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Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. seemed to have forgotten where they were. Maybe they mistook Southern California for Indiana, which would be understandable given their narrow and somewhat obsessive point of view. From the cockpit of an Indy Car that's shaking, rattling and rolling at 170 miles an hour, all strips of blacktop tend to look alike to a driver intent on winning. So it was that for most of Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, they behaved as if they had never left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where their infamous Turn 3 encounter with a lap and a half to go in last May's Indy 500 put Emmo into Victory Lane and Little Al into the wall.
Now on the streets of Long Beach, Unser answered back, with a picture-perfect drive on a gorgeous afternoon before a record 86,500 fans. He kept Fittipaldi choking on the exhaust fumes of his Lola-Chevy V-8 for the entire 158.65-mile distance and won by 1.7 seconds.
Unser's performance was formidable considering a number of things, such as: 1) the concrete retaining walls lining the 1.67-mile temporary circuit, which left zero room for error; 2) CART's 1990 aerodynamic rule changes, designed to slow the cars by taking away downforce (and thus traction), which resulted in the type of tail-out driving that cops-and-robbers TV shows thrive on; 3) the presence of Fittipaldi—whose credentials would intimidate anyone not named Unser—in Little Al's rearview mirrors through almost every one of the 95 laps. Fittipaldi was Formula One world champion in 1972 and '74, when Unser was in grammar school, and now Emmo is the CART points champ as well as an Indy 500 winner. What's more, this year Fittipaldi has joined Roger Penske's team, which has won five Indy 500s since 1980. In other words, there isn't a thing the 43-year-old Emmo doesn't know about passing the guy in front of him—and at Long Beach he had the car to do it. And Unser knew it. But for the 1:53:00.937 it took him to win the race, Little Al refused to crack.
Fittipaldi summed it up. "I was going fast," he said, "but Al Jr. was going faster. That was the big problem."
It had also been Emmo's problem in Saturday's qualifying, which was nearly as exciting as the race. During the half-hour session, the fastest clocking was lowered eight times by four different drivers. Three of them were members of the Penske team—Fittipaldi, Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan. With about two minutes remaining, Fittipaldi was on the pole with a time of 66.889, having just edged Mears by .04 of a second, who had just edged Emmo by .07, who had just edged Mears by .03. Unser was being kept posted on this intramural battle via his pit crew, and knew that he had but one more chance to improve his fourth-fastest time. "God, I don't know how I'm going to do this," he thought, before he uncorked his 66.798, setting the entire Penske team one step back on the grid with a single swift blow.
Once the race began, Sullivan almost bumped two thirds of the Penske team out of the race with another blow, when he stuck the nose of his Penske-Chevy under Fittipaldi's twin machine in the second lap. They rubbed tires. Emmo wrestled the wheel and kept control, but Sullivan spun, causing the hard-charging Michael Andretti to stall as he sought to avoid them. Emmo did not lose position, but Sullivan was 14th by the time he got going again and the luckless Andretti was dead last in the 25-car field. For the remainder of the race Sullivan and Andretti drove brilliantly and furiously, climbing through the field. Their own race for third place in the final 20 laps was a copy of the duel for the lead up ahead of them, and at the finish Sullivan edged Andretti by a mere .007.
The victory for Unser was sweet consolation after his losing dogfight with Fittipaldi at Indy. It was also redemption for his controversial win at Long Beach last year, when he bumped Mario Andretti out of the lead less than 12 laps from the end. Sunday's performance turned any lingering boos to cheers as Unser cruised around the track on his cool-off lap.
For Unser, the Long Beach win was also a nice tune-up for Indy, the next race on the schedule. With a father who has won the 500 four times, and an uncle, Bobby, who has won it three times, Al Jr. is determined to uphold the family name with a victory at the Brickyard; he won't be at peace until he gets it. "We did what we wanted to do in the first two races of the season [Unser had finished third at Phoenix on April 8]," Little Al said after a champagne shower provided by Fittipaldi on the victory stand. "We wanted to put the guys on the team in good spirits before we go to Indianapolis, and we will be. I have a year's more experience, and I'm ready to go back to Indy."