Unser's crowning glory

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A fourth Indy 500 win for the American came with the help of British engineering

oing into the month of May it’s approaching Indianapolis 500 time again. Thirty years ago, in 1987, Al Unser achieved one of the biggest upsets in the great race’s entire history. He began the month of May not only without a drive but– what would normally prove to be an even more terminal condition – without any sponsorship money to buy his way into one. 

This all left the rugged fourth of the second-generation Unsers – in his 48th year yet a three-time Indy 500 winner – firmly on the sidelines through the first week of practice. He had won the great race back in 1970-71 with the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team – then again in 1978 with Jim Hall’s Chaparral. 

During May ’87 practice and qualifying, Indy witnessed a rash of 25 crashes – in one of which British ex-Team Lotus driver Jim Crawford sustained serious leg injuries. Another sidelined was Penske driver Danny Ongais, with concussion. 

Al Unser was asked if he’d considered not coming to Indy to seek a ride. “No way – but if I didn’t get a ride by a certain date I was going to go home and come back for the race. You get tired of standing around. It does get boring…”. Roger Penske: “When Danny couldn’t continue, Al was looking for a ride and he was in our garage a lot. We knew that when Danny couldn’t run Al was the guy…”. They dragged out a year-old March 86C for him as third Penske team driver. It had been on display at a motel in Reading, Pennsylvania, its livery hastily changed from Hertz sponsorship to Cummins three days before final qualifying weekend. 

On race day, Mario Andretti in his red-liveried Lola-Chevrolet T87/00 totally dominated the 500 as he had throughout the entire month, even winning the pitstop competition. He tore away from pole position to lead immediately while in Turn One Josele Garza dived low and lost the back end of his March 87C alongside Al Sr’s 86C, almost taking him out before the race had really begun. 

Andretti would relinquish his lead temporarily only through the pitstops. He was chased all the way by Roberto Guerrero and Danny Sullivan but, after 90 of the 200 laps, Al Sr lay fourth. On lap 130 Tony Bettenhausen’s March 86C lost a wheel which Guerrero struck, hurling it high into the top row of grandstand K, where – tragically – it struck and killed 41-year-old spectator Lyle Kurtenbach.

With 25 laps left, Andretti was a lap ahead of Guerrero – wearing a fresh nosecone – and almost two laps clear of Al Sr, then third. Only 12 cars were still running, Al Sr’s being Penske’s sole survivor. Each of the top three needed one final refuelling stop. Roger Penske called Unser into the pits a few laps early to “put the pressure on Guerrero” in the hope of getting second place. But Andretti suddenly slowed, Guerrero ripping by. A fuel-metering unit failure was flooding Andretti’s Ilmor Chevrolet engine, and a valve spring broke. He coasted into his pit where the spark box and wastegate were replaced. Guerrero was leading, but had yet to refuel. 

With 20 laps to go, Guerrero lapped Al Sr in second place. Two laps later, the Colombian dived into the pits for his final stop, but damage inflicted by that wheel strike had affected his car’s clutch hydraulics and he stalled the engine. After restarting it stalled again… and Al Sr soared past into the lead. With 11 laps to go he was being baulked by rookie Fabrizio Barbazza’s third-placed March 87C – and with nine laps to run Guerrero unlapped himself. Andretti had rejoined but his car died on the track, on lap 192. The yellow flags bunched up the field, Guerrero queuing just six cars behind Al Sr. The green flag was waved with four laps to run… and Al Unser Sr beat Roberto Guerrero to the line by 4.496 seconds, to join A J Foyt as a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and, at 47 years of age, also the oldest.

And not only was that the 10th consecutive Indy win for the turbocharged Cosworth DFX V8 racing engine, but that 1987 Indy 500 was the first in which the entry list did not include a single American-built car – every one of the 33 was March- or Lola-built. It was a historic day for the British racing industry. Today, sadly, both constructors are merely history.

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