As part of RACER magazine's build-up to the centenary running of the Indianapolis 500, we'll be running a series of retrospectives of memorable "500" moments as recalled by the drivers involved. First up: the spectacular conclusion to the 1992 race, when Al Unser Jr. battled Scott Goodyear to the checkered flag.
In 1990 when I started, I had an '89 Lola with a Judd, and it was only the second oval race of my life – Phoenix that year was my first. I never did oval racing in junior karts and I never did Super Vee. I did Atlantics, which didn't have oval races. So I wasn't expecting a whole lot. By 1992's Indy, given that we did six or so oval races a year, I probably had a dozen, maybe 14 oval races under my belt.
In 1990 I had qualified 21st for the 500, in 1991 I had qualified 12th and in 1992, driving for Walker Racing, we unloaded off the trailer and we were running very strong, running top times, but blowing up motors because we could only get six to eight laps in. We had an oil starvation problem that we could not for the life of us figure out. But we could see from the data that every time we went around a turn, it was starving for oil so and we changed the oil lines, changed them some more, checked the oil pump motors and so on. After the first week, we pulled out a spare car, a '91 car, that we had acquired, put a Chevy engine in it and just went out and qualified so we could be in the first weekend. Remember, back then the field was full. Derrick Walker said, “If we find out what the problem is, or we need to requalify, then we can do that, but right now we have to have something in there.”
Anyway, between the first and second weekends of qualifying, we found what the problem was – the scavenging tube in the oil tank was a couple inches too short, so whoever had built it didn't do it as per drawing. Once it was rectified, I took the '92 car out there and it was darn good. I had Tim Wardrup as an engineer. Derrick came to me and said, “Can I propose something? If we go ahead and change cars, no matter how fast you are, you're going to be at the back of the grid. Why don't we do this: Mike Groff qualifies your car and then we just do a driver swap and you'll both be at the back anyway.” The sponsors thought that was a good deal.
The end result, was that we got to the second weekend of qualifying , the weather was great and people were going fast and the time we set on the first weekend wasn't fast enough and we got bumped out of the field. So I still obviously took my Mackenzie car from Mike Groff, but had to start dead last.
So, bizarre circumstances to start with, but I always knew we had a very competitive car – fast on its own, strong in traffic and Tim had worked his magic on it. I'd say the car was better than I was; I just didn't have the experience to go head to head with someone like Al Jr. in only my 12th to 14th oval race in my life. He'd been going to the Speedway since 1983, and all those other oval races in CART. I expected a strong car and I expected a good finish, but I felt I was there to get experience. Then, lo and behold Al and I found ourselves battling it out.
Remember, it was just amazingly cold that day and it caused a lot of accidents. Being at the back of the pack, I was hanging back to get my tires warmed up, and I radioed to Derrick, “It's so cold out here, I'm trying to warm these tires up and I almost just lost it. This thing is just sliding sideways.” We had almost 900 horsepower back then, and the stagger on the tires is different to now, too; those things wanted to turn left if the revs were anything above idle!
Anyway, I'd just finished telling Derrick how slippery it was, and I come around the turn and see Roberto Guerrero [polesitter] has lost it and the yellow flags are out. I guess they must have been saying on the radio, “Car spun, car spun,” and Derrick's back on the radio to me yelling, “Is that you?! Are you all right?!” I said, “Yeah, I'm fine, what's wrong?” He said, “Someone's spun.” I reply: “Not me.”
In a way, what happened to Guerrero was the best thing that could have happened for me, because it gave me a whole different strategy for restarts. I would just roll onto the throttle instead of tramping it and then cowboying the car around. It was taking a couple of laps before the cars would stop sliding across the track, so every restart, I just went through the gears, not passing anybody but not charging anybody. I just waited until the car felt secure underneath me and then started moving through the pack. I felt like we had a good car.
My whole goal for the day was to survive, to finish top 10 and to gain experience. I'd finished 10th in 1990 but quite a few laps behind, and I think in '91 I'd climbed to seventh before the motor blew up. So this time I wanted to get to the finish and have a competitive day. Of course, once you get into the top 10, you get greedy and think, “OK, maybe we'll get a top five.” And then I get there, and think “Wouldn't it be great to get a top three?”
I think I was running 223mph laps, and I had a little bit left but not a lot. And I radioed Tim and asked, “Where's Michael [Andretti] and how fast is he going?” and there was a little bit of silence and then he came on and said, “Don't worry about Michael. Let's run our own pace.” I thought, OK, fine. Couple of laps later I called in again and said, “What kinda laps is Michael doing?” and they got back and said “228s, 229s,” and I thought, “Oh…OK. He's gone.”
So it wasn't until I saw Michael stopped that I realized it was gonna be a whole different deal; Al and I were battling for the lead. I was behind and I didn't have the experience of knowing exactly how to place the car. A few years later, I did, especially getting to run the IRL like I did. At the end, I had the advantage and managed to get alongside that Galmer a little bit but we didn't get it fully completed by the time we reached the finish line. We were on our way by – we definitely had the momentum. So of course I was disappointed to finish second, but you know what? I was still thrilled with the race, and Al and I still joke about it.
Winning a few races later was some consolation, because that race at Michigan involved battling with Mario and Paul Tracy and again we had a good car that I felt I could do anything with.
Next page: How Al Unser Jr. remembers it