By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser passed away at his New Mexico home Thursday after a long battle with cancer.
President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway J. Douglas Boles issued a statement of Unser’s passing.
“In the 112 years of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Al Unser’s career stands out among the others. His four Indianapolis 500 wins and most laps led in the ‘500’ (644) solidify him as one of the greatest of all time. Al achieved his successes competing against many of the best our sport has ever seen, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
“In addition, his quiet and humble approach outside of the car, combined with his fierce competitive spirit and fearless talent behind the wheel, made Al a fan favorite. He will be remembered as one of the best to ever race at Indianapolis, and we will all miss his smile, sense of humor and his warm, approachable personality.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Susan Unser, the entire Unser family and all Al’s friends and fans.”
“Big Al” had his share of memorable racing moments that are the stuff of legends, including each of his four Indy 500 wins.
Unser’s first victory at “The Yard of Bricks” took place in 1970. He did so by leading all but 10 laps with second-place Mark Donohue trailing Unser by over 32 seconds. He joined his brother Bobby Unser, who passed away in May, as the first brother pairing to win the 500.
The Indy triumph was one of 10 wins (in 18 races) the No. 2 Johnny Lightning Ford scored that year. At year’s end, Unser won the USAC Champ Car Series championship with an average finish of 3.1.
A year later, Unser was victorious again at Indy, becoming the fourth man to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in consecutive years. He would be the last man to do so until Helio Castroneves, who joined the four-time winners club this year, in 2001-02.
Fast forward to 1978, Unser made motorsports history. Not only “Big Al” won his third 500, again in dominant fashion by leading 121 laps. He went on to win both the Pocono and Ontario 500-mile races, becoming the only man to successfully win the Triple Crown in a single year.
As the sport entered the 1980s, Unser kept adding more hardware, winning two CART championships in 1983 and 1985. Unlike his 1970 championship, Unser did it through consistency as he only won a race in each of those campaigns.
Once 1987 rolled along, Unser was without a ride at Indianapolis. That would all change when a crash by Danny Ongais led to Roger Penske giving “Big Al” a call to pilot the No. 25 March/Cosworth. The car had a tale of its own as it came from a hotel lobby in Pennsylvania.
Unfazed, Unser put himself in the right position when it mattered most.
On a year that saw tragedy and heartbreak from both Mario Andretti and Roberto Guerrero, Unser saw himself in first with 18 laps to go and never looked back.
With brother Bobby watching from the ABC booth and son Al Jr. finishing fourth, Unser became the second man to win the Indy 500 four times.
Roger Penske reflected on Unser’s fourth 500 victory in his statement following his passing.
“We have lost a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track. Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” said Penske.
“From carrying on his family’s winning tradition at Pikes Peak to racing in NASCAR, sports cars, earning championships in INDYCAR and IROC and, of course, becoming just the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Al had an amazing career that spanned nearly 30 years.
“He produced two championships and three wins for our race team, including his memorable victory in the 1987 Indy 500 when he famously qualified and won with a car that was on display in a hotel lobby just a few days before,” Penske continued.
“We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory that day, and he will always be a big part of our Team. Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”
The victory turned out to be his last in Indy car competition, but “Big Al” scored two more third-place finishes at Indy.
The most notable being in 1992 when his son “Little Al” held off Scott Goodyear to win his first of two Indy 500s. Due to the victory, they became the first and so far the only father-and-son Indy 500 champions.
“Big Al” finished third in John Menard’s Buick that was originally meant to be driven by three-time Formula One World Champion Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian was injured in a horrifying Turn 4 crash in practice, opening an opportunity for Unser to fill-in once again.
Two years later, Unser retired from racing, closing an incredible career in the sport. When the dust settled, Unser raced in 27 Indy 500s, holding the aforementioned record of most career laps led at 644.
Unser also won the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in both 1964 and 1965, four straight Hoosier Hundreds (1970-73), and the 1978 IROC championship.