BorgWarner honors Al Unser, celebrates two of four Indy wins

Indy car legend Al Unser has been presented with a ‘Baby Borg’ to honor his two Indianapolis 500 victories in the Vel’s Parnelli Jones “Johnny Lightning Special” entries. David Malsher-Lopez reports.

BorgWarner honors Al Unser, celebrates two of four Indy wins

On Friday evening, the second of only three four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, Al Unser, was presented with a retrospective ‘Baby Borg’ award. Thus in one celebratory evening, BorgWarner Inc. made up for two slices of annoyingly poor timing for one of the true greats of our sport.

The Baby Borg was introduced in 1988 at the suggestion of that year’s Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears. It is an 18-inch high replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy and is also made of sterling silver, but is set on a marble base with a trapezoidal silver plaque for the winning driver's image, name and race information. The bas-relief image is from the same mold and therefore identical to the image on the full-sized trophy.

However, Mears’ idea and its execution came one year too late for Unser, whose Indy win in 1987 had put him into the exclusive club of four-time winners, along with A.J. Foyt. The only driver to have joined this pair since was of course Mears.

Then, in 2013, retro Baby Borgs commemorating the 50th anniversary of Indianapolis 500 wins began, and that January, 1963 winner Parnelli Jones was presented with his miniature Borg-Warner Trophy replica by reigning 500 winner Dario Franchitti. Six years later, Mario Andretti accepted his as part of the pre-race ceremony before a worldwide audience on NBC.

 

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Last year, Unser was set to receive the Baby Borg in honor of his 1970 Indy 500 triumph in the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Colt-Ford, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant restrictions meant no one could gather either in Indianapolis nor at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque, NM. Al and his wife of 25 years, Susan, stayed in their idyllic rural home in Chama on the New Mexico/Colorado border, the 500 was pushed back to August and went fan-free for the first time in its history, and nothing felt right for anyone.

This year, things aren’t yet back to normal. As per state and city agreement, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will contain a 40 percent crowd today for the 105th running of the 500, and the Festival and Parade downtown were canned again this year. The traditional uplifting atmosphere of Indianapolis on Memorial Day Weekend remains on the down-low in 2021. But as Mr. and Mrs. Unser left Chef JJ’s on Friday evening to step into their ride, a middle-aged couple walking past spotted a legend and wanted an autograph and a quick chat. Indy is, reassuringly, still Indy.

And this year BorgWarner could still celebrate a 50th anniversary with the Al mighty, since in 1971 he joined another exclusive echelon: that of back-to-back Indy winners.

Al Unser Jr, Al Unser, Baby Borg, and the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy.

Al Unser Jr, Al Unser, Baby Borg, and the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy.

Photo by: Dan Boyd

If the late, already much-missed Bobby Unser was the acetylene torch of the Unser dynasty from Albuquerque, NM, his younger brother Al – ‘Big Al’ once his son Al Jr. hit the Indy car trail – brought the dry ice, with a wise-beyond-his-years approach to racing. Bobby was all urgency, wanted to lead now; Al played the long game and played it exceptionally well, which is why he has 39 Indy car wins to his name.

George Bignotti was Al’s race engineer (referred to as a chief mechanic in those days) at the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team, with whom he won the 1970 and ’71 Indy 500s, and he was a notoriously difficult man to please. But he always held Unser’s mechanically sympathetic touch in high regard.

“I would say it took Al about a year to really get in the groove,” the late Bignotti told me, “but once he started winning… Boy! It was like he was winning everything. He was a very smooth driver. You didn’t see him thrashing the car when he was going flat-out. He came through the field until suddenly, when you looked up from your lap chart, he was there in the lead!”

For 1970, Bignotti had devised not only a heavily modified Lola, but had brought in aerodynamicist Joe Fukashima, to create the Colt, retroactively called the Colt 70. Topper Toys came up with the eye-catching colorscheme for an already handsome car, and the “Johnny Lightning Special” truly lived up to its name. Unser dominated the 1970 season, and his performance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was typical, leading 190 of the 200 laps, just like Jimmy Clark’s Lotus had done five years earlier.

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

But it was the 1971 Indy triumph that showed that Unser didn’t need the best car to prevail. He qualified the Colt in fifth, 4mph slower than Peter Revson’s pole-winning works McLaren M16, and 2.5mph behind the Penske-run McLaren of Mark Donohue.

“In 1970 at Indy, we’d had everything, all the way,” the ever-modest Unser told Motorsport.com. “I didn’t have to work hard, I could do what I wanted to do all day. That was one of those nice days.

“Then in ’71, we came back thinking we really had everything perfect again but that wasn’t the case…”

The optimism exuded by the VPJ team, including Unser and Bignotti, was understandable. They had started the season where they’d left off the previous year, and had won three of the opening four races. But when designing the M16, McLaren’s Gordon Coppuck had taken advantage of loosely-worded USAC rules regarding rear bodywork, which in recent years had seen teams come up with ducktail spoilers.

“McLaren had put on full rear wings!” said Unser. “Then when USAC told them that the rear wing had to be connected to the engine cover, McLaren just ran a piece of metal over the engine to connect them, saying the wing was part of the rear bodywork. So the wing stayed the same and the cars stayed fast – much faster than us.”

Vel’s Parnelli Jones team had been wrong-footed by working within the rules as they read them, and the Colt 71 was a mere evolution facing a revolution.

Unser recalled: “For ’71, the side wings – ramps, we called them – over the rear wheels had been tilted more to give us more downforce. And the ’70 car hadn’t held enough fuel so the ’71 car had a bigger side tank. Both those changes had consequences, so George had done a lot of other small modifications to the suspension, and had moved things to compensate for the weight of a full tank of fuel. He’d done a good job; the car still felt good, like the year before, and it was faster. But it just wasn’t fast enough.

 

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd/BorgWarner

“Now, if Donohue had stayed in the race, he was gone – we had nothing for him. But you have to first finish to finish first, and he had a mechanical [gearbox failure] and dropped out. And then, Revson… I could handle him. His car was faster than mine, but he didn’t have much experience of Indy cars and neither did his team, McLaren. He didn’t know what was happening on yellow-flag laps, or when to pit, and I think he said afterward he had a vibration too.”

Whatever the case, in ’71 Unser drove with great speed and wisdom and took full advantage of the experience he had amassed over his five previous runs at Indy, which had included a second place in ’67 as well as the win in ’70. This time he would pass the famous twin checkers 24 seconds ahead of Revson’s potentially much faster McLaren, having led for 103 laps. Revson, by contrast, had led not a single one.

“It was one of those special races that Indy can produce,” said Unser. “You have good days and bad days, and it just turned out it was my time to win. In ’70, we had everything going our way and we won; in ’71 we didn’t have things go our way in terms of the car, but we still won. The next year, it was Donohue’s and Penske’s turn.

“That’s what this place is like,” he shrugged. “When it’s your day, it’s your day.”

The sparkling, spotless Borg-Warner Trophy took pride of place in the room where we sat, chewing over past times – in particular that 1979 edition of the Indy 500 which was emphatically not Unser’s day, when his revolutionary but still-new Chaparral 2K expired after dominating the first half of the race. A story for another day.

William Behrends, sculptor of every face on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990, and the man responsible for the ‘faces on the bases’ of the Baby Borgs presented to Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti and now Unser, was also present on this evening, which was pleasing for he has done a fine job. It’s one thing to sculpt an image with the latest winner sitting right there in front of you, but going back in time to capture former aces’ likenesses from when they were in their prime is quite another skill.

“I don’t look at the original ‘face’ on the Trophy,” said Behrends, “but I do still want to capture the driver as he was in that precise year. So I looked at every photo I could find of Al from 1970 and pieced it together.

“You’re right, it is more difficult, but the quality of the photos was improving by then, and the number of photos you can find from that time is quite good, too.”

Then it was time for Al to receive that oh-so-gratifying Baby Borg – “I’ve waited a long time for this!” – pose for photos with his two-time Indy-winning son, Al Jr., with BorgWarner’s global director Michelle Collins… and with a surprise visitor – two-time and defending Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.

Al Unser, Takuma Sato, Baby Borg, and Borg-Warner Trophy

Al Unser, Takuma Sato, Baby Borg, and Borg-Warner Trophy

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd/BorgWarner

Of course the ever-charming Taku had been rushing between sponsor engagements from the moment he had finished debriefing with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda team following Carb Day practice, but he and Unser spoke warmly to each other privately, and about each other when addressing BorgWarner’s guests.

“You can be very proud and for all your life,” Unser said to Sato. “Respect it, honor it – and go after it again. How many have you won now?” When Sato raised two fingers, Unser responded with mock concern, “You’re getting too close.”

When the laughter died down he added, “Good luck this weekend. Behave, and dodge all the rest of them!”

Sato, after answering questions about the race ahead, said: “It’s great to be here and to honor Al. I’m not the same level at all but to be associated with him, in a sense, through the Borg-Warner, I’m really honored, really happy, and thank you all.”

Sato also made sure he pointed out to all present that this was a double celebration for Unser, since it would be his 82nd birthday the next day. Later a candle was lit, Happy Birthday was sung, and again Al grinned for the appreciative guests while also looking uncomfortable at the attention, then blew out the candle.

BorgWarner had also bought Susan Unser some flowers in a vase which someone quipped wasn’t quite as appealing as a Baby Borg.

Susan smiled and replied in her usual dignified way, “But I get to take home the winner.”

After she and Al headed off, and the Borg-Warner Trophy – these days insured for $3.5m – had been oh-so-carefully loaded into a waiting van complete with police escort, we stood around truly appreciating that there aren’t many evenings like this.

Al Unser's Baby Borg

Al Unser's Baby Borg

Photo by: Dan R. Boyd/BorgWarner

 

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