One family – the Unsers – has enjoyed more success at the Indianapolis 500 than any other in its 100-year history
By Gordon Kirby
Without doubt they are the first family of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Between 1968-94, the Unsers — Bobby, Al and Al Jr — won nine Indy 500s, an incomparable record unlikely to be equalled. Older brother Bobby won three times, Al is a rare four-time winner, with the final two victories going to his son Al Jr.
The Unsers made their name at Colorado’s Pikes Peak hillclimb, which Bobby won 13 times. In fact the family record at Pikes Peak embraces 24 wins over three generations. Bobby arrived at Indianapolis in 1963, racing a series of Novi-powered front-engined cars (including a Ferguson 4WD) for Andy Granatelli until 1965. He finally hit a winning combination three years later after joining Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team, with A JWatson and Jud Phillips as chief mechanics. Victory came in a second-generation Eagle with a turbocharged Offenhauser engine after Bobby had led for most of the race.
“Wilke was a good owner,” he says. “He wasn’t the big spender but he was the Roger Penske of that era. I remember we had some clutch trouble in the race but the car worked really good. We had 75 gallons [of fuel] on board in those days and you ran a long time between pitstops. Those were the days you got blisters on your hands.”
Bobby battled with Lloyd Ruby’s Gene White Mongoose-Offy and Joe Leonard’s STP Lotus turbine, but both ran into trouble, so Bobby led an Eagle 1-2 with Dan Gurney in second place in All American Racers’ Ford/Weslake car. Unser went on to win that year’s USAC championship, narrowly beating Mario Andretti and younger brother Al.
Al had made it to Indy two years after his sibling. He finished second behind A JFoyt in 1967 driving Al Retzloff’s Lola-Ford, before joining the burgeoning Vel’s Parnelli Jones team in ’69. But Al missed that year’s 500 after breaking his leg while fooling around with team owner Jones on a pair of motorcycles. He bounced back to win consecutive 500s in 1970 and ’71, driving a pair of Lola-based Johnny Lightning Colt-Fords.
Al also dominated the 1970 USAC championship by winning 10 races — five of them in Colt Indycars and the rest in Ford-powered King dirt championship cars. This was the last year that dirt tracks featured in USAC and George Bignotti, VPJ’s chief mechanic, took the team’s Lola Indycars and turned them into Colts with a different suspension and other tweaks.
“George was a terrific mechanic,” says Al. “He hired the right people, put a team together and made it work. George Bignotti made my career. If I hadn’t broke my leg in 1969 that car was capable of winning, and in 1970 it showed. As you know, technology moves on. Back in the late ’60s a car would last five or six years, but from 1970 on they became obsolete overnight because of technology and the designers.”
That year Al led all but 10 laps at the Motor Speedway and won by more than half a minute from Mark Donohue in Penske’s Lola Ford with Gurney third in his AAR Eagle-Offy. The following year was tougher, with serious competition from Donohue (Penske McLarenOffy), VPJ team-mate Joe Leonard and brother Bobby (AAR Eagle-Offy). But they all broke down, leaving Al to beat Peter Revson in a works McLaren.
“That was a hard race,” recalls Al. “I still say that if Revson had been a sharper, more polished oval driver I’d never have outrun him. He was just too new to Indianapolis and oval racing. If that had been Donohue, I wouldn’t have made it.”
By this time the aerodynamic revolution was well and truly underway at Indianapolis. McLaren developed its successful M16 wedge or wing car that would win the 500 with Donohue and Penske in 1972, and again with Johnny Rutherford for the works team in 1974 and ’76. Gurney and AAR had created a similar but different solution with the 1972 Eagle, while Bob Riley designed Foyt’s wedge Coyote and later Pat Patrick’s Wildcats.
“We thought we would rule the roost again in 1971, but it didn’t happen,” says Al. “I won Phoenix, the Speedway and Milwaukee, but I never finished another race that year. Things went to pieces and the car became obsolete overnight. The McLarens and then Gurney and Bobby had us covered. From the middle of ’71 onwards everything went wrong. We took the Ford engines out and put Offys in and there wasn’t anything that went right.”
As Al foundered, Bobby hit his stride with All American Racers and Roman Slobodynskyj’s Eagle. He broke the Indianapolis track record by more than 17mph when he took pole position for the 1972 race. Later that season he and team-mate Jerry Grant became the first men to lap an oval at over 200mph.
“We made almost an 18mph gain that year, the biggest increase in the history of the 500,” grins Bobby. “Roman designed a good car, one that didn’t break. Just imagine the amount of downforce we gained with that car. And man, did we have horsepower! That car was acres ahead of everything.”
Bobby failed to finish at Indy in 1972 (broken ignition rotor) and ’73 (blown engine), and was second to Rutherford in ’74, but finally won the following year. The race was shortened by rain, and Rutherford often says he could have beaten Bobby if the final 26 laps had been run. Bobby disagrees: “Rutherford always says he was going to catch me, but I’d made my last pitstop and [engine man] John Miller had put some boost in. After that I could’ve passed Rutherford in the short chutes. Him thinking he could have passed me is so full of shit.”
Because he feared Bobby was running his engine too hard, team boss Gurney wouldn’t let him have an onboard boost control knob — something that most other drivers enjoyed. “Dan thought I was killing the engines because I broke a lot of them. Maybe I drove ’em a little too hard. But in my world a race driver is supposed to drive as hard as he can, and that’s what I did. Dan made me run that whole race where I was guaranteed, in his opinion, not to break the engine. I hate to admit it, but Dan probably did me a favour.”
Bobby and Gurney parted ways at the end of 1975. Bobby took an Eagle and most of his crew to Bob Fletcher’s Cobre Tire team for the next two seasons, before returning to AAR in ’78 for a frustrating year with a new EagleCosworth. “Dan Gurney is still one of the biggest things that happened in my career and one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” says Bobby. “But we weren’t getting along. We argued too much and went our own ways.”
Al had also been on the move, leaving VPJ at the end of 1977 and joining Jim Hall’s new team. Hall hoped to race his new Chaparral in ’79, with a Lola Indycar commissioned in the interim. The car wasn’t fast, but it was reliable, and incredibly Al won not only the ’78 Indy 500 but also the Pocono and California 500s — the only man to secure USAC’s ‘Triple Crown’.
“How we did that I’ll never know,” he says. “That car didn’t handle good at all. Yes, I had a good team and everything went right. But that car, other than in the 500s, was a shitbox. The team made it finish.”
In 1979, driving the new Chaparral 2K, Al dominated half the 500 before retiring with an overheated transmission. He won just one race with the 2K — the season-closer at Phoenix — before quitting the team after a series of disagreements with Hall. Al was then replaced by Rutherford, who won the 1980 Indy 500 and the CART title.
Bobby had joined Roger Penske’s team for ’79, staying there for the remaining three years of his career. “Penske took off the gloves,” says Bobby. “He said, ‘Fight however you want to fight.’ I told Roger, ‘I don’t work like a normal driver. I have to be the one making decisions’, and he said, ‘You make the decisions any way you want to.’ Penske let me have the authority and I got results.”
The older Unser was teamed with Rick Mears, whom he respected, but they didn’t work together as a unit. “I’m sure I was a little bit of a rabble-rouser in those days and I didn’t make a good team-mate,” he admits. “Rick was as good a team-mate as I could have had. He could win races and championships. But in my world secrecy was such a big thing because there was so much innovation.”
Bobby helped develop Penske’s first groundeffect cars, the PC7, PC9 and 9B. He won 11 races for the team including the 1981 500 — his third and final success at the Speedway. “That year the car, the team, everything was ideal. It was similar to 1972 with Gurney. I had a car that was decidedly better than everybody else’s. I was smarter in ’81 than in ’72, even though back then I drove the car easier than it could’ve been driven. But in ’81 I did it the right way. We were the car to beat all day, and even the dispute about me passing cars under the yellow couldn’t take that race away from me.”
The morning after the 500 Bobby was penalised one position for passing lapped cars under the yellow line, ceding the victory temporarily to Mario Andretti. Roger Penske protested the decision, which was finally resolved in Unser’s favour that October. “There was nothing wrong with what I did,” says Bobby. “That was an acceptable and legal thing. Exiting Turn 2 is where the pit entrance ended, and that’s where I passed those cars. It didn’t make any difference — we were going to win. The sad part was that it brought a lot of bad attention to Indycar racing.”
Bobby quit Penske that winter and took up briefly with Pat Patrick’s team before retiring. Al carried on, enthusiastic as ever, driving for Bobby Hillin’s Longhorn team for three years before also joining Penske in 1983. Al won the CART title that year and again in ’85 by a single point from Al Jr, driving for Doug Shierson. But the next year Al Sr was relegated to a third-string role behind Mears and Sullivan, running only the three 500s. He agreed to a similar deal for ’87, but Ted Field bought the ride for Danny Ongais for the month of May. So Al was without a ride until Ongais crashed in the second week of practice at Indy. Suddenly he was back in business aboard a year-old March-Cosworth.
“There were six or seven guys trying to hire me, but I didn’t feel they were capable of winning,” he says. “Then Roger asked if I would run the third car. Whether it could win or not, nobody knew. But I figured I could run up front and finish better than with anything else. And things just fell into place.”
Mario Andretti dominated that year’s 500 in Newman/Haas’s lone Lola-Chevrolet, running away from the field until his engine dropped a valve. Andretti’s DNF opened the door to another Unser victory as Al came through to beat Roberto Guerrero for his fourth win.
“When the green flag dropped we went down into the first corner and Josele Garza went by and spun in front of me,” Al grimaces. “We touched, but it didn’t hurt anything on his car or mine. Right then I said, let’s play it cool. Then Mario went by and put me a lap down. When he lapped me in just 25 laps it really did wake me up. Nobody else lapped me, and Guerrero and I went at it all day. We couldn’t outrun each other.”
Late in the race, after Mears and Sullivan had retired with engine trouble, Penske took over Al’s radio. “Roger came on the radio and said, ‘We’re going to pit early and put the pressure on Guerrero.’ I did what I was told. Roger said, ‘Just don’t make a mistake.’ I didn’t, and Guerrero did. He stalled in the pits and burned up his clutch.
“Penske still takes gambles. Sometimes they don’t work, but 90 per cent of the time they do. He’s very remarkable like that.”
Al drove for Penske at Indy for two more years, finishing third in 1988 behind Mears and Fittipaldi. In ’89 he qualified second but broke a clutch in the race. Al’s last 500 was in ’92, when he replaced Nelson Piquet after the Brazilian crashed heavily. Driving one of John Menard’s Lola-Buicks, he came through the field for third behind Al Jr and Scott Goodyear.
Al Jr had made his first start at Indy in 1983 aged 21, driving first for Rick Galles, then Doug Shierson. Back with Galles in ’89, he was challenging Fittipaldi late in the race when they collided on the penultimate lap. Al crashed heavily, but jumped out to famously give `Emmo’ a victory wave (see page 65)…
Junior’s big days at the Speedway came in 1992 in Galles’s Galmer-Chevy and in ’94 aboard a Penske-Mercedes. His first win was a late-race surprise after others crashed in uncommonly cold weather. Designed by Alan Mertens, the Galmer had plenty of downforce but too much drag.
“When we started testing it didn’t have the performance we were hoping for,” recalls Al Jr. “It wasn’t very fast in a straight line. We went to Surfers Paradise for the first race of 1992 and sat on pole. It seemed to be a pretty good road-racing car on a tight circuit that didn’t have long straightaways.”
Unser’s team-mate Sullivan won the Long Beach street race before the month of May. But at Indy the Galmer’s straightline speed deficit meant Sullivan qualified eighth and Unser 12th. “We were hoping for a hot race because it would give the Galmer an advantage,” says Al Jr.
But race day was cold, with temperatures struggling to get up to 4deg C. “When I woke up I said to myself, ‘We’ll have to wait until next year.’ It was so cold that [polesitter] Guerrero crashed on the parade lap trying to warm up his tyres. It became a race of survival.”
In frigid conditions there were many accidents. Mario Andretti crashed on a restart and broke a foot, while youngest son Jeff broke both legs and a hip in another bad accident. But Michael Andretti dominated in a Newman/Haas LolaFord Cosworth, running away from the field until his fuel pump drive belt broke with 11 laps to go. “Michael understood what the day was about and he was gone,” says Al. “He had the fastest car and had the field covered. He did a fantastic job in difficult conditions.”
Unser had been racing hard with Goodyear for second. “When Michael broke I’d just passed Scott for the third or fourth time after lapped traffic destroyed his momentum. Then it was a race between us for the win. I had the car laid out as low as I could, trying to get some straightline speed. I ran those last laps wideopen doing everything I could to stop Scott getting a draft on me. I was weaving back and forth on the straightaways, but I was getting looser every lap.
“Finally on the white flag lap I went into Turn 3 and the back end broke loose. Then when I went into Turn 4 to come around for the chequer the back stepped out and I had to get out the throttle. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve blown another one’, because Goodyear had a tremendous run on me. I honestly thought I’d lost. I tried to make my car as wide as I could and barely beat him. Had it gone one more lap Goodyear would’ve passed me going into Turn 1.”
That was Al Jr’s 10th start at Indy, and it was a great relief to finally win. “My lifelong dream was to race in the 500 and win it. I’d already won Long Beach four times and the CART championship in 1990. But the one race I wanted most was the one that was eluding me. When we finally got it in ’92 it was like I’d been carrying around this stack of bricks on my shoulders that suddenly disappeared. I could breathe. It was truly an emotional day.”
Following his move to Penske — the third Unser to drive for the team — Al Jr won Long Beach a fifth time and seven other races to seal the 1994 CART title, driving a standard four-cam, 2.65-litre Ilmor-powered PC23. But Penske commissioned Ilmor to build a special 3.4-litre, single-cam pushrod engine for the 500, taking advantage of USAC’s rules and selling MercedesBenz on branding it (see story in August 2010 issue). The engine, producing over 1000bhp, was developed amid great secrecy. After months of testing it finally completed a 500-mile run at the Michigan Speedway on the same weekend that practice started at Indianapolis.
“I was testing when the engine finally went 500 miles without a failure,” says Al Jr. “It was high risk because when Mercedes put their stamp on it the engine hadn’t gone 500 miles. We had to be careful how fast we went in practice because USAC’s chief steward could lower the boost at any time. I would run a few laps and get close to P1, and Roger would say, ‘Get out of the car. You’re done for the day.”
Al admits that team-mate Fittipaldi did a better job of sorting his car. But Al took pole after drawing a better qualifying position than Emerson, who was compelled to make his run on day two in hot, windy conditions. When the race started the pair left the rest behind.
“I led until the first stop, then I stalled in the pits,” recalls Al. “That engine didn’t idle very well or pull away well from a dead stop. So Emerson got the lead and took off. Near the end of the race he was trying to put me a lap down because I’d made a pitstop and he still needed to make his final stop. Emerson tried so hard he ended up losing control coming off Turn 4 and hit the wall. I couldn’t believe it. He was the only one I was racing against, and to win with ‘The Captain’ after all that secret testing was truly great.”
Thus Al Jr scored the family’s ninth Indy victory to complete an unparalleled story in the Speedway’s epic 100-year history. In this way, no other family comes close to the Unsers.