Bobby Unser would win the race in 1968 and 1975 for team owner Dan Gurney and in 1981 for team owner Roger Penske. His teammate during the Penske years was a young off-road racer who would go on to become a four-time Indy 500 winner – Rick Mears, who was also Al Unser’s teammate when he won for the fourth time in 1987.
“They were all the same as racers at heart first and foremost,” Mears said. “They lived it and slept it – everything. They were racers. As personalities and individuals they were quite a bit different. Bobby was one way and Al was the complete opposite and Al Jr. was in between the two of them. The bottom line is when they put that helmet on they were very much the same in that respect.”
Mears admits he learned some tough lessons from having Bobby as a teammate but those lessons would pay off and make him a better race driver.
“Al was the better teammate meaning he worked better as a teammate,” Mears said. “Bobby was not as much as a teammate. He didn’t grow up being a team player because it’s a selfish business and a selfish sport.
“Bobby made the comment, `I wasn’t put on this earth to make Rick Mears go fast.’ That is the way Bobby looked at that and I have every bit of respect for that. To this day he’ll say `I taught Rick Mears all he knows.’ I still tell him he’s taught me more than he knows. By him being the way he was as far as a team player he taught me how to read between the lines. He taught me how to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open and learn that way. It also wasn’t all his doing because I had my own pride and my own ego and I wanted to do it all on my own. If I could beat Bobby without his help it was much more gratifying to me. That is why I wouldn’t ask the question. I would rather listen and try to learn that way and not give Bobby the satisfaction of how to do something.
“We played our games like that but he was a team player to a point and quite a bit of a team player for him. I never had any qualms with Bobby. He helped me get into IndyCars in the early years. He helped show me around tracks in rental cars and show me how to do it and what to do. I met him at Pike’s Peak and raced a lot with him there. Bobby and I are great friends and we laugh about the teammate business but we get along very well. We worked well as a team just not as much on the technical end of is.”
Al would enjoy many great moments in the Indianapolis 500 including back-to-back victories in the Johnny Lightning Special in 1970 and 1971.
“We dominated that race,” Al said of the 1970 win. “We didn’t know for sure if we would be that competitive or strong but it turned out to be our day. To do that was unbelievable. Then to come back the next year and win it again I thought I would like to do this every year but you know that isn’t going to happen. Things get harder and the competitors get stronger and you are the big apple that everyone wants to beat.
“In 1971 it was a very hard day. We had to run hard all day. They had designed the cars differently in a year than what we were going after. We read the rules differently than the McLaren cars. They had a superior car so it was a hard day. It was not an easy day in 1971 to win that race.
“To go back-to-back was like a Fairy story. You would never think to win the first time, it’s absolutely terrific. Then to come back the next year and win it again you think this can’t be true? But it was. It’s a place where it is very, very hard to win and then you don’t know why. Every day is a different day or time and it becomes very difficult to win that race.”
He would win his third 500 in team owner Jim Hall’s car in 1978 and then scored an improbable win in 1987 to join A.J. Foyt as a four-time Indy 500 winner.