(Reuters) – When Al Unser took a show car off the floor of a hotel lobby and drove it to victory at the 1987 Indianapolis 500 he not only joined the Brickyard’s most exclusive club of four-time winners but cemented his place as one of motor racing’s all-time greats.
FILE PHOTO: Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. (L) walks with his son Al Jr. in the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 5, 2003 during practice time at the track. Unser Jr. won the Indianapolis race in 1992 and 1994. REUTERS/Robin Jerstad BS
“He’s one of the top five racers who has ever lived,” raved Mario Andretti, in an ESPN interview. “Nobody had race savvy like Al Unser in his prime.”
The only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One drivers championship, Andretti is better qualified than most to comment on where exactly Unser ranks in the pantheon of motor racing greats.
In over 100 years of racing at the famed Brickyard only one driver, AJ Foyt had won the Indy 500 four times before Unser came along.
Unser was the second and there has only been one other since, Rick Mears.
Bravery, patience and persistence made Unser a champion, but as always at the Indy 500, Lady Luck has a hand in the outcome.
No more so than in May 1987 when the then 47-year-old driver arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway without a seat.
Unser had been dropped by Roger Penske in favour of Danny Ongais but when the Flying Hawaiian crashed during practice, destroying his car and suffering injuries that knocked him out of the race, ‘Big Al’ stepped in.
With no car Penske pulled a year-old March-Cosworth off the display floor at a Pennsylvania hotel and gave it to Unser who qualified for the race.
Starting 20th, Unser stayed out of trouble and delivered his usual polished drive. Then suddenly with 23 laps to run he found himself in second when Andretti dropped out.
Then Lady Luck revealed her hand, as leader Roberto Guerrero stalled in the pits during his final stop with Unser shooting into the lead and into the Brickyard’s history books.
“Al just knows how to win a race,” said Penske. “He stays out of trouble. Just look at his career.
“You don’t win this thing four times because you don’t know what’s going on.”
Unser would continue to race for seven more years but used up all his luck on that 1987 Sunday in May, never again returning to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or any other track.
He came third in 1992 but a 12th-placed finish in 1993 would be his last result, as he announced his retirement the following year at the age of 54 after failing to qualify for what would have been his 28th Indy 500.
“I always said if the day came when I wasn’t producing the right way, if I wasn’t happy, I’d get out,” Unser, a winner of 39 career races said. “The time has come.
“A driver has to produce 100 percent. You can’t just come in and strap one of these cars on and expect to give answers to the team that they need.
“I finally realized that it just wasn’t there, and I wasn’t producing like I should.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis