Time Capsule Tuesday - Al Unser, Sr.

May 4, 2016

The Unser name is synonymous with success in open-wheel racing in America, specifically the Indianapolis 500. A total of nine Indy 500 wins and four IndyCar titles have come from the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based family, beginning with the first win at Indianapolis for Bobby Unser in 1968.

However, it was Al Unser, Sr. who put his name in the record books as one of the most successful drivers in the history of the famous venue. He was the second driver to join the three-member class that have won the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” four times.

The Unsers cut their racing teeth in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, with Al getting his first win in the historic test in 1964, ending a six-race win streak by Bobby. Al made his debut at Indy in 1965, finishing ninth and giving a glimpse of the talent he would display in future races. In 1970, Al won his first Indy 500, and a year later he became just the fourth driver to win consecutive 500s. Unser nearly made it three consecutive wins in the race, but he was thwarted by Mark Donohue winning the first Indy 500 for Team Penske in the 1972 event.

Despite his success there, he entered the 1978 race as a long shot to win. Nevertheless, Unser began the race from the fifth position and engaged in an exciting battle with teammate, Danny Ongais, before going on to score the unlikely victory, his third Indy 500 crown. 
However, if that 1978 victory was unlikely, then his fourth and final Indy 500 win felt like a miracle.
Unser joined Team Penske in 1983 and he continued his winning ways, including IndyCar championships in 1983 and 1985. In 1987, though, while no longer with the team, Roger Penske called upon Unser to fill in for Ongais, who was unable to compete in the 500 after suffering an injury in practice leading up to the race. In an additional twist, Penske elected not to put Unser in a PC-16 chassis with the new Chevy-Ilmor engine. Instead, he pulled a 1986 March-Cosworth out of the Sheraton hotel lobby in Reading, Pennsylvania and brought it to 16th St. and Georgetown Rd. for Unser to pilot.
After starting the race from the 20th position, Unser methodically worked his way through the field in a race that featured tremendous attrition. He took the lead on the 183rd lap and cruised to a 4.5-second victory that made him the oldest Indy 500 victor, just five days shy of his 48th birthday. 
Unser parlayed that win into three more starts for Team Penske that year. He also ran the 500-mile events for the team in 1988 and 1989.
In 1994, Unser retired from IndyCar competition. He remains the leader in career laps led in the Indy 500 with 644. For his Team Penske career, Unser made 58 IndyCar starts with four wins, two series championships and that improbable Indy 500 victory.
Unser is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.