Penske, Mears, Foyt, Parnelli Jones pay tribute to Al Unser
Roger Penske, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Parnelli Jones have paid tribute to “one of the greatest who ever got in a racecar,” Al Unser, who died yesterday.
Unser, the younger brother of Bobby Unser who also died this year, passed away on Thursday, Dec. 9th at the age of 82. He had waged a 17-year battle with cancer of the liver brought on by his inherited blood disease, hemochromatosis.
Al Unser accrued 39 wins – becoming the second driver after AJ Foyt to score four Indianapolis 500 victories – as well as three Indy car championships and 27 pole positions.
“We have lost a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track,” said Penske in a statement. “Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“From carrying on his family’s winning tradition at Pikes Peak to racing in NASCAR, sports cars, earning championships in IndyCar and IROC and, of course, becoming just the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Al had an amazing career that spanned nearly 30 years.
“He produced two championships and three wins for our race team, including his memorable victory in the 1987 Indy 500 when he famously qualified and won with a year-old car that was on display in a hotel lobby just a few days before. We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory that day, and he will always be a big part of our Team.
“Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”
Unser on his way to that remarkable fourth victory at the Speedway in a year-old March 86 that had been retrieved from a hotel lobby.
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Penske ran Unser full-time in 1983-85 and part-time in ’86 and ’87, so Mears was able to witness first-hand that Unser’s talents were still strong some 20 years after his Indy car (Champ Car) debut.
Mears, a fellow four-time Indy winner and three-time champ, told Motorsport.com: “The first time I was really around Al was at a function that Parnelli [Jones] had at his raceshop in L.A. in the mid-’70s. Parnelli was one of our sponsors, supplied us with tires, and he was running Al in Indy cars at that time. I had already seen Bobby at Pikes Peak, but I think Al was the first professional driver I really met.
“He was already very mild-mannered, gave his opinions only if you asked him, and to that extent he never really changed much in all the years – decades – that I knew him. He was never too outspoken. Alongside Bobby, I guess Al was always going to be the quiet one of the family!”
Unser joined Penske in 1983 after three frustrating years at start-up team Longhorn Racing, but his senses hadn’t been dulled by racing an occasionally fast but usually flaky car. He won the championship in ’83 and ’85, helping to carry the team as Mears recovered from the grievous injuries he received in a shunt in ’84.
“Oh, Al was still very quick, well into his 40s,” said Mears. “He was never really big on qualifying, but that meant that if he did start up front, you had to hang on come the race because he had the potential to head off into the distance. He reasoned that if he focused on race setups, he could work his way through – and he was absolutely right. Wherever he qualified, you had to keep your eye on him because he’d be moving forward.
"He didn’t need to lead all the laps; if he was still running toward the end of a race, you better plan on having to deal with him because he and the car would still be strong and ready to fight. That was his whole M.O. – set up the car to be fast throughout a race, look after it until the last few stints, and then go for it. And it paid off – his finishing record, his top-five record, was the best. That’s what wins championships – racing smart – and that’s Al always did.”
While Mears had discovered between 1979 and ’81 that Bobby Unser was a teammate who was very selective in how much information he shared, Al was the opposite.
The four-time Indy 500 winners - AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves with the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Photo by: Chris Owens
“His feedback was great,” says Mears. “He approached the setup a lot different from Bobby. He worked as hard on it as anyone, but like I said, it was about making the car good over a whole race distance, not just ultimately quick for a lap or two.
“So Al and I got along great as teammates: I could always count on his feedback. We spoke the same language in terms of describing how the car was handling. If he went out and tried some change on the car, he’d come back and say exactly the differences he felt, and our driving styles were similar enough for me to think, ‘OK, that change made the car do this, now I know,’ and I wouldn’t need to go try it for myself.
"If Al said the change he’d tried had been positive, I trusted his judgment and description enough that I would do the same thing to my car, even if I was just about to go out and qualify. I had that kinda faith in what he was saying because he communicated so well and told me everything he felt I needed to know. A real team player.”
With Mears becoming the third member of the four-time-Indy-winner elite in 1991, he, Al and A.J. Foyt were involved in many photoshoots at the Speedway with the illustrious Borg-Warner Trophy over the past 30 years, and the most recent one came this year as Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club.
“I was so glad we got to do that one last time,” said Mears. “He was never a big talker – he was much more of the “just give me the steering-wheel, that’ll do my talking!” kinda guy – but that’s one of the things I liked about him.
“Al and I got along great throughout our careers and afterward, too. A good teammate who became a good friend. It’s another sad day in a sad year.”
Foyt said: “I was really sorry to hear about Al Unser. We were able to catch up in July at the four-time winners’ deal we did at Indy and I'm glad for that.
“I always thought a lot of Al, even when he first came to Indy. That's why I was happy to give him his first ride there.
Al and A.J. at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003.
Photo by: Michael C. Johnson
“He was a nice person and well-respected because he was a cool, smart race driver – always knew what he was doing, knew how to take care of a car. He was very smart and when he was winning, you had to be, because racing was a lot more dangerous back then. I always had a lot of respect for Al. It's a sad day."
The aforementioned Parnelli Jones was perhaps the key figure in Unser’s career, hiring him for the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team at the end of 1968. They won two Indy 500s with the famous Johnny Lightning Special Colts of 1970 and ’71, clinched the USAC Indy car title in ’70, and eventually racked up 24 wins together before eventually going their separate ways at the end of ’77.
Parnelli gave Al his big break, together they won 24 Indy car races, and they remained friends forever.
"We lost a gentleman in Al Unser,” said a sorrowful Jones from his house in Rolling Hills, Southern California on Friday morning. “Al was our "money man". He won the Indianapolis 500 and lots of other races for us. He showed he could win at the Speedway or the State Fair Grounds, it didn't matter.
“He did it quietly and wasn't spectacular like Bobby but he knew how to take care of cars and equipment. He even finished the "500" in a Buick – third place in 1992!
“As a competitor he was tough. When I drove against him and when he drove for other car owners you had your eye on Al. He won the “Triple Crown” in ’78 [for VPJ rival Chaparral, conquering the 500-milers at Indy, Pocono and Ontario]. That takes a strong team but the driver has to take the car to the checkered flag.
“Al was smooth and controlled, a real thinker behind the wheel. He never talked a big game - he let his driving do the talking. As an owner, I couldn't ask for a better driver – hands down, the best. He was always there at the end and usually up front. He was an all-around class act.
“Al was a good friend for many, many years and to the end. He had a brilliant career and was part of an amazing family. I think the first time I met Al was at Pikes Peak with Bobby in the early- to mid-1960s. The whole family could race anything with wheels.
“For brothers, you couldn't find two who were more different in personalities and driving styles… then there was Al Jr. who I'd say fell right in the middle of those two personality- and driving-wise.
“I lost a friend and the world of racing lost one of the greatest who ever got in a racecar. Al raced in a diverse era against great drivers and came out on top so many times.”
The 50th anniversary of this brilliant second Indy win in 1971 prompted BorgWarner to pay tribute with a Baby Borg in May this year.
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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