Throwback Thursday - The 1983 and 1985 Championships

May 11, 2016

Team Penske will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in motorsports in 2016. To bring you some of the terrific stories of our five-decade run of excellence, Team Penske is running weekly online features highlighting some of our drivers and our key events. We hope you enjoy this memorable time in our history.

By the start of the 1983 CART season, Team Penske was already an established motorsports powerhouse.  With 12 total championships already to its credit, everyone associated Team Penske with wins and championships.  That included three out of the last four CART Championships with Rick Mears.

But it would be a new driver that would bring Penske its next two.

The 1983 CART season was Al Unser, Sr.’s first with Team Penske after spending the three previous seasons with Longhorn Racing. During the 13-race schedule, Al Sr. showed the strength of the No. 7 Hertz Penske Cosworth early on jumping out to the prompt points lead, with second-place finishes in the first three races of the season (Atlanta, Indianapolis and Milwaukee). Al Sr. won at Cleveland after starting seventh and leading 55 laps. In the next race, The Michigan 500, Unser, Sr. once again finished second. At Road America, Unser finished third, his lowest finish in the first six races. 

By this time, Al Sr. had a 35-point lead over Tom Sneva in the standings.

Rookie Teo Fabi began to make headlines at Indianapolis, becoming the first rookie to win the pole since 1950. After a mixed start to the year, Fabi's season came alive in July, jumping from eighth to as high as second in points whittling away at Unser's title lead. 

At Laguna Seca, the next-to-last race of the 1983 season, Fabi won the pole position, led all but three laps and went on to win his third race of the season. With one race to decide the fate of these two drivers, Unser's point lead dissipated to just a 15.  The season finale was held in Phoenix on October 29 and Fabi put on another dominating performance. After winning the pole, he went on to lead 138 of 150 laps, but Fabi's championship hopes fell short as Al Sr. finished fourth.  Unser won the title by just five points. Consistency played a big part in the title, Unser had completed 97.5 percent of laps, led 191 laps and did not finish worse than 11th during the season.

After an off 1984 season, Unser was again thrust into the limelight.  
Unser was named as a substitute driver in 1985 for Rick Mears. During the fall of 1984, Rick Mears sustained series injuries in a crash at Sanair. Mears drove only a part-time schedule and Al Unser, Sr. took Mears' full-time seat which consisted of 15 races during 1985. Unser, Sr. had one win, ten top fives, and one other top ten, en route to his second championship, a battle that climaxed in intense fashion during the final race of the season.

Defending series champion Mario Andretti, jumped out to an early point’s lead but a mid-season slump, and saw Andretti have only one top five finish the rest of the year. Andretti then broke his collarbone in a crash at Michigan, and was forced to sit out one race. Andretti's points lead dwindled while Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Sr., and Al Unser, Jr. were closing in. 

At the Pocono 500, Rick Mears returned to victory lane after his injuries and finishing second and third were Al Jr. and Al Sr., respectively, with Al Sr. taking control of the points lead. Unser, Jr. chipped away at the points lead over the next four races, and the Unsers were neck-and-neck forthcoming the season finale. With two races to go, Unser, Jr. led Unser, Sr. by 3 points. Father and son finished first and second at Phoenix, and the standings were flipped. Al Sr. led Al Jr. by 3 points going into the finale at Miami. 

The season finale was held on November 9, 1985 at Tamiami Park and the attention was focused on the Unsers. Late in the race, Al Unser, Jr. was running third, and Al Unser, Sr. was running fifth. At the moment, Al Jr. was leading the title race by one point. Unser, Sr. caught and passed Roberto Moreno for fourth place in the closing laps, and thus won the championship by 1 point over his son.