The history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway is replete with the name Unser. Nine times among three members of the famed Albuquerque, N.M., racing clan, an Unser likeness appears on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Fifty-five years ago this month, Al Unser, the Unser with the most Indianapolis 500 wins, made his initial appearance at the Brickyard. Forty-five years ago, he earned the first of four Indianapolis 500 victories, one more than his vociferous, older brother Bobby and two more than his son, Al Jr.
Al Unser’s racing career stands as nothing short of remarkable with numerous victories in sprint cars, midgets and sports cars, 39 Indy car wins and three national championships. But it’s his Indianapolis record of which he’s most proud. It gives him the deepest satisfaction and provides an enduring sense of accomplishment.
When he arrived at the speedway in 1965, few could have imagined the iconic status to which he would rise. His only concern was making the show. And he almost didn’t — save for the intervention of a superstar.
Unser struggled through his rookie test in an Arciero brothers-owned, Maserati-powered car. Try as he may, the car couldn’t be coaxed to qualifying speed. Desperate, Unser jumped into three other cars — all with equally questionable pedigrees. Still, success didn’t follow.
“I thought the world had came to an end,” Unser said. “I was sitting in the garage with my head hung between my legs. Then Foyt walked in.
“He asked me if I wanted to drive his backup car,” Unser continued. “He said, ‘Think about it.’ Well, I didn’t have to think about it. When A.J. headed out the garage door, I was right on him.
“Some of his people didn’t want me in the car because I was a rookie and I was never so scared in my life,” Unser said with a chuckle. “But A.J. sat me down and said, ‘Listen, you do what I tell you and you’ll make the race.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
In one of those tension-filled, final qualifying-day runs, Unser landed in 32nd spot. Race day brought a respectable ninth-place finish. To this day, Unser is grateful for Foyt’s help. “A.J. treated me so well with that deal,” Unser insisted. “It’s what got me to Indy and I’ll never forget it.”
With Unser’s solid performance, other owners took notice and driving offers came quickly. In 1966, Andy Granatelli called and Unser became a teammate to the legendary Jim Clark on the STP Lotus team.
It was a 500 to forget, he crashed three-quarters of the way through the race, but a life-changing event off the track made the month worthwhile.
“At the victory banquet,” Unser recalled, “Rodger Ward announced his retirement. The next morning I was on George Bignotti’s doorstep, begging for that ride.”
Unser got the ride, but team owner John Mecom fired him before he ever sat in the car. Mecom wanted Larry Dickson. Bignotti was so confident in Unser’s ability, however, he rehired him to drive the backup car.
That initiated an extraordinary driver/mechanic relationship that hit full stride when the duo joined the new Parnelli Jones/Vel Miletich team in 1969.
Unser’s first 500 with the team was memorable for all the wrong reasons. After qualifying, Unser was playing around on a dirt bike in Gasoline Alley with Parnelli Jones and took a spill that broke his ankle. He missed the 500 and suffered miserably while watching Bud Tingelstad drive his car.
The next year was as good as 1969 had been bad. Driving Jones’ new Colt, with its startling, metallic blue and yellow color scheme of toy manufacturer, Johnny Lightning, Unser dominated the month.
Click below to keep reading.