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When Al Jr. was nine, his father and mother were divorced, and he went with Mom to Georgia. But for a kid who "never wanted to be anything but a race car driver," it wasn't easy, nor was Little Al easy for his mother to handle. So he was glad to go back to Dad in Albuquerque during summers, in part to get discipline. At 16, he was living with Dad full-time. Back behind the wheel of his kart, the boy found direction again.
Despite the fact that Al Jr. has always looked deceptively young, he has always been mature beyond his years. One of his better moves was marrying Shelley, an older woman. Little Al was 18 and Shelley 21 when they started dating. "I can't see myself being married to anyone else," she says, "but it's weird the way it worked out. I didn't like redheads, didn't like younger men." They dated a couple of times, and Shelley admits she was not so nice to him, despite his giving her a big owl candle, because he thought it would make her think of him (Al-owl). So he stopped calling, and she missed him. One day she walked out of her college class in Phoenix, sold her books, flew to Dallas and took a taxi 40 miles to the track where Al Jr. was racing. She walked up dragging her suitcase. They've been together ever since. Now they light the owl candle on their anniversary, of which they've had three. They also have a child, Alfred Richard—Mini Al. At three he's a hot-rod go-karter. Al Jr. wants a daughter now, and he wants to make her a winning race driver.
The season's final battlefield was the brand-new circuit at Tamiami Park. The 1.784-mile track was an overnight sensation. It is smooth, wide, fast, rhythmic and safe. It was officially considered to have nine turns, but because one was an S-turn, the drivers figured it as an 11-turn course—all of them great. The race cars—Marchs, Lolas and Eagle-Cosworths—reached 180 mph on the 2,000-foot-long backstraight but geared down to second and about 60 mph on the slower sections.
The fastest driver in practice was Indy 500-winner Sullivan, but during Friday's qualifying session Bobby Rahal excelled. Rahal's driving for the final third of the 15-race Indy Car season had been overwhelming—he had won three of the previous five races and taken four pole positions. On Friday he added the Tamiami pole, clocking 56.408 seconds, 113.856 mph. Little Al in his Lola and Big Al, driving a March, qualified eighth and 12th, respectively. Needing to gain four points, Junior could claim the championship either by winning the race or finishing two positions ahead of his father, as long as he was sixth or better.
The first turn, a challenging right-hand bend, immediately began claiming victims. At the start the cars of three major competitors—Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Roberto Guerrero—squeezed into the turn together, and none came out in one piece. "Too many of us going for the same hole," said Andretti, the '84 champion, as he ended a troubled season. "I really don't know what happened," said Fittipaldi. "It was Mario," said Guerrero. "He tried to get past Emerson, and then Emerson slid me into the wall."
Seconds later, in the chicane, the Brazilian rookie Raul Boesel spun and took out himself and a whole team—the two Kraco Marchs of Andretti's son Michael and Kevin Cogan. "Boesel spun right in front of us," said the younger Andretti. "He nailed my left rear," said Cogan. "Michael Andretti hit me," said Boesel. Whatever, with one lap run, six cars were down. Eleven laps under the yellow flag were needed to clear the course, after which Al Jr. was seventh and Al Sr. ninth.
In front, Rahal ran off and began working traffic superbly. He was zipping his bright red March through the chicane with masterful precision, clipping the curbs with nary an inch to spare. Chasing him were Bruno Giacomelli, Jan Lammers and Roberto Moreno, all European road-racing veterans, while Sullivan seemed to be cooling it behind them. When Geoff Brabham dropped out with a failed ignition system, Little Al moved to sixth and Big Al to eighth, about five seconds apart.
Except for the temporary shuffle during pit stops, relative positions remained constant for the next 50 or so laps. Then Giacomelli (a.k.a. Guacamole and Jack O'Malley to the American drivers) looped his March in the first turn and backed into the wall. Under the subsequent yellow flag Lammers and Sullivan closed in on Rahal. The second round of pit stops was a boon to Sullivan, whose crew received him in second place and sent him out in first. Little Al's crew had also gotten him in and out quickly, Al screaming away from the pits to cheers from the grandstands, where the same fans greeted Al Sr. as fervently on his stop. Little Al came out ahead of Moreno, which put him a distant fourth. His father was out of sight behind Moreno.
For a while, there was a hot three-car dice for the lead among Sullivan, Lammers and Rahal, but then Lammers went the way of Giacomelli. Little Al was now third, and Big Al moved up to fifth behind Moreno.
"I had to stay out of trouble, but yet I couldn't get too far behind," said Unser Sr. "I was trying to save everything till the last, hoping I could have a shot at it." Mears, stationed in Al Sr.'s busy pit, commented, "Al always seems to muster up something at the end. You watch."