When time came for the second pit stop, it was obvious that no such lapse was imminent. Unser cleared the pits in 22 seconds. Foyt, only five seconds behind Unser when he pitted, had the ghastly misfortune not to be able to position his car properly for fueling due to a confusion of cars and people in the area. He rolled back out on the track and raced another lap before pitting for real. That cost him at least half a lap to Unser—and left him 37 seconds behind. Donohue pitted smartly but was still no more than a long chance.
When time came for the third pit stop, Unser was close to lapping A.J. His lead of nearly one minute allowed Al the luxury of drafting his closest competitor, of conserving his own machine while forcing Foyt to brutalize his. Attrition was moving other cars up in the standings. Dan Gurney, after an initial problem with vapor lock, closed to fourth place at the 160-lap mark. Though he posed no threat as yet, there were still 100 miles to run, and in recent years many strange things have happened in those last laps.
No sooner had the pit-row savants reminded themselves of that fact than—yep—something strange happened. Ripping into the short north chute, Roger McCluskey lost control of a car he was driving in relief for Mel Kenyon. It hit the wall and burst into pale blue flames. Though Roger got out without injury, methanol was spilled over the track and other cars could not avoid involvement. Jack Brabham—who had been slowly eroding his way into the top 10—was squeezed out. Bobby Unser pitted to check his tires and fell back ultimately to 11th place. Ronnie Bucknum, also involved in the shunt, was ordered into an ambulance for a hospital inspection. He waved cheerfully at the crowd as the ambulance wheeled him down pit row. Andretti hit the infield grass, felt his half-shaft pop back into its proper place and began turning 165-mph laps, but it was much too late. As for Foyt, in trying to avoid the accident he broke his gearbox. Though A.J. finished the race, he did so at practically a walking pace and ended up—not as a challenger for immortality—but merely 10th.
The caution light for McCluskey's crash lasted 17 minutes and 45 seconds while his foam-smothered car was being picked up and towed off. The trouble certainly cemented victory for Al Unser (see cover), but at the same time it denied him a chance to erase Andretti's 1969 record of 156.867 mph. Unser had been averaging four mph faster than the record. By the time he took the flag, 19 laps after the yellow lifted, Al's average had slipped to 155.749 mph. Still, that was 32 seconds faster than second-place finisher Mark Donohue.
Unser's win was the first victory for a pole sitter since Parnelli Jones turned the trick in 1963. Coupled with his older brother Bobby's 500 victory in 1968, Al's win also gave Indy its first brother champions and introduced theater-television audiences across the country to the matriarch and chief chili cook of the family, Mary Unser. She gave Al a kiss and told the people she enjoyed racing. Like most all Albuquerque men named Unser, her late husband had been a Pikes Peak Hillclimb champion. So had his two brothers. Al and Bobby have raced up to the Peak countless times. But even in the middle of all that joy, it was difficult to forget that another Unser brother, Jerry, had lost his life practicing for Indy in 1959, after surviving a wild, over-the-wall crash in 1958. Nobody was talking about that, though, when Al took the checkered flag. Unser allowed as how it was really Parnelli Jones who had engineered the victory. "Parnelli told me to take it easy and don't try to break the car," said Unser. "That's all I did."
Before Al Unser returns to the big-car wars, he has a date with a bike. Last year he broke his leg in a motorcycle spill just before qualifying began, and this year was forbidden from riding. Now the ban has been lifted. With all the goodies being handed him at Indy, Al could finally say, with Arlo Guthrie, "Well, I don't want a pickle/Just wanna ride on my motorsickle." Which he promptly did.