crashed into the wall during the first week of practice, suffering a serious concussion, and was declared unfit to drive. Penske then turned to Unser to fill in. Both the new Penske PC16 race car and its new Chevrolet-Ilmor engine had been unreliable throughout testing, practice and qualifying. Penske elected to race the backup car, a 1986 March-Cosworth, the same combination of chassis and engine that had won the previous four Indy 500s. The year-old March was removed from a Penske Racing display at a Sheraton hotel in the team's hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and hurriedly prepared for a return to active competition.

At start Unser was in the 20th position. On a day when heavy attrition felled most of the field's front-runners, including the overwhelmingly dominant Newman-Haas entry of Mario Andretti, Unser worked his way steadily forward and took the lead on the 183rd lap, after Roberto Guerrero's car stalled on his final pit stop. Averaging 162.175 mph (260.995 km/h), Unser bested a charging Guerrero by 4.5 seconds to win his fourth Indy 500, only five days before his 48th birthday. In doing so he tied Foyt as the winningest Indy 500 driver and broke brother Bobby's record as the oldest Indy winner. Unser rode the wave of his fourth Indy victory to secure a ride at Penske for the Michigan 500, Pocono 500, and Marlboro Challenge for 1987. It also helped him secure a ride at the three 500-miles races (Indianapolis, Michigan, Pocono) in 1988 and 1989 as well.

Team Penske

After reorganization at Team Penske in 1990, Unser was finally crowded out of his part-time ride. With competitive rides filling up, and his career dwindling down, he joined the sub-par Patrick Racing Alfa Romeo team for 1990. After dropping out at Indy, Unser crashed in practice at Michigan and broke his leg. He quit the team after the crash. He spent most of the month of May 1991 shopping around for a competitive ride. The restrictions on the number of leases to the Chevy Ilmor engine kept him out of a ride during the first week of practice. A last-minute deal with the UNO Granatelli team (where he would be Arie Luyendyk's teammate) fell through when there was not enough time to prepare the car. Instead of jumping into another car "just to make the show," Unser sat out the 1991 race and watched from the sidelines for the first time since 1969.

In 1992, Unser entered the month of May for the second year in a row without a ride. During the first week of practice, Nelson Piquet was involved in a serious crash, and was unable to drive. Unser was hired by Team Menard to fill the position vacated by Piquet. Unser drove to a 3rd place finish, his son Al Unser, Jr. won the race. It was Team Menard's best Indy 500 finish, the best finish ever for the Buick Indy engine, and the first time the Buick engine had gone the entire 500 miles (800 km).

In 1993, driving for King Racing, he led 15 laps to extend his career laps-led record. Unser entered the 1994 race with Arizona Motorsports, hoping to qualify for what would be his 28th Indy 500. The team was very underfunded, and Unser had considerable trouble getting the car up to speed. On the first weekend of qualifying, he waved off after a poor qualifying lap. After some minimal practice the following day, he quit the team. He announced his retirement on May 17, 1994.
AI Unser at the 1978 Indianapolis 500, which he won at an average speed of 161.4 mph in a Lola-Cosworth T500
AI Unser at the 1978 Indianapolis 500, which he won at an average speed of 161.4 mph in a Lola-Cosworth T500.
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