Alfred “Al” Unser, the second member of the Unser auto racing dynasty to win the Indianapolis 500 and the second INDYCAR SERIES driver in history to win four times at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, died Dec. 9 at his home in Chama, New Mexico, after a 17-year battle with cancer. He was 82.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 29, 1939, Unser followed his three older brothers and the generation of Unser brothers before them into auto racing. He was known as a quiet sponge, absorbing the lessons learned by his family members.
Initially, the Unsers were known for their prowess of the famed Pikes Peak Hill Climb, with Unser’s uncle, Louis Jr., the first to race up the Colorado mountain in 1926. Louis went on to win the sprint to the top a record nine times, and the family’s win total stands at 25, including two wins by Al Unser (1964-65).
The first generation of racing Unsers had been pointed toward competing at Indianapolis, but the pursuit was abandoned when Joe, the middle of three brothers, died testing a car in Colorado in 1929. Twenty-nine years later, in 1958, Unser’s oldest brother, Jerry Jr., finally got the family to the “500.”
Third son Bobby earned his first chance at Indy in 1963, with Al following him in 1965 as part of the decorated rookie class that included fellow future winners Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock, plus Formula One veteran Masten Gregory and motorcycle ace Joe Leonard, who won Indy’s pole in 1968.
Unser won his first “500” in 1970, two years after Bobby won his first. Unser then became the fourth driver to repeat as Indy’s champion, something no other member of his family achieved.
Unser added Indy victories in 1978 and 1987 to join A.J. Foyt as a four-time winner. Rick Mears became the third member of the exclusive club with his 1991 victory. Helio Castroneves became the fourth in 2021.
In 1992, Unser finished third in the “500,” but that’s not what defined the day. The race winner was his son, 30-year-old Al Unser Jr., making Unser the only driver in history to have a sibling and a son win Indy. Unser Jr. won his second “500” in 1994, pushing the family’s total to nine IMS victories. No other family has won more than four.
Combined, the Unsers have made 73 career starts in the “500,” a figure eclipsed only by the 76 of the Andrettis. The Unser participation: Al (27 races), Bobby (19), Al Jr. (19), Johnny (five), Robby (two) and Jerry (one).
While Unser was known for his driving patience, he also holds the record for the most laps led in the “500.” Leading the final lap of the 1987 race allowed him to tie Ralph DePalma’s 75-year-old record (612). Unser led 31 more laps over his final five IMS starts to push the all-time mark to 644.
Unser made 27 starts in the race, third-most in history behind only Foyt (35) and Andretti (29), and his final victory allowed him to break brother Bobby’s mark as the oldest race winner – 47 years, 350 days.
Unser won three INDYCAR SERIES season championships – in 1970, 1983 and 1985 – and eight 500-mile races. In 1978, he won the INDYCAR SERIES “Triple Crown” of 500-mile races (Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario), a feat that remains unmatched.
Unser’s career begin in 1957 by racing modified roadsters, midgets and sprint cars. He made his championship dirt car debut in 1964 at Milwaukee driving for J.C. Agajanian, but that was his only start that season, and it lasted only 51 laps before the engine failed.
Coincidently, it had been at Foyt’s urging that car owners began to consider Unser for the sport’s better rides. Foyt had seen how smooth Unser had driven on the nation’s dirt tracks, and he praised Unser’s quiet, easygoing and disciplined style.
“He was a very smart race car driver,” Foyt said.
Unser’s first full INDYCAR season was in 1967, when he finished second to Foyt in the “500,” and the next year started a dominant period in the sport’s history. After winning five races for car owner Al Retzloff, Unser joined Vel’s Parnell Racing for the 1969 season, where he won five additional races with ace mechanic George Bignotti at the controls. The pairing might have won more often if not for Unser breaking his leg at IMS ahead of that year’s race.
In 1970, Unser added 10 more victories, including five in a row and eight of nine in a single stretch. Over a two-season stretch he won 11 of 13 and 13 of 16 races — 25 wins over four years.
Unser’s first “500” victory came in the No. 2 Johnny Lightning Special, a Colt/Ford that led 190 of the 200 laps from the pole. The margin of victory over Penske Racing’s Mark Donohue was 32.19 seconds.
“Al was the class of the field,” Johnny Rutherford said.
Unser’s second Indy win was with a similar car, but its path to victory was not as smooth. Unser started in the fifth position and only led 103 laps, including the final 83. McLaren’s Peter Revson finished second, 22.48 seconds behind the winner.
Unser nearly became the first and only “500” driver to three-peat. He finished second to Donohue in 1972.
In 1978, Unser drove for the Chaparral team in what was considered a second-tier ride. Yet, he was competitive throughout the race, dueling with Danny Ongais until Ongais retired with engine failure to hand Unser a commanding 35-second lead. Unser might have finished with that margin but, in a rare miscue, he struck a tire on his final pit stop. Tom Sneva tried to capitalize, but he came up eight seconds short.
Unser and Sneva were locked in a much closer battle in the 1983 “500,” and this one included Al Jr. in his first IMS race. Unser had his son protecting him from the charging Sneva, who eventually worked past both to take his only Indy win. After the race, USAC penalized Al Jr. two laps for interference.
The Speedway’s first father-son pairing was a preview of things to come. In 1985, the Unsers battled each other all the way to CART’s final race, with the father passing Roberto Moreno for fourth place in the closing laps on Miami’s Tamiami Park road course to beat his son for the season title by a single point.
Unser fought back tears describing the “empty feeling” of having to beat Al Jr. for the championship.
Unser won three races for Penske Racing, but the last one wasn’t scheduled. In 1987, the team needed a replacement for Ongais, who had suffered a concussion in a first-week crash in Turn 4 during practice. Unser, who was unemployed and still in Indianapolis to help his son’s struggling car, had been unhappy with Penske for releasing him at the end of the previous season, but he knew this was too good of a car to turn down.
Unser signed on the condition he would receive a new Cosworth engine to go with a year-old March which had been retrieved from a hotel lobby near the team’s headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania. On the second weekend of qualifying, Unser earned the 20th starting position, his second-lowest effort since becoming an Indy winner.
Andretti dominated the race, leading 170 of the first 178 laps, even lapping Unser, who couldn’t believe he had been driving so slowly.
“After that, I stood up in that car and started driving it like I should have to start with,” Unser said.
When Andretti’s car suddenly slowed with ignition issues, Roberto Guerrero assumed the lead. But Guerrero still had to pit one more time, and he had been nursing a troublesome clutch. Sure enough, he had trouble getting the car to leave the pit box, and the engine stalled. As Guerrero’s crew pushed him back to re-fire the engine, Unser sailed past on the front straightaway. Eighteen laps later, victory was again his.
“Everybody said, ‘I can’t believe he won the race,’” Unser said. “I said, ‘I can’t, either!’”
In 1992, Unser replaced the injured Nelson Piquet at Team Menard. He finished third to give John Menard’s organization and the Buick engine their best “500” finishes.
Unser drove for eight different teams in the late stage of his career between 1987 and 1994, finally deciding to retire on May 17, 1994 when he couldn’t get the underfunded car he was driving at the Speedway up to speed. Al Jr. won the race 12 days later from the pole on his father’s 55th birthday.
Unser finished with 39 INDYCAR wins, sixth on the all-time list. He won the prestigious Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds four consecutive years (1970-73).
“Al was one of the smartest drivers I ever raced against,” Andretti said. “I often said that I wished I could have had some of his patience.”
Unser illustrated his versatility by finishing fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500, one of his five NASCAR Cup Series races. He also finished fourth in a Cup road race in Riverside, California. He was USAC’s Stock Car Rookie of the Year in 1967 and captured the International Race of Champions title in 1978.
Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. His collection of trophies and cars is housed at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.
He was also a supporter of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, and contributed to the success of the 2018 exhibit, “The Amazing Unsers,” which paid tribute to the entire Unser racing family.
Unser is survived by wife, Susan, and son, Al Jr. He was preceded in death by daughters Mary and Deborah. Bobby Unser died May 2, 2021 at age 87. The brothers had long been neighbors in Albuquerque.