Al Unser Sr., who has won the Indianapolis 500 four times, is so relentlessly stone-faced, so cool, that his own family calls him Dry Ice. Yet moments after his son, Little Al, took the checkered flag at Indy on Sunday, Big Al could not contain himself. "To love something as much as I love racing," he said, forcing out the words between sobs, "and to win at this place and then to have your son come along and win here is the greatest feeling there is."
In the winner's circle Little Al was choking back tears of his own. "This race means the world to me," he said. "It's life to me." The emotions of the moment were a father's pride and a son's joy, but both men may well have been shedding tears of relief. The 76th running of the 500 not only climaxed with the closest finish in the history of the event, but it was also the wildest Indy ever. Of the 33 cars that started the race on an unseasonably chilly, overcast day, only 12 succeeded in crossing the finish line in the more than 3½ hours it took to run the race. In that time there were 10 crashes, which injured 13 drivers, three of them seriously, and claimed 13 cars, including that of pole sitter Roberto Guerrero, whose Indy ended in a bizarre solo spinout on the second parade lap. That eliminated him even before the race had officially begun.
Al Jr. nipped Scott Goodyear at the thrilling finish by .043 of a second—about half a car length. Running third, in the only other car to complete the 200 laps, was 53-year-old Al Sr. The closest previous finish had been .16 of a second, the margin by which Gordon Johncock edged Rick Mears in 1982.
Through the chaos of flying metal and tires and screaming ambulances, most of the day belonged to 29-year-old Michael Andretti, who surged to the lead from the first green flag and led for 163 of the first 189 laps. Along the way he watched as first his 52-year-old father, Mario, and then his younger brother, Jeff, 28, crashed. Then, with victory in sight, Michael's car suddenly died on the backstretch, the fuel pressure in his Lola-Ford Cosworth engine having mysteriously vanished. Mario escaped his crash, on the 79th lap, with fractured toes on both feet. Jeff's crash, on Lap 110, left him with severe fractures of his feet and ankles and a concussion—the worst injuries suffered by any driver in the race.
"This place is cruel, so cruel," said Michael. "First Dad, then Jeff. I knew I still had a job to do, but it was hard to concentrate." The four racing Andrettis (including cousin John, who finished eighth) still have only one Indy victory, Mario's in 1969, to show for a combined 43 starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Mikey had us all covered," said 30-year-old Little Al, whose Galmer-Chevrolet had been so fitful in practice that he had entered the race with almost no thought of winning. "When I saw him parked there in the north chute [between Turns 3 and 4 of the 2.5-mile Speedway], I felt for him. But a second later, I had Scott Goodyear right up my tail pipe."
Goodyear, a little-known, 32-year-old Canadian—and no relation to the founding family of the tire company—had started the race last, 33rd, but when the green light shone again to open the final nine-lap dash after Michael's exit, Goodyear threatened to become the biggest dark-horse victor in the event's history.
With Goodyear desperately seeking an opening to pass, the more experienced Al Jr., who led the race for 25 laps, deftly snaked his car from side to side, refusing to allow Goodyear to tuck into his slipstream and execute a pass. On the final lap Unser backed off the throttle in Turn 4 to keep from spinning, and Goodyear made a run. Still, Unser, at 220-plus mph, blocked Goodyear's passing attempts until the last 100 yards, when Goodyear made a valiant, if narrowly vain, attempt to sweep inside Unser's car and snatch the victory. "I don't call that blocking," said Goodyear afterward. "I call that using a lot of racetrack. And I'd have been doing the same thing in Al's position."
When Unser and Goodyear embraced in the winner's circle, it was a welcome bit of warmth in an otherwise bleak day. The forbidding weather, with temperatures in the 50's and a windchill in the 30's, was not only an omen but also a cause of the afternoon's horrors. The tires, racing slicks supplied by Goodyear (the company), were so cold that they required careful "scuffing"—warming by steering the car through a succession of tight, wiggly maneuvers—to gain proper grip on the track surface. The conditions demanded that drivers take the time to warm their new tires after pit stops and after the slower going during cautions. Some drivers did not do this correctly, and they, and others behind them, paid dearly for it.
From the outset the lesson was painfully clear: Guerrero, who had won the pole on May 9 with a speed of 232.482 mph, never even got a chance to limber up his Lola-Buick. When he pressed the accelerator during that fateful parade lap, his cold tires slid sharply to the left, and his out-of-control racer left the track and collided with an infield wall. "I'm disappointed beyond belief," said Guerrero later. "I'd had a perfect month until now."