In one of the most distinctive cars and one of the most dominating drives, Al Unser began his legendary status at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway exactly 50 years ago.
The first of his four Indy 500 wins was the easiest as he led 190 of the 200 laps in the Johnny Lightning PJ Colt/Ford and gave co-owner Parnelli Jones his second trip to Victory Lane.
Big Al was never one to give away secrets or share a lot of information, but after drinking the milk he made what was then a startling confession. “I thought I drove a conservative pace,” said the then 31-year-old after joining brother Bobby on the Borg-Warner Trophy. “I could have gone harder if needed, but my car just performed beautiful all day and I never had to extend myself. I was pretty confident going into this race.”
As he should have been with George Bignotti turning the wrenches, Charlie Tabucchi building the engines and Topper Toys giving Vel’s/Parnelli Jones Racing one of the first big-time sponsors in IndyCar. After a five-win season in 1969 with a Lola, Bignotti and bodyman Joe Fukashima re-engineered Eric Broadley’s creation and it became the Colt chassis. After one test at Phoenix, Unser knew he had something special.
“We broke the track record and it handled like nothing else I’d ever driven there,” said Unser.
The season opener at Phoenix in March was a preview of May, as Unser waxed the field and lapped everyone but his brother. He captured the pole position at Indianapolis by a fraction of a second over Johnny Rutherford, and J.R. actually took the lead going into Turn 1 at the start of the race.
“I let him go because I didn’t want to see him get stuck up high and maybe cause a wreck, but then I passed him on the backstretch and nobody got near me the rest of the day,” recalled Unser, who received a $30,000 bonus from Topper Toys and beat runner-up Mark Donohue by 32 seconds.
Unser went on to 10 victories in 1970 and won the last true USAC championship (dirt and pavement) by almost 3,000 points. But his Indy win was not only a defining moment in his career, it was also a glimpse of his smarts and race craft for the next 20 years. When he had a winning car, he won. When he had a third place car, he finished third.
“Al was a smart, patient driver and I wish I had been more like him, I could have probably won Indy a couple more times,” said Jones. “That year was just magic with that car, our Ford engine, a good sponsor and Al’s driving.”
That Johnny Lightning paint scheme helped sell the toy car version and allowed Topper Toys to challenge Mattel and today that car remains one of the most beloved in IndyCar history.
“I got a model on my desk and see it every day,” said Jones. “I never get tired of looking at it.”