Unser, Al(fred), Sr.
UNSER, Al(fred), Sr.
The youngest of four sons of Jerry H. Craven, a race driver and garage owner, and Mary Craven Unser, a homemaker, Unser clearly had driving in his blood. The Unser family is a dynasty of sorts, with Unser a part of the driving clan including his father, two uncles (Louis and Joe), two brothers (Bobby and Jerry), and son, Al Unser, Jr. Six Unsers have started in the Indianapolis (Indy) 500, and older brother Bobby won the race three times.
Unser began his career driving modified stock cars on racing tracks near his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the years 1957 to 1963. He also operated a junkyard with his brother Bobby. His first successful racing excursion was in the 1960 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb event in Colorado. Pikes Peak is a glorious setting for athletics, with a daunting mountain made accessible via a narrow, twisting road. Unser took second place and then, in 1964 and 1965, he won the race.
In 1965 Unser's racing apprenticeship gained momentum as he graduated from Pikes Peak to the venues of the USAC. He took part in thirteen USAC races in 1965, driving an Indianapolis-type race car, and, in subsequent years, had seven runner-up positions in races of 100 miles or more. Just before turning thirty, Unser had his first championship trail victory. It was the USAC's inaugural night race, which took place at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, on 13 July 1968. He had four more first-place finishes, and at season's end was in third place in the national (USAC) points standing.
The Unser name is synonymous with the Indy 500—his brother Jerry was killed at the Speedway in 1959—and Unser first qualified for the world's most famous car race in 1965 when he successfully completed the demanding rookie test. In his first Indy 500 outing, he finished in ninth place. A year later he dropped to twelfth, but in 1967 he drove well, his race car stayed intact, and he took second place.
In the 1965 race, Unser drove an eight-cylinder Ford with a Lotus chassis for the Ansted-Thompson racing team. He qualified with a speed of 154 miles per hour with racing colors of pearl, red, and blue. A year later Unser drove another eight-cylinder Ford, also with a Lotus chassis, but this time he was associated with the STP Division of Studebaker. In a red and white livery, Unser qualified with a speed of 162.372 miles per hour.
A critical aspect frequently ignored by histories of the Indianapolis 500 during the 1960s is the fact that the race was not a U.S. national championship, but the equivalent of a world championship. The Indianapolis 500 at the time was a magnet that brought the best racers to the heartland of America, so in the 1966 Indianapolis 500, although Unser only finished in twelfth place, he was in the same field as Formula One first-class drivers such as Graham Hill, Jim Clark, and Jackie Stewart.
Unser was able to race competitively even when the odds were stacked against him. For example, in early 1969 he had a nasty accident as a result of a recreational motorcycle spill. A broken leg sidelined him for two months, but later in 1969 he was back racing so successfully that he won five USAC races and very nearly bested rival Mario Andretti for the national championship. Because of his injury, however, he attended the 1969 Indianapolis as a spectator.
A year later Unser emerged from the wings to dominate U.S. auto racing. He easily took the USAC National Driving Championship with a series of stellar performances resulting in ten victories, and in five other races he placed second or third. The most famous of these wins was on the Indianapolis Speedway circuit. The Encyclopedia of Motor Sport (1971) describes Unser's magical month of May 1970: "He turned the fastest practice laps consistently, earned the no. 2 starting position with a four-lap average speed of 170.221 miles per hour and led the field on Race Day for all but 10 of the required 200 laps.… He finished at an average speed of 155.749 miles per hour … collecting $271,697.72 as his share of auto racing's first million-dollar purse."
Unser won his second straight Indianapolis 500 in 1971, only the fourth competitor to be a consecutive winner. He very nearly managed to capture a hat trick (three consecutive victories) of Indianapolis 500 crowns. His second place, however, signaled the onset of a downturn in Unser's fortunes. He failed to notch one victory on the 1972 USAC circuit, and in the following three years, although qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 annually, he failed to finish. In 1976 and 1977 his Indianapolis placings were seventh and third, respectively. But Unser's performance in USAC races and in other racing formats indicated a return to his winning ways.
The New York Times account of the 1978 Indianapolis makes the point that Unser was "a great driver in search of the right car." His victory margin of 8.19 seconds over Tom Sneva should have been much greater, but for a pit stop mistake by Unser twenty-one laps from the finish. Unser drove an eight-cylinder Cosworth, which had been the premier engine for European-based Formula One grand prix racing during the 1970s. The Cosworth, with an English-built engine, was the first foreign-constructed engine to win the Indianapolis 500 since Wilbur Shaw's 1940 triumph in an Italian Maserati. After his victory in front of 300,000 spectators, Unser drank the traditional pint of milk and observed, "Everything just went lovely. It's a great feeling. Everybody always asks which one is the best, and let me say, this one is. It always is."
Following the excitement of 1978, Unser's career experienced a second decline, but he did enjoy three separate, but special, successes. In 1983 and 1985 he won the Indy series championship (in 1983 he became the first driver to race against his son at Indy). In 1987 he started in the Indianapolis 500 but was seen as no more than a forty-seven-year-old stand-in. Eleven days before race day, Unser had neither a sponsor nor a car. But then Danny Ongais experienced a concussion in a practice accident, which meant Roger Penske, the CEO of Penske Racing and one of the most influential figures in U.S. auto racing over the last three decades, needed to find a replacement. Ongais's bad luck became Unser's good fortune, and Unser, as the March-Cosworth driver, won at an average speed of 162.175 miles per hour. A year later, although not a winner at Indianapolis, Unser set what might be his most singular accomplishment. He surpassed the record for most laps led at the Indianapolis 500 and "established the new standard of 625 for future generations to pursue." Indeed, the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame labels this accomplishment as a "Ruthian" feat, alluding to Babe Ruth's domination as a home-run slugger.
At the end of his career Unser had recorded thirty-nine first-place finishes in Indy-style racing, placing him third on the all-time list (1900–1998) with A. J. Foyt (sixty-seven) and Mario Andretti (fifty-two) in first and second place. He retired from racing on 17 May 1994. Unser now works as a driving consultant for the Indy Racing League.
Unser married Wanda Japperson on 22 April 1958. They had three children, but later divorced. He married Karen Barnes on 27 November 1977. He was inducted into the Indianapolis Hall of Fame in 1986.
G. N. Georgano, ed., Encyclopedia of Motor Sport (1971), is an invaluable source for the first half of Unser's career. Unser's career is ably covered in Terry Reed, Indy: Race and Ritual (1980). Shorter assessments of Unser as a racer can be found in Will Grimsley, ed., A Century of Sports (1971); and Jack C. Fox, The Illustrated History of the Indianapolis 500, 1911–1994 (1994). Michael Katz's narrative on the 1978 Indianapolis race, which appeared in the New York Times (29 May 1978), is full of information and rich detail. Additional material on Unser's career can be found on the website of the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame at http://www.mmshof.org.
Scott A. G. M. Crawford