For decades, he's been known to millions of race fans as Little Al. As part of the Unser racing dynasty, he literally grew up at the racetrack. We all remember him as that baby-faced kid who looked too young to have a driver's license, let alone wheel one of the fastest racecars in the world around tracks from Long Beach, Calif., to Tamiami, Fla., to the big daddy, Indianapolis, Ind.
Al was involved in what was for me and countless others, two of the most iconic moments in IndyCar racing in the mid- to late-'80s era. The battle between he and Emerson Fittipaldi in the closing laps of the 1989 Indy 500 has been replayed perhaps more than any other Brickyard moment, with Junior ending up on the wrong end of a bump with Emmo. Just as memorable was him walking out to the track as millions waited for him to give Emmo the one-finger salute…only to confound them by giving him the double thumbs-up!
The other amazing moment was Junior's championship fight with his father in 1985, with the points battle literally decided in the closing laps of the finale. I was fascinated to hear his accounts of both events looking back through the prism of time...
BH Your father was a big influence, and you were very close to him through your formative years, so talk about 1985, your third full year in the IndyCar. You and he were battling for the IndyCar championship and he beat you to the title by just one point. That's got to be a weird dynamic; you're happy for your dad, but you're beaten to the title by the smallest margin.
AU Oh, man, it was hugely emotional. I was a nervous wreck going to Tamiami Park for that final race. I had broken my leg but never missed a race, and I had led the championship for most of that year in Doug Shierson's team. But at Phoenix, the second-to-last race, my dad won and I finished second, and that let him take the points lead. For the first time in more than half the season, I wasn't at the top of the championship table. So we knew after that race that it was going to be my dad or me who would win the title.
What I needed was to finish in front of my dad but with one car between us. I had qualified well ahead of him but after a couple of corners of the race, I look in my mirrors, and there's no one there and the yellows are out. So we reduce our pace, go all the way back around, and the first car that appears behind me? My dad! What had happened was that Mario [Andretti] tried to gain a bunch of spots in the first corner and took out some cars and himself, which backed up the field and then some more people had run into each other. So now here's Dad right where he needs to be – and we haven't even completed one lap yet!
Danny Sullivan, Dad's teammate, is ahead of me and I start trying to pass him to get him between us, and he's making it extremely hard; there were a couple occasions where he damn nearly ran me right off the road. I guess he was getting orders to not let me past. So once this sinks into my head, I back down, and as the race plays out, a couple of cars get between me and Dad and that's the way it runs for almost the entire race. With five laps to go, there's one car between Dad and I – Roberto Moreno, driving for Rick Galles who first gave me my full-time IndyCar ride. Three laps to go, Dad passes Moreno – and there's nothing I can do about it.
BH That's just amazing drama and a lot of mixed emotions for you.
AU Yeah, I was happy for Dad, but sad for my team and myself. And Dad was upset, too. On the slow-down lap, he drew up next to me and put his hands in the air, shrugging, and I knew exactly what he was thinking. He'd done the job he's paid to do, for the sake of Roger Penske and his sponsors, and I'd done the same. All I could do was the same gesture back.
BH You stuck with Shierson for a couple more years, then went back to Galles, came second in the championship again in '88, and then it was another near miss that made bigger headlines than you could have imagined.
Of course, I'm talking about that 1989 Indy 500. Those final moments when you and Emerson Fittipaldi got together in the closing laps and you hit the wall get played over and over each year at Indy. But the image that sticks in my head was you emerging from the wreck, going trackside and giving Emmo the thumbs-up next time by. Was that really a “Good job!” thumbs-up or a sarcastic one?
AU That was a “Good job” thumbs-up! [Much laughter…]
BH Seriously?! Al, you're a better man than I am. It showed tremendous sportsmanship. I know how important Indy is to you, and that would have been your first win there…