When Al Unser Sr.
Packed his driving helmet for this year's Indianapolis 500, he hoped he would
be able to wear it on race day. He had won three Indys and the Indy Car points
championship as recently as 1985, but that was then and this was now: The world
of racing is neither generous nor secure. It was the first time in his 23 trips
to the Brickyard that Unser had left Albuquerque without knowing if he had a
ride. A driver in that situation shows up, waits, hangs around and hopes for an
opportunity. Most of the time, that means somebody crashing.
Even though Unser
had raced successfully for Roger Penske the last four years, he had not so much
as sat in an Indy Car this season. Penske dropped the 47-year-old champion in
favor of two younger former winners, Danny Sullivan and Rick Mears. Unser was
still out in the cold when Penske cut a deal with Ted Field, of the Marshall
Field department store family, that made Field's prot�g�, Danny Ongais, his
Unser's emotions when Ongais stuffed the third Penske Racing entry into the
wall the first week of practice, suffering a concussion and destroying the car.
For the next six days, through the first qualifying weekend. Field's money held
Ongais's place as the driver recuperated. And Unser waited, sweated and turned
down offers from teams that didn't meet his standards. He preferred to sit and
watch rather than be noncompetitive. Three days before the second and final
qualifying weekend, the U.S. Auto Club, on the advice of a doctor, declared
Ongais unfit to compete in this year's 500, and suddenly Penske needed a
driver. Unser's patience paid off when Penske hired him to fill the open
position and drive his available 1986 March-Cosworth. Big Al—and the car's
crew—were suddenly very happy men.
The rest is
sudden history. When Unser took the checkered flag on Sunday for his fourth
victory—the others were in 1970, '71 and '78—he tied A.J. Foyt as the
winningest Indy 500 driver. He also broke his brother Bobby's record as the
oldest Indy winner—47 years, 360 days on race day to 47 and 93 for Bobby, in
1981. Reminded of this, Al pitched back his head and roared with laughter.
After A.J., there's no one Al enjoys beating more than Bobby, who was helping
to call the race for ABC.
The 71st running
of the 500 also played out a familiar scenario for the man who "should"
have won: Mario Andretti. From opening day until his fuel system failed after
442 miles, Andretti had them covered—no, smothered. His Lola-Chevy was clearly
the class of the field, which he had lapped. It was, he said, the easiest race
of his life in the most perfect car—until the Indy jinx that has been slicing
him up for years struck again. This time it was all the more cruel because of
the clear-cut superiority he and his team had displayed.
have predicted Unser would be the one to take advantage of his troubles. Mario
has respectfully said many times that, in his opinion, no driver has more
"race savvy" than Big Al. Unser isn't as aggressive as many and rarely
qualifies on the pole, but on the last lap he'll be there.
Because of the
rash of scary crashes during the three weeks of practice and qualifying—there
were 23 in all—the drivers were jittery and prepared to be cautious. Only one
of them got carried away at the start. When the green flag dropped, Josele
Garza zoomed up from the ninth row and passed inside of Unser, who started two
rows ahead. "I wasn't in any big hurry. I wanted to get away from
everyone," said Al, "so I let him go." This is the very race savvy
that Andretti was referring to. It might also be called an instinct for
survival. Garza looped his March in the thick of traffic just ahead of Unser,
who barely squeezed by; then Garza struck the wall and knocked some bodywork
off Pancho Carter's car. "I don't know how I got by," said Unser.
"I thought I was going to hit him."
When the race
resumed, Andretti took off as if to grind years of frustration into the
track—his one Indy 500 win had come in 1969—or maybe he was merely trying to
leave the jinx back there with his competitors. He was using every inch of the
track, running down to the grass going into the turns and up against the wall
coming out of them. In an increasingly distant second, third and fourth were
Roberto Guerrero, Mears and defending champ, Bobby Rahal. When Rahal went out
with ignition problems on Lap 58, he extended another jinx—no winner has
repeated at the Speedway since Big Al did it in '71.
in what appeared to be the race for runner-up was Sullivan, the 1985 champion,
who was driving an aggressive race after starting 16th. The turbulence caused
by displaced air spilling over the rear of these 200-mph missiles—"dirty
air" the drivers call it—was so bad that Sullivan's helmet was being tugged
up over his eyes. He said it didn't really matter, though, because the
buffeting was making his vision blurry anyhow.
Out in front, way
out, Andretti maintained his lead. The only question was whether his Chevy
racing engine could survive 500 miles; after more than a season of development,
these powerful V-8s had yet to do so. Indeed, of the five that started Sunday,
including Mears's and Sullivan's, none would finish.