T shirts proclaimed it the biggest showdown in motor racing history, and who would argue. It was unique, certainly. Al Unser, 46, bidding to become the oldest Indy Car champion ever, and Al Unser, 23, bidding to become the youngest. Father versus son, cagey old pro facing charging young lion, a duel between creator and creation. Al Sr. had 139 points to Al Jr.'s 136 going into the final race of the CART season, and no one else was within reach of the crown. Other T shirts requested: WILL THE REAL AL UNSER PLEASE FINISH FIRST?
Three generations of Unsers have sped into racing legend. Al Sr.'s father and uncle started it all back in Colorado, smoking and blazing their way to supremacy in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Al Sr. has been a professional racer for 28 years and stands third in career Indy Car victories with 38, behind A.J. Foyt's 67 and Mario Andretti's 45. Both Al and his brother Bobby, now retired, have won the Indy 500 three times.
Al Jr. was trained and raced like a thoroughbred under his father's watchful eye: go-karts at nine; sprint cars at 16; Super Vees, which are open-wheeled racers (and the championship of that series) at 19; Can-Am cars, which are powerful prototype sports cars (and that championship) at 20. Then Indy Cars, the ultimate American racing machines, at 21—and now the threshold of that championship at 23. And along the way, rarely a wheel set wrong.
Neither Al Sr. nor Jr. could really explain how it felt to be racing each other for such a title, although Big Al did say that the championship battle with his son was the highlight of his career, surpassing the thrill of his Indy 500 wins. And Little Al has often said that his father is his racing idol. One thing was never in doubt, not by anyone who knew either Unser: There would be no backing off if and when it got down to the final foot.
The difference between $300,000 for first place and $200,000 for second from the $1 million point fund posted by PPG, the series' sponsor, scarcely mattered. "Al wants to beat his father very badly," said Junior's wife, Shelley. "It would mean so much more to him than to beat anybody else. It's because he idolizes him so much."
And that was true. The kid's motivation for wanting to keep his old man off the top was respect. It would be the ultimate compliment. Little Al wanted to make his father proud of him. He had even had dreams about racing his father. "But I never dreamed about him out-running me," he says. "I always dreamed about me beating him."
And Al Sr.? "Either way, I win," he was saying, even before Saturday's showdown at Miami's Tamiami Raceway. "They can print the name on the trophy right now. It's going to say Al Unser, and that's good enough for me."
The saga of Al Sr.'s 1985 season was, as he says, "interesting." After winning the Indy Car championship in '83 and having a terrible season in '84, he lost his ride with Roger Penske's team when Penske hired Danny Sullivan. But Big Al was too good to let go completely, so Penske signed him for a three-race deal in '85, the Indy, Michigan and Pocono 500s. Al's car would be the third in the Penske stable at those events, very much a backup to those of Rick Mears and Sullivan. But Mears's recovery from an '84 crash was slower than anticipated, and at the start of this season Unser was called upon to substitute. One successful substitution led to another as Unser calmly strung together a substantial point total with consistent Top 5 finishes. Mears, meanwhile, did critical test and development driving, and in fact, Mears prepared the car with which Unser lapped the field at the Phoenix oval on Oct. 13 for his only win of the season, a victory that moved him into the series lead ahead of Al Jr., who finished second.
"Without Rick I wouldn't be here today," said Al Sr. "I owe him a lot, and all he has to do is ask."
"I might have had trouble doing it for anyone else," replied Mears. "But I know if the circumstances were reversed, if the same things had happened the same way, Al would do it for me. There aren't many drivers I could say that about. But it wasn't just for Al—it was for the team, for the guys." Mears is a hero to the Penske team today, and just watch how the mechanics work for him next year when he comes back to the full schedule.