Pocono Raceway's welcome return to the Indy car calendar for the first time in 24 years also marks the return of IndyCar's Triple Crown of “endurance” races. Originally, the Triple Crown comprised the 500-milers at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario. When Ontario disappeared, a 500-miler at Michigan took its place.
This year, Pocono's 400-miler (reduced in length to fit in ABC's broadcast window) is the second race in the Triple Crown and, obviously Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan is the only man who can scoop the Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka Triple Crown bonus of $1 million. But history shows that KV Racing's superstar, driving the Sunoco Turbo car this weekend, has a tough task ahead of him as only one man has ever scooped it – Al Unser in 1978. On the one hand, that's appropriate as Unser is IndyCar's king of the 500-milers, scooping eight in his career; but, on the other hand, it came in one of the least likely race-winning cars he ever drove.
Steve Shunck caught up with Big Al – and his brother Bobby – to discuss winning the Triple Crown, the nature of Pocono Raceway and Kanaan's prospects at making history.
What do you think about the Triple Crown coming back to Indy car racing?
I give IndyCar credit for bringing back the Triple Crown. You know, it used to be three 500-mile races and over the years, the tracks and track distances changed. In the beginning it was three 2.5-mile tracks, then we lost Ontario and raced at Michigan that was two miles so we had to run 250 laps.
I am glad it's back and maybe in the future they can make the Pocono race 500 miles to keep it all 500-mile races across the board. But this is a start, a positive start.
What did you think of Tony Kanaan's win at Indy?
Describe why you joined Jim Hall's team for the 1978 season.
I think Tony's a good racer, a real good racer. He keeps learning how to win races. I thought the Indianapolis 500 was a pretty good show, I really did, and for Tony to win after all his tries, was really good for him. I'm an old-timer and I thought he was going to be another Lloyd Ruby and just keep racing and racing at Indy and never get to drink milk or get his photo with the Borg-Warner trophy in Victory Lane. When you come down to the end of the race and run like he did, and want to win, that showed his spirit. He knew the Speedway didn't owe him anything like the announcers said it did. He won based on his talent, his racing skills and the team's hard work.
You search out who wants to go racing and win – and when Parnelli (Jones) ended his Indy car operation at the end of the 1977 season, I talked to Jim Hall who wanted to get into Indy car racing. Jim came to Albuquerque and we sat down and had a long talk about all parts of the future operation – engines, chassis, sponsors, personnel. Jim's first proposal was way off and I said, “We're not going to make it,” so Jim left and then he called me back two weeks later and we met again. This time, he had everything in line, it all came together – the right dollar figures, team members, sponsors, engine department; we were good to go racing.
Jim got Huey Absalom and Franz Weis: they were key people in the success of our program. Jim wanted to win, he really wanted to win, and he made it happen. I felt that's what drew me over to race with the team.
In 1978 we raced the Lola. That car was a disgrace and tried to kill me! We had Chaparral the next year and that car was way, way beautiful to drive, but the Chaparral and Lola couldn't have been more different. I won the Triple Crown in 1978, but what other race did I win? Heck, I didn't even finish second or third in the others! You'd think if you had enough to win the 500-milers you'd be able to at least run third or second in other races. No, not in that Lola – we were always chasing ourselves and playing catch-up with that car, seemed like every weekend.
Why were you and the team so good in the 500-milers?
The Lola was a funny racecar. Take Pocono, for example: on that track, the Lola scared the s*** outta me. If we had on-board cameras back then, people could see what it was like to drive that car, and it would amaze them how that car darted and bounced around on that track – it was very rough. I kinda had to just hang on and let the car do want it wanted and it was never the same – a constant handful. It had its own head. But I'd hang on, drive and let the competitors come back to me; I'd be driving around and one by one I'd catch up to them and soon enough I'd be leading the race.
Pocono was the trickiest track because Indianapolis and Ontario were smooth and the corners were all kinda alike. At Pocono it was rough and each corner was so different: Turn 1 was like Trenton, Turn 2 reminded me of Indianapolis and Turn 3 was flat like Milwaukee. But it was important to try to get the last turn right for a good lap, that's for sure. In the Lola, Indy was easier than Pocono because it was real smooth – it had all just been completely repaved a couple of years before and the car didn't dart around and bounce as much. I'd try to drive steady and smooth and it just seemed like the others kept coming back to me. Soon enough my pit board had a “1” on it and I was leading. Toward the end of the race the car was pushing really bad but with that car that was common.
My third Indy win coming the same year I won the Triple Crown was neat. If you remember, actually driving for Parnelli, I won the final race 500-mile race of 1977 at Ontario – so I won four
straight 500-mile races – one in '77 then the Triple Crown in '78. At Ontario in '78, we just ran steady all day – I remember running against [Gordon] Johncock and [Johnny] Rutherford for the lead and Johncock ran outta gas at the end, so that made it easier for us; he had the boost turned way up and just ran it out of fuel trying to keep the lead. We finished and he didn't. He can say “if” all he wants but we did finish and won, and that's what racing is about.
How did it feel to win the Triple Crown?
Winning them all was a great gift. We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three, we really did, because we were not happy with that Lola. Jim Hall was really happy and the whole team was too, because in each one of those races I didn't think I had a chance of winning. We figured, OK, we had a chance of competing up front but winning
? Oh man. Then all of all of a sudden, like at Indy, I looked up at the board, and we were in the race, these guys backed up right to us.
At Pocono, we gambled by not changing tires – we took a big chance and it paid off. You never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who's going to win. And even at Ontario, we felt the same way – I didn't think we'd be all that competitive even though we'd already won Indy and Pocono. But we pulled it off – between Jim, Huey, Franz and the whole team, we pulled it off, man. And we just did it the right three time times that year. I got a ring that said I was a Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000, I think…you'd have to check. But I know for sure we didn't get a million dollars – I am positive about that!
What are Tony Kanaan's chances of winning the Triple Crown?
Oh, all I can say is he is capable, that man is capable of winning, he showed that. But there are about 10 other guys out there who will be close chasing him. If he can win Pocono and then California (Auto Club Speedway), I'd be happy to have Tony join me as a Triple Crown winner, for sure.
Why was your brother so successful at 500-mile races?
More than anything, Al was so patient and so smooth in the long races. Al was steady and turned the same laps and speeds all day long. He was a really smart driver, he drove 500 miles like no one else. Others just couldn't drive smart all day long and do what Al did – Al's record shows it. Pavement or dirt, 500-mile races or shorter, Al had success and you can read all about it in the history books. Al also drove for really, really good teams with great owners and mechanics supporting him.
Al was fast when he had to be, fast at the right times. Al wouldn't get caught up in little worthless battles early in a race. Al ran so many smart races and broke so many records over the years in 500 mile races it was crazy. He won the Triple Crown in a car that wasn't the fastest or best out there. He won the races with his skills and smarts. To win and do well in those races you had to be exceptionally smooth, and Al was.
What does it take to get around Pocono Raceway?
That track is so distinct and so totally different than the others we raced on. It's about having the right balance between each corner and the three long straights and being able to play give-and-take to make the car work. You have to give up a little in Turn 1 to make Turn 2 better… and Turn 2 really isn't even a turn; it's more like the dog-leg that Phoenix used to have. You always wanted to get through and get off of Turn 3 (I always called it Turn 4) better than any other turn. If you have Turn 4 right and get off of it quick you'll race well – it lets you get down the long front straight fast and you'll be in front of lot of other cars.
When we raced there, Pocono Raceway was very bumpy from the long winters, but now it looks smooth and has lots of grip. I think they'll have a really good, fast race. When we raced there in the early 1970s in flat-bottomed cars and relied on the big wings, it was a big challenge; the drivers had to be really brave to run a fast lap. It was lots of fun when you got it right, but you had to hang on to run a smooth, fast lap. And remember, we had over a 1,000 horsepower then and we'd turn the boost up even more for qualifying. It was fast!
What did you think of Tony Kanaan's win at Indy?
Tony is one of the very best talents out there. He's always had talent and won the IndyCar championship in the 7-Eleven car by driving well all season. At Indy this year, he finally got a little racing luck to go with his racing talents. It doesn't matter if he won under yellow or not. When it rained in 1975 and they red-flagged it, I still was the winner. I was leading – not Rutherford or Foyt– and that's what matters. My name is in the record books. Tony won and he has talent, he was leading when he had to be and he is in the record books now forever.