Among the drivers who delighted in playing the role of Superman at the Indianapolis 500, we had Al Unser who went in the opposite direction. Our favorite Everyman was more than happy to portray the unassuming role of Clark Kent.
That’s not to say the four-time Indy winner, who died on Thursday, was anything less than a Superman at the Speedway, but his modest style — one that made him feel more like a next-door neighbor than a racing icon — –stood in stark contrast to some of his contemporaries.
Al’s older brother Bobby had a mouth and love for the spotlight that covered the entire family, and as fans flocked to an A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti, Al Unser smiled warmly from a distance, content to let the adoration and cameras focus on the larger-than-life personalities.
Rooted in humility, free of self-importance, Unser’s values resonated with Indy’s largely Midwestern audience. His understated, workmanlike sensibilities felt familiar; if there was an IndyCar driver who just might stop on a country road and help you change a flat tire, it was “Big Al.” All the other trappings that came with his achievements, the stardom and attention, were currencies that held little value in Unser’s world. In driving, he found purpose and fulfillment, and boy, he was something to behold.
Unser was a perfect representative of the greats who dominated his generation. There were no bullrings, road courses, superspeedways, mountains, or arenas where Unser couldn’t perform at his peak. The New Mexican grew up slewing sideways on dirt and snow, throwing thousands of rocks from his spinning tires while snaking his way up Pikes Peak, and those skills continued to shine on dirt, tarmac, and city streets.
His open-wheel accolades dwarf most of those who came before or after the Albuquerque native. On top of the four visits to victory lane at Indy, he earned three IndyCar championships, scored all three 500-mile IndyCar wins in 1978 to claim the vaunted “Triple Crown,” recorded 39 IndyCar wins — still sixth on the all-time list — and we’ve only touched on the highlights. Across his three decades of full-time IndyCar racing, Unser finished inside the top five in the standings 14 times from 1966 through 1985. How remarkable.
His was a mastery of the slow burn. There was plenty of speed within Unser, of course, with a pole and five front-row starts at Indy, but his calm temperament outside the car was perfectly distilled into how he approached the grandest races. Unser would build, and build, and build, letting his rivals take risks and stress their engines, transmissions, and tires as he prepared to strike.
There were times where Unser went on the attack at the green flag, but on so many occasions, his formula revealed itself like a mystery movie with a huge plot twist saved for the final scene. I lost count of all the races where he was sitting in second or third with the checkered flag in sight and watched as the leader broke, crashed, or ran out of fuel. Forget luck; that was a skill.
I always thought of Unser as “Old Reliable.” Drop him into any car at any track, and he’d deliver. Most of his fellow greats from the same era possessed similar all-round skills, but only a few like Unser truly thrived wherever they drove. A run to fourth place at NASCAR’s 1968 edition of the Daytona 500 demonstrated Unser’s varied driving talents. He won a USAC dirt title in 1973, won in F5000, won in Can-Am, and added his name to the roster of overall winners at IMSA’s longest endurance event.
Unser’s humorous account of being lured by Foyt into competing in his first 24-hour race at Daytona with a Porsche 962 prototype in 1985 was a classic. The result also spoke to his immense versatility.
“That was my first 24-hour race, and we won it, which doesn’t happen often, I’m sure,” Unser said in a 2015 interview with RACER. “Well, Foyt told me, ‘We’ll go out and win it and it’ll be the greatest victory that you’ll ever realize.’ I said, ‘Really? Better than Indianapolis?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah, it will.’ I said, ‘OK.’
“We won and it wasn’t any better than Indianapolis… Indianapolis is still superior to me. I’m not sure where A.J. got that idea, or if he even believed it himself, but that’s what he told me to get me to go…”
That same year, Unser would clinch his final IndyCar championship by one point over his son, standing on the podium six times while beating a brutal assembly of pursuing talent led by Al Jr., Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. The extraordinary Unser was 46 years old at the time. The ageless wonder won his fourth Indy 500 two years later, five days shy of his 48th birthday.
Unser was also responsible for two important firsts and one major last, starting with bringing Porsche into IndyCar in 1987 when he introduced the German factory team to the CART IndyCar Series at Laguna Seca. It was back in 1976, while driving for Vel Miletich and 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, where Unser opened a bigger account that forever changed IndyCar.
Having departed Formula 1, the VPJ team had a few 3.0-liter Cosworth DFV V8s left over and wanted to explore the idea of turbocharging the de-stroked engines — down to USAC’s 2.65-liter maximum — to see if their “VPJ Turbo Engine” was capable of beating the dominant turbo four-cylinder Offenhauser motor.
Unser’s first test with the engine at the former Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California provided the answer.
“If you have a secret better than anybody else, you’re not going to go around and advertise it,” he declared. “So I did say to the team, ‘Just don’t tell anybody how good this thing is!”
The Offy, despite being long in the tooth, owned Indianapolis for the better part of 50 years. A malfunction with the turbo’s wastegate in the back of the Parnelli chassis limited Unser to seventh at the 500, but the promise held by the VPJ Turbo Engine was impossible to ignore. Two races later at the Pocono 500, Unser broke through with the howling motor and claimed its first win.
From thereon, the turbo Cosworth DFV — renamed the DFX — would quickly reshape IndyCar racing as the 2.65-liter V8 formula was embraced as the new way forward. Independent tuners and IndyCar teams ordered DFX kits from Cosworth and built motors that made big, reliable power and offered exceptional fuel mileage.
Aptly, Unser bookended his top-tier IndyCar career by bringing the 1987 version of the Cosworth DFX its 10th consecutive and final Indy 500 win. Even better, he did so while driving for Roger Penske, who not only fired Unser at the end of the previous season and needed Big Al to step in at Indy for the injured Danny Ongais, but in winning, Unser also toppled Penske’s vaunted Chevy-Ilmor turbo V8 engines while driving a year-old March chassis powered by an unfavored Cosworth.
On top of becoming the newest member of the four-time winner’s club, Unser found a little bit of joy after serving The Captain a small dish of comeuppance.
“It was a fun time going against the Chevy company and outrunning them,” Unser admitted. “It just meant a lot.”
His smooth style would be rewarded one more time at Indy where he finished third on that frigid and crash-filled day in 1992 where his son won his first of two 500s. The original Al Unser was a week shy of turning 53 when he crossed the finish line. A few years removed from his last full-time ride in IndyCar, Unser kept busy with annual drives for the month of May, and while he wasn’t able to repeat the magic of Daytona in 1985, he did say farewell to the 24-hour race in 1991 as part of an all-Unser line-up with the Dauer Racing Porsche 962 team.
Partnered with Al Jr., plus brother Bobby and nephew Robby, the Unsers went up against the sister Dauer entry comprised of a certain Andretti family led by Mario and sons Michael and Jeff. On that occasion the clan from Nazareth, Pennsylvania got the upper hand, finishing fifth to the Unsers’ 35th.
Big Al handled the disappointment with class, as expected. Altogether, his life was an example for those who preferred a quieter, simpler existence. Well, except for all the times — countless times — where he and a certain three-time Indy 500 winner who shared the same last name and lived directly across the road tore into each other over some nonsensical dispute.
That clanging sound and all the hollering you hear overhead? It’s Al and Bobby, throwing celestial wrenches at each other. Long may the arguments continue among the Unser brothers. I have no doubt our man Robin Miller is right there in the middle, prodding both legends to say something meaner, doing his Uncle Bobby impressions, laughing hysterically.
With Big Al as the latest in a year where far too many obituaries have been written, I can only hope a reprieve is on the way for our favorite racers.