The wait for racing cars to return to the streets of Long Beach is a little longer than usual this time around. But in the decades since the inaugural event, enough stories have sprung up around the race to fill a book – which is exactly what Gordon Kirby has done with Chris Pook & the History of the Long Beach GP. RACER.com is running a series of excerpts to help you pass the time while we wait for racing to resume. Given that’s still some weeks away though, you might want to order the entire thing…
Al Unser Jr. stands without rival as the King of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Al won six Long Beach GPs, including four in a row between 1988-1991. His two other wins came in 1994 and ’95. Unser also finished second twice in 1986 and ‘87 and third once in 1996, so that over an 11-year stretch from 1986-1996, he stood on the podium nine times at Long Beach. Nobody else, Mario Andretti included, enjoys a similarly powerful record in the California streets.
Unser’s only controversial win at Long Beach occurred in 1989 when he knocked Andretti out of the race while trying to pass Mario for the lead late in the race.
“In 1989 we had everybody covered,” Al recalls. “I was driving a Lola and Alan Mertens was my engineer. Alan later designed the Galmer Indy car and he made a change to the Ackerman in our car’s steering. We had tested at Big Springs in Texas with Alan’s change to the Ackerman and we really got the car working.
“We went to Long Beach and unloaded for the first practice and I remember after the first five laps I was too quick! So I turned my boost down by almost two inches and left it there for the rest of practice. I turned the power down and we started really working on getting the car right. At the end of practice we were third quick, a couple of tenths off the fastest time.
“In those days we had an hour and a half’s practice on Friday and then half an hour of qualifying in the afternoon. On Saturday we had an hour’s practice in the morning before the final half-hour of qualifying in the afternoon. On Friday afternoon I remember sitting on the pole by a huge margin, about a second and a half.
“Michael was P2 that day and on Friday evening around six o’clock Shelley and I were leaving the Hyatt hotel to go to a sponsor dinner. We were waiting for the valet to bring our car around when Mario and Michael arrived and they cornered me right there in front of the Hyatt. ‘Where did you get that second?’ they asked. ‘Where did that come from?’ I said we just had the car working really well. I wasn’t going to tell them about the changes Alan had made to the Ackerman. It really made the car turn well. It was all Alan’s brainchild.
“In Saturday’s qualifying I sat in the pits most of the time. Michael came within half a second of my time and I remember my dad saying that if they come within a half-second you need to get out there. So I went out with 10 minutes to go and the track had changed and was much slicker. I couldn’t even match Michael’s time, but we were already on pole by half a second.
“We were quick in the race as well, but we were using too much fuel and I had to start saving fuel before my last pitstop. Rick Galles was telling me on the radio every lap to save more fuel, and after a while I told him Mario was catching me. I asked, what should I do? Save fuel or go for it? Rick said, ‘What ’til he gets to you. Then we’ll decide.’ Mario caught me just before the last pitstop and Rick said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let him past you!’ I said, ‘Do you want me to save fuel or not?’
“So we made the last stop and Mario came out in front of me. I was way quicker than he was but he was doing a good job of blocking me at the first turn at the end of Shoreline Drive and I got a little impatient. When I made my move I wasn’t looking at what was happening in front of Mario. It was my mistake. We went through turn one and the left-hand turn that followed in those days. The next turn was a right-hander which was where I was going to make my move. I didn’t see the two lapped cars that were in front of Mario and when they got on the brakes it was a chain reaction. Mario had to stop a little early while I was in the process of making my move on him. He stayed to the right when I expected him to go to the left and I ran into the back of him. I hit Mario, flattened one of his tires and took him out of the race.
“This was with about 12 laps to go and I was pissed! I didn’t want to win that way. I wanted to pass him clean and drive away. He was the King of Long Beach and I wanted to dethrone him in the right way. I didn’t want to knock him out of the race. I didn’t want to win that way.
“So it was a sad victory podium. There was a lot of drama and when we were on the podium Shelley said, ‘Here comes Mario!’ He walked up and he never did reach me because some people were trying to keep us apart. He said, ‘Al, let’s do this again some time.’ Then he walked away. Then of course, he got on TV and was very critical of me. My uncle Bobby was on TV working as an announcer and he said, ‘You can’t throw rocks in a glasshouse.’ So you had the Unsers and the Andrettis bad-mouthing each other in the press as we were getting ready to go to Indianapolis for the month of May. It was bad.
“Before going to Indy there was an IROC race at Nazareth, Mario’s hometown. So I went to the IROC race and went to Mario’s house to talk it out. He realized then that I didn’t do it on purpose, that it truly was an accident. But I was being too impatient, and that’s what Mario said to me that day at his house. He said, ‘Al, there’s a fine line between being aggressive and being too aggressive. You have to be aggressive to be a winner, but there’s a really fine line between being too aggressive and lately, you’ve been too aggressive.’
“And he was right. I needed to dial it back a little bit. I needed to see what was going in front of the car that’s in front of me. I was concentrating too much on Mario’s car and not seeing the big picture. That’s what I learned from Long Beach in 1989.”