Main image: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
In 1970 Al Unser equalled AJ Foyt’s record-setting 1964 season by winning 10 USAC Championship races. Like Foyt six years earlier, Big Al won five races on paved ovals, Indy 500 included, and five on one-mile dirt tracks, a feat never again to be accomplished.
Al Sr was 31 at the time and in the prime of his long career, driving for Vel’s Parnelli Jones aboard turbo Ford-powered Lola-based Colt Indy cars and Ford V8-engined dirt cars built by Grant King. George Bignotti was VPJ’s chief mechanic and Unser was the man to beat in 1969, ’70 and ’71.
He won five races in ’69, despite missing the Indy 500 after breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident, and was darn near unbeatable the following year as he won the Indy 500 and nine other races, wrapping up the championship well before season’s end.
Unser, Rutherford and Foyt line up at Indy in 1970. Photo: IMS
In fact, Big Al accumulated 5130 points in 1970 – a USAC record – more than twice as many as older brother Bobby who finished second in that year’s championship. Bobby had won the USAC title and Indy 500 in 1968 and Al’s sweep two years later meant the Unser brothers became the first and only siblings to win the Indy 500 and Indycar championship.
Big Al was superb on the dirt, having learned his craft at Pike’s Peak where he won in 1964 and ’65, breaking brother Bobby’s run of six straight wins on the Colorado mountain climb. He was also an accomplished road racer, winning aboard a VPJ Lola F5000 car at Elkhart Lake in 1975 and a Frissbee Can-Am car at Laguna Seca in 1980.
Meanwhile, USAC decided to remove the dirt track races from its championship in 1971. Races on one-mile dirt ovals had been a staple of Indycar racing since the 1920s and USAC’s decision marked the end of a prolonged, classic era in American racing.
Al and Bobby, 1975. Photo: IMS
Still, Big Al won five of twelve races in ’71, taking the Indy 500 for the second year in a row but losing the championship battle to more consistent team-mate Joe Leonard, a motorcycle ace made good on four wheels. Unser went on to win his third Indy 500 in 1978 with Jim Hall’s Chaparral team. He also drove Hall’s Lola T500 to win the Pocono and California 500s in ’78, thus going down in Indycar history as the only man to win the ‘Triple Crown’.
Al continued to win races and championships into his 40s. He won the CART title in 1983 and ’85 driving for Penske and scored his fourth Indy 500 win aboard a Penske March-Cosworth in 1987 a few days before his 47th birthday. Al finished third in the 500 in 1988 and was third again in 1992 before retiring in 1994 when he was 53 with a record of 39 wins – four more than brother Bobby – and five more than son Al Jr. Only AJ Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti have more Indycar wins.
Big Al was renowned as a silky smooth driver who knew how to finish races in an era when reliability was always an issue. “I always felt that you first have to finish to finish first,” he remarked. “If you don’t finish the race, how can you finish up front? So therefore I always tried to finish regardless of whether it was second, third, or fourth or 10th.
In the Chaparral Lola at Brands Hatch, 1978
“I always felt I had to take care of the car. I felt within myself at every race to be gentle with the car and to do what the chief mechanic and the team tell you to do. During the races I guess I was always able to think about that and do it. I can’t answer why I did it other than that was my good point, I guess.”
Al’s technique was a contrast to his brother Bobby who was known as a hard charger. “I never thought about it like that,” Al responded. “Bobby was like Parnelli. His theory was he always had to lead. Bobby went through a period where he always had to lead. Another driver who was like that was Mario Andretti. His theory was to lead each and every lap and he broke the car a lot of times.
“Yes, Mario was probably hard on the car but he also had bad luck at Indianapolis. It just wasn’t meant for him to win more than once and you wonder why. Bobby too. But they were do or die. They just had to lead and dominate. They had to do it and they led a lot of laps but consequently they broke a lot of cars.”
Al’s career covered a lot of ground but he looks back on 1969, ’70 and ’71 as his strongest years. “If I hadn’t broke my leg in 1969 the car was totally capable of winning the 500 in ’69,” he says. “It was already there and 1970 showed it. Look at the races I won through the last half of ‘69 and in ‘70 I just dominated everything. The Indycar and the dirt car were both fantastic cars to drive.”
With Parnelli Jones in 1974
Unser gives full credit to George Bignotti. “Once George understood you he was absolutely a terrific mechanic. He could figure things out. George also always hired the right people. He put a team together and made it work. George had a knack for that. He was good at performing and making sure the car finished the races. As long as I didn’t crash, I finished the races. George Bignotti made my career. Without George I would’ve never been able to handle it.”
But in the summer of 1971 the VPJ team found themselves outpaced by new cars from McLaren and Eagle. “We thought we were going to rule the roost again in ’71 but it didn’t happen that way,” Al recalls. “I won Phoenix and I won at the Speedway and Milwaukee but after that I never finished another race that year. After the middle of ’71 everything went wrong. We took the Ford engines out and put the Offies in and there wasn’t anything that went right. Things just went to pieces and the car became obsolete overnight. But that’s technology. The McLarens and then Gurney and Bobby just had us covered.”
Nevertheless, Big Al has fond memories of a great era in American racing and is disgusted with modern Indycar racing and the arrival of the spec car age. “People were always trying new things and looking for new ways of doing things,” he says. “Today there isn’t any of that. It just tears me up. There’s nothing but a spec car to buy and you’re told what to do with it. You not allowed to do anything. It’s unbelievable!
In the Longhorn, 1981: not a successful partnership
“What made my era of racing was the competition and different ideas and thinking people had. I won races some years, then I was in a shitbox for a few years. That’s the way it went. Now, you can’t do anything but what you’re told to do.”
Like many veteran racers Unser believes a dramatic change should be made by IndyCar in the balance between power and downforce. He thinks much more power and less downforce is required.
“People ask me what should be done and I say to them that we can’t back up into the years I was racing. But they need to give the car another 500 horsepower and make it a flat-bottom car. Double the power and cut the downforce in half and they would run the same speed as today’s cars. But let me tell you, it would separate the men from the boys.
Avoiding a spinning Josele Garza (#55) and Kevin Cogan (#7) in 1987, his final Indy win. Photo: IMS
“I chuckle when I hear some of the drivers say that when they take on a full load of fuel the handling goes crazy. First of all I say, 18 gallons is a full load of fuel? Give them a car that you put 75 gallons into and see how they like it!
“I’d like to see it, but that will never happen again. Of course, it wouldn’t be safe. Back then we didn’t know any better, but that’s not the point many of us are trying to make. They’ve turned Indycar racing into a form of NASCAR restrictor plate racing and that’s wrong. I don’t believe the crowds and the media are going to come back until they change it.
“There’s nobody in the grandstands at so many of the races and nobody’s watching on TV, but they don’t want to admit there’s something wrong with the show they’re putting on.”
It’s sad that nobody at IndyCar cares to listen to these wise words from a legend of American racing.