Although Al Unser (born 1939) may not be ranked as the greatest race-car driver of all time, he is the most successful racer in the history of the Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway. During his three-decade career Unser had four first-place finishes, three second-place finishes, four third-place finishes, one fourth-place finish, one fifth-place finish, and two other top-ten finishes in the race.
Alfred Unser was born on May 29, 1939, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The youngest of four brothers, he grew up in a racing family. His father Jerry and uncles Louis and Joe were or had been race car drivers, and although they never made it to the Indianapolis 500 they were annual competitors in Colorado's Pikes Peak International Hill Climb starting in 1926. Joe Unser was the first member of the Unser family to lose his life racing, dying in 1929 following an accident in Colorado while testdriving a FWD Coleman Special.
Unser's eldest brother, Jerry, a rising star in the racing world, was the reigning national stock car champion in 1956. Jerry Unser became the first family member to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1958, finishing 31st. A year later, he lost his life following a fiery crash during a practice run, leaving other family members to compete in his stead. By 2002 six Unsers had competed in the Indy 500: brothers Al and Bobby, as well as Al's son, Al Jr., with a combined nine victories, had walked away with over a quarter of all Indy first-place wins. Bobby Unser (born 1934) made his first appearance in the Indy 500 in 1963 and won the race in 1968, 1975, and 1981. Al Unser, Jr. (born 1962) went on to become the first second-generation Indy 500 champion. Besides Al Jr., other Indy competitors in the Unser family include Jerry's son Johnny and Bobby's son Robby.
The first Indianapolis 500 was held on Memorial Day 1911, at the Indianapolis, Indiana Motor Speedway. Built in 1909 as a testing ground for Indiana's then rapidly expanding automobile industry, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was originally used to promote automobile sales. Affectionately known as "The Brickyard," the track was originally surfaced with paving bricks. Although the modern track is covered by asphalt, most of the original paving bricks are still in place under the asphalt surface. Running 2.5 miles in length, the track has four turns linked by two long straight sections and two short straight sections. Today, billed as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 500-mile competition is America's premier automobile race, pitting drivers against each other as they travel at average speeds well in excess of 150 miles per hour (mph).
In 1957 18-year-old Unser began driving modified roadsters in Albuquerque. He first drove in the Pike's Peak Hill Climb in 1960, taking second in that race to his older brother Bobby's first. He also won the dirt track "Hoosier Hundred" four years in a row. In 1964 Unser made his Indy car debut in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Later the same year he won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, putting an end to his brother Bobby's six-year winning streak. During this time he also raced sprints and midgets.
In 1965 Unser entered his first Indy 500, finishing ninth after starting in the last row. That same year he also captured his first "champ car" victory at Pikes Peak. In 1967 he came in second in the Indy 500, finishing behind A. J. Foyt, and claimed his first lead position by posting the fastest qualifying speed. Racing United States Auto Club stock cars, Unser was named Rookie of the Year, and in 1968 won five consecutive races and took five poles—the pole, or lead starting, position is awarded to the car with the fastest qualifying time. He was unable to compete in the 1969 Indy 500 due to a broken leg, but the year nevertheless saw him win five races in 19 starts.
In 1970 Unser drove his Johnny Lightning Special to an Indy 500 victory after leading for all but ten of the 200 laps and maintaining an average speed of 155.749 mph. Among his competitors in the race was his brother Bobby. Aided by a pit crew able to provide the driver with lightning-quick pit stops, Unser went on to accumulate a total of ten victories on oval road and dirt tracks during the 1970 season, earning him the United States Auto Club national championship. In the same year, he took eight poles, including at Indianapolis. Unser would later tell ESPN.com: "Everything went right that year. Everything. The car was right. The mechanics. I was right. You find that very seldom. I was almost un-beatable."
In 1971 Unser repeated his previous year's Indy 500 victory, averaging 157.735 mph to become one of only four back-to-back winners. He has maintained that the biggest difference in his two victories was that, after the second one, he did not have any trouble finding the victory lane. There was a near tragedy during the 1971 race, however, when Unser's brother Bobby was involved in a two-car crash. Unser, though he saw the accident, didn't find out whether his brother was alright until the next lap, when he saw Bobby standing beside the track waving at him.
Following his 1971 repeat Indy 500 win, Unser went four years with only a single major racing victory. In 1972 he just missed his bid to become the first person to win the Indy 500 three times in a row after he finished second to Mark Donohue. In 1973 Unser joined the Penske racing team, posting ten top-five finishes and claiming a second PPG Industries championship.
In 1977 Unser won races at Pocono, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. He also came in second in Indy-car points—points are awarded to the fastest qualifier and to the driver leading by the most laps in a race-and won the International Race of Champions (IROC) championship. The following year he took racing's Triple Crown by winning at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Ontario. He also recaptured the IROC championship.
Entering the 1978 Indianapolis 500 in a FNCTC Chaparral Lola, Unser was considered a long shot in that year's race. Then, during the 75th lap, he took the lead. With less than a third of the race remaining, his closest competitor blew an engine and Unser went on to win the race with an average speed of 161.363 mph. Unser's combined victories at Indianapolis, Pocono, and the California 500's in 1978 made him the first driver to clinch what were quickly dubbed "Triple Crown" honors.
In 1983 Unser became the first driver to race against his son, Al Jr., in the Indy 500, then went on to capture the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) championship series. Two years later, at the age of 46, he became the oldest ranking Indy car-CART champion after defeating Al Unser, Jr. by one point.
The year 1987 marked Unser's most exciting Indy 500 victory. That year car owner Roger Penske dropped the 48-year-old Unser from his racing team in favor of a younger driver named Danny Ongais. After Ongais crashed his car into a wall during practice shortly before qualifications, both the driver and Penske's car were out of commission. The Penske team quickly began readying a used 1986 March that had been sitting in a hotel lobby in Pennsylvania and installed a Cosworth DFX engine in the March after they were unable to find a preferred Chevy engine for it. Penske asked Unser to race the car at Indy.
Accepting Penske's offer, Unser took his first practice laps in the March only three days before the second weekend of Indy 500 qualifications. On race day, after starting in the 20th position, Unser took the lead during the 183rd lap and sped to victory with an average speed of 162.175 mph. The win—Unser's fourth—tied him with A. J. Foyt for the most wins in the Indy 500. At the same time, Unser also broke his brother Bobby's record as the oldest Indy 500 winner. A year later, in 1988, Unser became the record holder for the most laps led—625—at the Indy 500.
Unser announced his retirement on May 17, 1994, a day after the 54-year-old race-car driver attempted to qualify for his 28th Indy 500 race. As Unser told ESPN.com, "I always said if the day came when I wasn't producing the right way, if I wasn't happy, I'd get out… . The time has come. A driver has to produce 100 percent. You can't just come in and strap one of these cars on and expect to give answers to the team that they need. I finally realized that it just wasn't there, and I wasn't producing like I should."
At his retirement Unser ranked first in points earned at the Indianapolis 500; second in miles driven and total money won; and—a tie—in total number of Indy 500 starts. In a racing career lasting from 1964 to 1994 he won the Indianapolis 500 four times—in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987—and earned victories in 35 other races. By the time he called it quits, Unser's 39 career CART victories placed him third behind A. J. Foyt's 67 and Mario Andretti's 52 wins. Before retiring in 1994, Unser had won over $6 million on the Indy car circuit. He also achieved distinction as one of only three drivers to win on paved ovals, road courses, and dirt tracks in a single season, a feat he accomplished three years running (1968, 1969, and 1970). Unser was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991. Andretti, in an interview with ESPN.com, praised Unser as one of the top five racers who had ever lived.
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