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Obituary

Al Unser Sr obituary: Four-time Indy 500 winner dies aged 82

Al Unser Jr once remarked, while revealing that he was as in awe of his father as were the rest of us: “Dad taught me everything I know… but he didn’t teach me everything that he knows.”

Al Unser

And now Al Unser, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, three-time Indycar champion, has left us at the age of 82 barely seven months after elder brother Bobby, leaving a similar-sized hole in the ranks of US open-wheel legends. He never relished the spotlight like Bobby, and would never have dreamt of being as strident, but while Al made his opinions known sotto voce, they were no less fervent.

The Unser brothers’ approach to racing was as disparate as their personalities outside the cockpit. Bobby was all about proving he was the best by running at the front as often as possible, and hoping the car would make it through in one piece. Al would look after the car, making sure it was healthy enough to fight for the win on the final lap.

“Al was never really big on qualifying,” recalled Rick Mears, his team-mate at Penske from 1983 to 1987. “But that meant that if he did start up front, you had to hang on come the race because he had the potential to head off into the distance. He reasoned that if he focused on race set-ups, he could work his way through – and he was absolutely right. Wherever he qualified, you had to keep your eye on Al because he’d be moving forward.

“If he was still running toward the end of a race, you better plan on having to deal with him because he and the car would still be strong and ready to fight. That was his whole MO – set up the car to be fast throughout a race, look after it until the last few stints, and then go for it. And it paid off – his finishing record, his top-five record, was the best. That’s what wins championships – racing smart – and that’s what Al always did.”

If Al earned ‘only’ 27 pole positions to Bobby’s 49, he also had a slightly better win tally (39-35), and earned one more title and one more Indy 500 triumph. And while he stuck rigidly to the policy of “the only lap you need to lead is the last one”, ironically Al still holds the record for most laps led in the 500 – 644, to be precise.

He loved that stat, because Indianapolis Motor Speedway meant so much to him, perhaps because he felt the need to conquer the track where his eldest brother Jerry had perished in 1959. In fact, Al was bewitched by the Speedway, gladly telling anyone that he’d have traded his three championships for one more Indy 500 victory, to be the only driver on five wins there.

“In ’67, I was second behind Foyt,” he recalled. “Yet the next day, someone asked me where I had finished. I was amazed! That taught me there’s only one place to be at the 500, and that’s number one.”

Al Unser dominated the 1970 Indy 500 for the first of his four wins at the famous speedway

Al Unser dominated the 1970 Indy 500 for the first of his four wins at the famous speedway

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

There was no question who occupied that slot in 1970, Unser’s second year at Vel’s Parnelli Jones, working with legendary chief mechanic George Bignotti. Driving the Johnny Lightning Special Colt-Ford, Unser dominated Indy, leading 190 of the 200 laps. It would be one of 10 wins for the Unser/VPJ combo that year, leading to a dominant championship triumph for the Albuquerque, New Mexico native.

Insight: How Unser wrote his name into folklore 

The competition caught and passed VPJ the following year, but at Indy Unser took one of his greatest wins by defeating Peter Revson in the vastly superior McLaren. Al would stay at VPJ until the end of 1977, and team co-owner Parnelli Jones – arguably the greatest Indycar driver in history – was a huge fan.

“Al was smooth and controlled, a real thinker behind the wheel,” he said. “He never talked a big game; he let his driving do the talking. As an owner, I couldn't ask for a better driver – hands down, the best. He was always there at the end and usually up front. He was an all-around class act.”

Unser would rack up a total of 24 victories at VPJ and form a bond with its rising young British engineer John Barnard. A switch to Jim Hall’s Chaparral team for 1978 provided Unser with his third Indy 500 win, and that year he went on to become the only driver to earn the “triple 500 crown”, with further triumphs at Pocono and Ontario Motor Speedway.

Nonetheless, Unser wasn’t terribly impressed with that Lola, but knew that Barnard was working on something very special for the team – the ground-effect Chaparral 2K. He would dominate the first half of the 1979 Indy 500, but there, like almost everywhere else, the car’s potential exceeded its ability to get to the finish without niggling problems.

At the season finale in Phoenix, however, the stars aligned and Unser won… yet by then he had decided to follow Barnard out the door, believing that the rising star designer wasn’t being given enough credit by the team for the stunning ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Al Unser after winning the 1978 Indy 500

Al Unser after winning the 1978 Indy 500

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Unser thus handed the keys of this remarkable car to Johnny Rutherford, just as Chaparral smoothed out its wrinkles. Lone Star JR went on to dominate the 1980 championship – and win the 500 – while Unser would spend three frustrating years at the start-up Longhorn team.

Then came the second wind of his career, which led to two championships in three years with Team Penske, but it was Unser’s final Indy 500 triumph, in 1987, that cemented his legend.

As a late substitute for the injured Danny Ongais, and driving a year-old March that had been rescued from a display in a hotel lobby, Unser was in the right place at the right time when Mario Andretti’s car wilted in the closing stages and, at the age of 47, he became only the second driver in history to win four Indy 500s.

Unser once remarked: “I wasn’t paid to sell myself. I was paid to perform”, and that’s exactly what he did. He may have been reluctant to acknowledge it, but he was a true superstar of the sport.

Unser pictured with fellow four-time Indy 500 winners AJ Foyt (left), Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves earlier this year

Unser pictured with fellow four-time Indy 500 winners AJ Foyt (left), Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves earlier this year

Photo by: Chris Owens

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