It's always exciting to see a new top gun candidate, especially when he's a lightly-freckled, loose-moving redhead from out of the true West. But this is a kid; he looks too young to be driving race cars at 200 mph. At 27 he's just maturing; he's 5'10" tall and weighs 155 pounds, and his body has almost caught up to his experience. When he began racing at 16 he was 5'6" and 85 pounds, with arms not much thicker than hot dogs; everyone said he looked 12. He had been driving cars for seven years by then, junkers claimed from his father's yard that he would use to buzz around the house, out on the mesa hard by Route 66 at the edge of Albuquerque.
One Thursday after school his father put him in a sprint car, which looked like the racers that used to run at Indy in the '40s, and turned him loose at the local dirt track for 30 hot laps. The next night the kid was in the main event at Speedway Park in Albuquerque with 550 horsepower underfoot, racing against men who shaved only on Sundays. He had to start last in the field of 18, and he picked off half of them to finish ninth. Four races later he won his first main event. The other drivers wanted to bar him until he was 18, but they knew the kid was good for the gate. By the time Little Al Unser was 18, pushing 100 pounds, he was out of their league.
"I was too fast too soon," Al Unser Jr. says. "Right away, I could drive a car at its limit and be totally under control. There was no learning curve at all. The bad thing about that is you do stupid things."
Unser's Beaver Cleaver appearance belies a world of racetrack experience and the competitive fires that rage in the Unser blood. Al Sr.—his father, confidant, teacher and unrelenting competitor—has won the Indianapolis 500 four times, a record matched only by A.J. Foyt. His Uncle Bobby won Indy three times and the Pikes Peak hill climb 12 times before he retired in 1982, then came back for a 13th Pikes Peak win in '86. Al Jr. has won nine races in six Indy car seasons, the most memorable being 1985, when his father beat him by one point for the Indy Car championship. In interviews at Tamiami Park in Miami after the final race of that season, both father and son claimed the only thing that mattered was that the name "Unser" would be on the trophy, but in their hearts they both lusted after the title. Al Sr. had been champion twice before and, at 46, he knew his chances were numbered. Junior just plain wanted it. Al Sr. had taught his son well.
That season ended as it should have. But now Al Jr.'s time has come. He knows it—and he figures he has waited long enough.
Little Al's father and uncle provided a boundless pool of experience and opportunity for him to tap, but he had to find it first. Because Al Sr. traveled so much in his line of work, Little Al grew up largely under the broad wings of the boys down at the garage. (Canon No. 1 of the Unser Code of Ethics: Racing comes first.) And because Al Sr. and his wife Wanda were divorced when Little Al was nine, it was hard for anyone to keep an eye on the kid. That's why Dad turned his teenage prodigy over to a crusty 50-year-old mechanic named Walter Judge.
Thirty-five years of racing was both the difference and the bond between Walter and Little Al. They spent two seasons on the road together, barnstorming the dirt tracks of the Southwest sprint car circuit, then taking on the aptly named World of Outlaws Series, in which Unser drove his sprint car to the Rookie of the Year title in 1980. Judge and Unser were mentor and protégé, partners in business and sometimes mischief, roomies in cheap motels. "Dad taught me a lot of lessons about racing, but Walter taught me about life," says Al Jr. Every spring Judge, now retired, travels to Phoenix to watch Al Jr. race in the first Indy Car race of the season, and he follows Little Al's career in the newspapers, but nowadays they see each other only occasionally around Albuquerque.
After those years in the scary sprint cars, Al Jr. came under pressure from his father to quit them while he was ahead, which is to say intact. Eventually Big Al and Uncle Bobby got Al Jr. a ride with Rick Galles, an off-road racer and Chevy dealer from Albuquerque, whose racing team campaigned two Super Vees, stepping-stone cars for drivers on their way to Indy racers. Little Al won the second event he entered, which prompted Galles to sign him to a full season in the Super Vee series. Al Jr. became the '81 champion. The next year Galles and Unser switched to prototype sports cars in the Sports Car Club of America's Can-Am Series, where Little Al took that title against the likes of Danny Sullivan and the late Al Holbert.
At 20, with four years of professional racing and two titles behind him, Unser was at the top: Indy Cars. He finished fifth in his first race, beating three of his heroes, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti, and his dad. Unser says that he lost something that day: He discovered that he might actually be the equal of, or better than his heroes. But that hasn't slowed him down.
The next year, 1984, Unser got his first Indy Car win, on the road course at Portland International Raceway. Over the past four years Al Jr. has come in second, fourth, third and second in the Indy Car point championship competition. He has twice won the Daytona 24-Hour for sports cars; has smashed the record at Pikes Peak (blazing up the terrifying 12.4-mile switchback course in 11:38.30, driving a Wells Coyote Chevy 350); and has twice won the overall title in the International Race of Champions series (which pits top drivers against one another in identical cars). His four victories on the Indy Car circuit last year were matched only by Sullivan, the champion.