I got in the ambulance and that's when my emotions did get to me, and I broke down. I got to the track hospital, and my dad came in, and his first words after “Are you OK?” were, “You can have this if you want it. He was under the white line when he was coming past.” That year USAC had said you cannot improve your position or pass anyone under the white line. I said, “Dad, he's the one in Victory Lane drinking the milk right now. I'm not going to get that back. Yeah, he was wrong in what he did, but I don't want to win it like this.”
Then my PR person kept coming in, saying, “ABC's outside, they want a word and they need it now,” so I started to truly think about what had transpired this day. I had put in the greatest drive of my life, it hadn't turned out the way I wanted, but I was in contention to win the Indy 500 and the reason we'd lost it wasn't my mistake, wasn't my crew's mistake, wasn't my team's mistake and it wasn't Emerson's mistake. It was racing and that's what we do. If there's something you want that bad, you can be sure you're not the only one that wants it! And I knew Emmo as a person and knew he wouldn't harm anyone on purpose. He genuinely cared about his fellow drivers.
So I came out of the hospital and said words to that effect – that there are times when we're all racing and nothing matters except the trophy. Not your life, not someone else's life, and certainly not money: Winning is the only thing that matters. And the only thing that mattered for Emerson and I going into Turn 3 was winning – and there was only going to be one car that came out of there.
Anyway, Monday morning when I woke up, I was making myself a cup of coffee, and my first wife Shelley was there in tears. I asked her why, and she said “You almost won the Indy 500,” sob, sob, sob and so on. And I can honestly say, I didn't feel that. I felt happy.
BH Because it was that tipping point. From there you went on to win the championship in 1990, won Indy in '92 (RIGHT). And then in '94 you joined Penske and got the second Indy win and your second championship in the same year.
AU Bryan, that's exactly what that race was: a tipping point. Everything in my career had been geared toward doing well at the Indy 500. All the IROC races, the 24 Hours of Daytona, even the other races on the IndyCar circuit – they were all to make me a better racecar driver at Indy, and it had been eluding me. But from 1989, I knew I could win that race. Prior to that, there was a doubt in my mind. A lot of talented drivers – Lloyd Ruby being one obvious guy – had won all over the place, but something bad would always happen to him at Indy. I can remember saying to Shelley in previous years, “Great, I'm just another Lloyd Ruby!” But in '89, that all changed. I quit saying it; I quit believing it.
So when I woke up that next morning, I was happy. I wasn't on the Borg-Warner, I didn't get to drink the milk and I didn't get the million dollars, but I knew that I could do it. Even if I never won Indy, emotionally I had.
BH That experience probably helped you win the ones you did win. You were a different guy when you went back there, you had that inner confidence.
AU Ab-so-lutely. Thereafter, I was super-competitive in that race. I was so blessed with the environment I grew up in, because as well as Dad, I had Uncle Bobby to go to, and one day he said to me, “You concentrate on Indy so much, but you need to treat Indy as another race, and you need to treat the other ones like Indy. The 500 is just a domino in the line. You start knocking over these ones, and the Indianapolis 500 will fall for you, too.” And that's what happened.
When I met up at the Milwaukee Mile with Al, I had intended to cover a broad view of his career as we've done with so many other RACER2RACER interviewees. But as Junior talked, I became so intrigued by these two pivotal moments in his storied career, I decided to make them the focus of the piece. Al won 34 races including two Indy 500s and took two IndyCar titles, yet those two defeats are what really helped make all the success possible.
I was also unable to escape the incredible comparisons, in my mind, between Al's experience at Indianapolis in 1989, and that of one JR Hildebrand, 22 years later. Maybe it's because our team with Dan Wheldon benefited so memorably from JR hitting the Turn 4 wall within sight of the checkered flag. But more so, I think it's because while writing these RACER2RACERs, I've become fascinated by the idea that racing careers can boil down to a few moments that change a driver's destiny – maybe even their life.
If that's even partially true, I want JR to read Al's account, and take away the same lesson that Al did over two decades ago. (JR, let there be no doubt, you are good enough to win the Indianapolis 500.) Such unbelievable composure and grace as JR showed while dealing with what we all knew was crushing inside has not been witnessed since Al's thumbs-up to Emerson from the apron between Turns 3 and 4.
Al woke up the day after the race knowing with 100 percent certainty that winning the 500 was within his grasp, because he had so nearly just done it. Like Al, young JR showed us immeasurable dignity and class, and that's the reason we have become fans of his and look forward to his great racing future.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the August 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.