In 1987, Al Unser Sr. was one of the most acclaimed race car drivers in America. He was a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and a three-time national champion with 38 victories to his credit.
Yet, he didn’t have a ride for the Indianapolis 500.
Unser’s career downturn began at the end of the 1984 season. Entering the twilight of his career, Roger Penske fired him.
“Roger called me in and let me go,” recalled Unser. “He told me that he had to look to the future and thought I had about two years left. He said: ‘I can’t go into this deal thinking you can’t do it.’
“I went home with my tail between my legs, I can tell you that,” Unser added.
As fate would have it, Rick Mears crashed and shattered his legs later that same year and had not recovered for the 1985 season. Penske turned to Unser, who responded by winning the national championship.
Despite that significant accomplishment, Unser returned to a part-time role with team Penske in 1986. For 1987, he was completely off Penske’s radar, without even an offer for the 500.
There were several rides Unser could’ve jumped into once the month of May got underway. But at that point in his career, he wasn’t interested in just having a ride. He wanted something capable of winning.
He planned to stay through the first week of practice and if nothing turned up he’d go back home. That deadline came and went. Unser resigned himself to returning to Albuquerque and missing his first 500 since he broke his leg in a Gasoline Alley motorcycle incident after qualifying for the 1969 race.
Then, fate intervened.
Penske had picked up Danny Ongais as his third driver that year. But Ongais crashed during practice and suffered a severe concussion. When he couldn’t get a medical release to drive, Penske turned to Unser.
By that time, the month was nearly gone. Only days remained until the final qualifying weekend, making for a frenzied rush to get into the field. Then to further complicate an already hectic situation, the “Captain” pulled all three of his new Penske cars, for year-old Marches, when they failed to perform to expectations.
Unfortunately, only two Marches were available and Unser looked to be out, just as he’d gotten in. But Penske had committed to getting him a competitive car and was good at his word, even though the source of Unser’s car was a bit of a surprise. It was a show car in the lobby of a Sheraton Hotel in Reading, Pa.
The Penske crew pulled out all stops to ready the car and Unser qualified 20th. As preparations were made for race day, odds makers gave him little chance, but Unser thought he might be competitive.
Then an incident in the first turn of the first lap nearly ended it all.
“When they dropped the green flag and we went down into turn one,” Unser recalled, “Josele Garza went blowing by me like a maniac. I thought, ‘Man he’s going awful quick,’ Then, away he went. He spun right in front of me. I barely got by.
“That got my attention,” exclaimed Unser. “That was the year there were so many spins and crashes all during the month. So after that I held back. Then Mario lapped me, which was one thing I didn’t want to happen. I said to myself: ‘Well, I’ll be a son of a gun.’ That woke me up. I said, ‘Come on Al. Pay attention to what you’re supposed to be doing.’
“I went hard the rest of the day,” continued Unser. “We were a little short on steam down the stretch with the Cosworth engine, but the handling was good. I ran as hard that day as I’ve ever run. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have won. But I don’t ever give up. I don’t quit until I see the checkered flag.”