Unser Leaves a Lasting Impact on Team Penske

December 16, 2021

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When Al Unser passed away on December 9, the racing world lost an icon and a true champion. Team Penske also lost one of its legends and a man that made an impact across the organization, even more than 30 years after he last raced for the team.

There’s no question that Unser, a native of Albuquerque, NM, was one of racing’s all-time greats. Over a career that spanned nearly 30 years, his accomplishments were many. More than 40 race victories, nearly 30 pole positions, three INDYCAR championships and success in whatever and wherever he raced. Unser was an INDYCAR legend but he also raced on dirt tracks, in NASCAR, in sports cars (he won the 1985 Daytona 24 Hour race) and he won the IROC Championship in 1978.

Unser’s success in the Indianapolis 500 was well documented. One of only four drivers to win the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” four times – along with A.J. Foyt and Team Penske Hall of Famers Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves – “Big Al” truly shined at Indy. With 27 career starts in the Indy 500, Unser still holds the record for the most laps led in the historic race with 644.

Some of Unser’s greatest moments and memories from an iconic racing career came while competing for Team Penske. Unser joined the Team Penske lineup in 1983. He made 59 INDYCAR starts for Team Penske, competing each year from 1983-89 and again for one race during the 1992 season. The quiet and consistent Unser produced three victories and one pole position for the team during his Team Penske career and established a high standard of excellence within the team.

Unser’s ability to produce points and solid top-five finishes put him in a position to consistently compete for the INDYCAR SERIES championship. He won the title in both the 1983 and 1985 seasons, producing a win and six podium finishes for the team in each championship campaign. Unser drove the No. 7 Hertz Penske PC11/Cosworth to the title in 1983 and he raced the Pennzoil March/Cosworth to secure the series crown in 1985.

He scored his first Team Penske victory at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport road course on Fourth of July weekend in 1983 and he produced his second win late in the 1985 season with a victory at the Phoenix International Raceway oval that helped secure Team Penske’s seventh INDYCAR championship at the time.

It was Unser’s storybook victory in the 1987 Indianapolis 500 that most people remember about his partnership with Team Penske. He was not competing full time in the series for the 1987 season and, despite being a three-time Indy 500 winner who always seemed to make the most of his opportunities in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Unser did not have a ride for the race that year. After Danny Ongais was injured in a practice accident leading up to qualifying weekend, Team Penske found itself in need of a driver capable of delivering in the clutch. Roger Penske reached out to Unser and the veteran racer joined the team. He just needed a car.

The team knew it had one of its older cars – a March/Cosworth – on display at a hotel in Philadelphia so it was quickly retrieved and prepared to qualify. Unser strapped in and earned a 20th-place starting position. On race day, Unser played it smart and played it cool, as he always did. He raced his way up to third place late in the race, trailing leader Mario Andretti and Roberto Guerrero. Andretti’s car experienced mechanical issues as Guerrero took over the lead. After a strong pit stop by Unser and the No. 25 Team Penske crew, Guerrero visited pit lane for his final stop of the race. Coming out of the pits, Guerrero’s car stalled twice and Unser took command. He motored to checkered flag at the yard of bricks and right into the history books. Unser joined A.J. Foyt as just the second driver to claim four Indy 500 victories – later joined by Team Penske Hall of Famers Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves – and he also became the oldest driver to win at Indy at 47 years old.

The improbable story of success instantly became racing legend and it remains one of the most remarkable performances in Indy 500 history to this day.

Beyond his accomplishments on the track for Team Penske, Unser served as a leader and an inspiration to the team. Of course his son – Al Unser Jr., - also went on to great success with Team Penske, producing 12 wins, the 1994 INDYCAR Championship and a victory in the 1994 Indy 500. A total of three Unsers – Al, Al Jr., and Al’s brother Bobby – all raced and won at Indianapolis for Team Penske.

Unser was a true legend of the sport and he remained close to Team Penske throughout the rest of his life. One of the greatest racers to put on a helmet, “Big Al” will be missed by many throughout the Team Penske organization and across the world of motorsports.

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