Unser Jr. and Galles progressed together through their formative years in racing. (LAT archive)
Indy car racing's shortage of homegrown stars in recent years accounts for much of its struggle to maintain its place in the nation's motorsports pecking order. While the reasons are complicated, a look back to the way it used to be may be instructive.
Even as it grew under CART during the 1980s beyond the sport's oval-centric roots to a balance of road and street courses and circle tracks – attracting increasing numbers of drivers from overseas in the process – Indy car racing continued to benefit from traditional wellsprings of American open-wheel talent. Al Unser Jr. was the prime example.
If ever someone could be said to have been born to race at Indianapolis, it was Al Jr. The son of the second four-time winner of the 500 and nephew of a three-time winner, he grew up around the sport, and followed his father's path into sprints and midgets. But just as Al Unser the elder had branched out beyond the time-worn path to Indy from dirt and paved ovals into road racing, including stints in Formula 5000 and Can-Am in his résumé, Al Jr. followed that example by moving from midgets into rear-engined open-wheelers.
Little Al, as he asked to be called, dominated Super Vee (the equivalent of today's Indy Lights) in 1981 in a car owned by fellow New Mexican Rick Galles, an Albuquerque car dealer. Unser and Galles then moved on together to Can-Am racing for 1982. The SCCA-backed Can-Am had by then lost its cachet as America's top road racing series to IMSA's Camel GT Series and was increasingly losing its teams to CART, but it provided the 20-year-old Unser with another valuable source of education about high-horsepower, ground-effect racecars. He put it to good use when he and Galles formed a CART Indy car team for '83.
From the start, Unser Jr. was plenty fast, although he and his team endured growing pains together in their first few seasons. Unlike his contemporary, Michael Andretti, Unser Jr. deliberately chose never to try and team up with his father, who continued to enjoy great success with Penske Racing in the mid '80s. He also emerged as a star in other genres. At the age of 24, Unser became the youngest IROC champion ever (he won the stock car-centric miniseries again in '88‚ and the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1986 and '87.
After a brief but successful stint with Shierson Racing in CART – during which he was pipped for the title by his dad in 1985 – Unser returned to Galles, which bolstered its competitiveness by merging with the midpack Kraco team to form a two-car Galles-Kraco Racing. In 1990, Unser Jr. would not be denied, winning six races en route to the title.
Galles-Kraco continued to expand its footprint, too, becoming a chassis manufacturer in 1992 via the Galmer group Rick Galles had formed in association with British designer Alan Mertens. The Galmer chassis carried Little Al to his first Indianapolis 500 win that year, in what was then the closest Indy finish ever, over Scott Goodyear.
But, in a harbinger of the hard times ahead for CART, Galles became a victim of its own success. The Galmer project failed to attract any other customers and was abandoned after one year, and when the team's customer Lolas failed to regain their former success, Al Jr.'s eyes began to wander toward greener pastures. In 1994, he left for Penske and greater glories, while Galles was soon out of the sport.
After that golden '94 season brought him another Indy triumph and CART championship, Little Al, too, would face difficult times in his personal life. However, he is gradually winning back his place as an unofficial ambassador for a sport that is also rebuilding itself.
Today's more complicated sports world makes maintaining business relationships with friends and family through the upward curve of a driver's career more problematic than ever, but family influence and tradition continue to play a prominent role. Conor Daly, the son of Formula 1 and Indy car veteran Derek, has starred in the bottom rungs of America's open-wheel ladder, winning this year's Star Mazda Championship. Although he currently targets F1 as a destination, it would be a welcome sign of hope for American open-wheel racing to see him in an IndyCar cockpit.