AU Truly, the '89 Indy 500 was a defining point in my career, and that includes everything in the entire Month of May that year. Goodyear had brought a hard tire and a soft tire, and no one could get the soft tire to live for a full stint: even on half tanks, they'd go off within 10 laps. So Alan Mertens, my engineer, myself and the team felt that if we worked hard on trying to get that soft tire to work, we could have an advantage on the field. That's what we worked on for the whole month, and in the last couple days of practice, we achieved it and committed to it for the entire race.
I didn't qualify too well – eighth – but then I never really did qualify all that well! If you're in the first three rows of any race, you've got a shot at winning it. Right from the get-go, my dad taught me that you're not there to qualify, you're there to race, and it's not about leading the first lap, it's about leading the last. So I'd spend a lot of practice sessions running on half-full tanks and working on race setups.
BH I remember when I was racing, if we saw you in the first two rows, we knew the rest of us were in big trouble! Bobby Rahal said that in our last RACER2RACER, too. And he also said that winning Indy in 1986 was a positive turning point for him, and a negative one for the guy he beat that day, Kevin Cogan. Now you, too, have described the '89 race, despite it being a hard lesson for you, as a defining point. Let's talk about that.
AU Well for one thing, that 1989 race, I believe, was my best drive in my 19 starts at Indy. The Indy 500 is all about going fast enough to stay on the lead lap, but also protecting your equipment, making sure you don't run into anybody and no one runs into you, and fine-tuning the handling for the final stint. As the race went on, that's what I was doing. I was just running the laps, probably just made one or two wing adjustments the entire race. I ran with the turbo boost turned down, so I was also making great fuel mileage and not taking any chances.
In fact, I remember at one point during the race, I was running about 10sec ahead of Michael [Andretti] and Emmo who were the leaders, and they were really going at it and Rick Galles came over the radio and said, “Al, the leaders are getting a little close to putting you down a lap.” So I hit the radio button and said, “You want me to pick it up a bit?” and Rick said, “Yeah, let's see some more room there.” So in just three laps I extended that gap to 20sec, and radioed, “Are you happy now?” “Oh yeah, oh yeah, we're happy now” was the reply.
BH So you were well aware of what you had underneath you, and what you had in reserve.
AU Yeah, exactly. So we had worked it to where I had made my final stop, and I was in second, about 20sec behind Emmo. Had it gone green all the way to the end, he'd have come in, and I'd have been the one in the lead by about 20sec. But right before Emerson's stop, there was a yellow, and there was no closing of the pits in those days. It happened just as Emerson was going into Turn 3 and so he got in, made his stop and came out right in front of me. I thought, “Oh hell, now I have to race this guy,” and I wound up the boost.
We were about fourth and fifth in line, with lapped cars in front of the pair of us, and when we got the green, he went through them bang-bang-bang, real quick. I was a little slower, but then with five laps to go I caught up and just flat passed him and I think it surprised him. I started pulling away but then we came up on lapped traffic, the thing I was dreading the most. I timed it pretty good for taking them down the back straight, but coming out of Turn 2, Emerson came back at me. I didn't even look in my mirror to see if he was there, and he was so close that when I whipped out from behind the backmarker, Emmo and I almost touched.
BH Yeah, I remember. And there were no spotters in those days.
AU Right. So he's alongside me, but as we pass the lapped traffic, I start pulling in front of him again. I had one more backmarker still to clear, but if I'd stayed in the throttle and done that, I'd have had to pass him on the outside of the short chute between Turns 3 and 4, and I thought that was a risk too far. So I got out of the throttle and when I did that, it was Emerson's chance to attack.
He went down low, and when I got out of the gas, he appeared on my left. I went, “Oh s***!” and straightened up a little before turning in; I was trying to go around his right front and cracked the throttle wide open again. That's what I think knocked him sideways – I was so hard on the gas that when my left rear hit his right front, it was a big hit. It lifted up my car and spun it around into the wall.
I came to a halt, got out of the car, and I was pissed! I started to walk out to the track and one of the safety crew stopped me and said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I'm going to the track.” He said, “You wanna flip him off?” I said, “Uh, yeah!” He stepped aside and said, “Go ahead!”
So I went out there, and there was a moment of clarity as I waited for Emerson to come around. It's like standing in the middle of a football field, with these huge grandstands, packed with people, totally surrounding you. I looked up and thought, “Everyone's expecting me to flip him off, and y'know, I just tried to steal the 500 away from Emerson Fittipaldi.” These were the thoughts that came to me as I stood there, and so when he came past, I gave him the thumbs-up, applauded him and congratulated him on doing the best slide job I'd ever had done to me. And, man, I screamed that out at the top of my lungs!