Al Unser’s run in the 1993 Indianapolis 500 would come to represent a milestone for the Speedway’s most successful drivers. A.J. Foyt, the first member of the four-time winner’s club, was entered in the 1993 race and took part in practice before deciding to retire on May 15 with a single tear-filled lap. Rick Mears, the last member of Indy’s most exclusive club, retired in December of 1992.
It left Unser, the second four-timer and last active driver among the trio of Indy titans, to represent the group in what would prove to be his farewell to the 500. In a span of six months, all of Indy’s four-time winners would close their respective chapters at the Brickyard.
Twenty-five years on, “Big Al” took a walk down Gasoline Alley to share memories from his last hurrah with Kenny Bernstein’s King Racing team.
“John Menard decided in the beginning of ’93 to put another guy in charge of his racing activities,” he said of the change from Menard Racing to the King program. “And he never was involved in racing whatsoever, so him and I didn’t get along right away. I just decided not to run for him, and then I called Kenny Bernstein, because Kenny had called me and asked me if I would [drive], and I told him [no]. Then when this happened [with Menard], then I called Kenny back and said, ‘Is that ride still open?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, here I am.’ So then that’s how I got hooked up with Kenny, and Kenny put a big effort towards it.”
Unser’s No. 80 Lola-Chevrolet turbo V8 wasn’t blessed with speed in qualifying. The legend, teamed with Roberto Guerrero and Jim Crawford in King’s three-car effort, would start 31st. Crawford, in 30th, was in a similar predicament. Guerrero, the 1992 Indy 500 polesitter for Bernstein, could only manage 17th, which spoke to the general performance downturn at play.
Race Day was a different tune as chassis setup improvements gave Unser –one day after his 54th birthday — a chance to shine.
“We would’ve finished very well,” he added. “The motor went sour; I could’ve won the race, but everybody says that. But I was in contention. I was running third or fourth, if I remember right, and I was right where I wanted to be towards the end of the race. Then we made a fuel stop, and when we came off the fuel run, when the green came out, the thing started missing. That did it. They just all went by me like I was parked.”
The four-timer would plummet to 12th at the finish, one lap down to Team Penske’s Emerson Fittipaldi who joined the two-time winner’s club. Unser still laments the outcome.
“The Speedway, it’s a jewel to me, you know?” he said. “It’s something that I think anybody that runs there — I don’t know about most of the young drivers today… [but] that place has the finesse that you have to go after. It sometimes smiles on you and sometimes fails on you, so you never know exactly what’s going to happen, and it’s a difficult place. You think you got it made there sometimes, and sure enough, something goes wrong at the end, as it did in ’93. I still think we could’ve won the race, but you can’t win it on seven cylinders.”
Determined to go out on a high, Unser tried to add one more chapter to his Indy career in 1994 with the Arizona Motorsports team. A small outfit by comparison to the rest, Unser’s quest for a fifth ring came to a quiet end after a slow qualifying run that was waved off.
“There comes a time in your career or your life that you know that you’re not happy or you’re not competitive,” he said. “Plus I wasn’t with a good team that year, and the team just wasn’t producing, and I wasn’t … I don’t think I was driving like I should’ve been driving, see? I put myself out there on the apron watching Al [Jr] qualify, and I looked at myself and I said, ‘What am I doing? What is this about, Al?’ You know, talking to myself.
“I just said, ‘Well, you don’t have the desire nor the will to go after it anymore. You need to quit.’ I always said that when it comes time for you to quit or retire, you’ll know it. I just looked at myself and said, ‘It’s time.’ So I went in and told them, ‘I’m going to retire. I’m quitting,’ and I made a promise to myself that I would never come back, and I have lived up to that.”
Unser says it doesn’t feel like a quarter-century has passed since he was hurtling into Turn 1 at Indy.
“I think it feels like yesterday, but I know when I retired in ’94, every year after that for a long time, I would get very excited during Indy time. Now I don’t,” he admitted. “Now I just take it for granted, you know? I still want to watch the race on TV, and when I can go there, I still want to go there and watch it because I still get excited in a different way.”