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…
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!
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.