The one that got away
Al Unser Snr: 1973 Indianapolis 500
He won it four times, but he has even more near misses to choose from. ‘Big Al’ tells Adam Cooper about the one that hurt the most
“Any motor race is important to you, but the most important is Indy. You can go anywhere in the world and say, ‘I raced at Phoenix last week,’ and they’ll just look at you and say ‘So?’ It’s the same for Milwaukee, Cleveland, Portland, etc. But if you say ‘Indianapolis’, theyll say, ‘Really, did you win it?’ That shows the importance of the place. It pays the most money and it gives the most prestige. When you walk away From there a winner, you know you’ve done something.
“I was fortunate to win it four times, but there are other years which I look back on and say, ‘If only…’ One was when I was in Jim Hall’s Chaparral in 1979. I was way ahead when the car broke. We went into the race knowing that we might have a problem with a certain item. And we did. If only we’d fixed it. But that new car, designed by John Barnard, was just unbelievably good.
“In 1972, I should have won the race, but I had a bad race car.
“I could keep naming the years, but the one I regret most is 1973, when I was ahead of Gordon Johncock — who eventually won — when my car failed. That year I was driving an Eagle for the Vel’s Parnelli team. The cars created a lot of horsepower — probably around 1300bhp — because of the way the rules were, and they went very fast. But today, if they had that kind of horsepower, they’d be running over 250mph round there — and that’s too fast.
“The meeting started badly when Art Pollard was killed in a crash in practice. Today, we know how unsafe those cars were, but at the time we didn’t, so it’s unfair to look back on it like that. We just thought they were safer than what we’d had before. For instance, when my brother Jerry was killed in 1959, they didn’t even have fuel bladders — they were really unsafe.
“The race was on Monday because it had been delayed by rain, but when it finally got under way there was a big crash at the start; I was one of the lucky ones that scraped through all that. The race was stopped. And then it rained again, so we had to try again on Tuesday… It rained then, too! We eventually got going on Wednesday.
“A delay like that is terrible for a driver, but it’s the same for everybody. You’ve got to refocus, sit down and figure out what you’ve done wrong with the car, or what you should change to make sure you keep up with the track changes. When it rains like that it’s going to change the track a lot. It’s a puzzle: some guys are lucky enough to get it right, some aren’t.
“I passed ‘Swede’ Savage for the lead on lap 54, but just after that he crashed and the race was stopped.
“I stayed in the lead when we restarted, and we had everything going our way, we really did. But then the motor dropped a valve and blew up.
“Such things have happened to all of us, but it’s a very empty feeling, regardless. Mario Andretti had very bad luck at Indy. I don’t think he was hard on the car, it’s just that his luck just never worked at that place — and we’ll never know why. Lloyd Ruby and Jim McElreath led the race, too, but they never won it because something funny always happened.
“You have to finish. There are always many drivers and teams who can say, ‘We should have…’ But the bottom line is that they didn’t. It should have been three wins in four years for me, but after 1973 I didn’t do well there again until ’78. Indianapolis is a place that you go to with high hopes of winning. And if you don’t win, you leave there very disgruntled. It doesn’t matter if there were rain delays or whatever — those are the kind of days you don’t want to remember.
“Savage died a few weeks later. He and Pollard were both good friends of mine. When you lose somebody like that you hang your head in sorrow. But you don’t cry every day; it’s a feeling that you hide within yourself as you go down the familiar road of ‘It’s never going to happen again’. You do that because if you thought it was going to happen again, you would not perform like you should.”