We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With one day to go, correspondent Phillip B. Wilson spent a few minutes with legendary four-time “500” champion Al Unser about the family name in race history, promoting other events at IMS and his favorite memories.
Phillip B. Wilson: Your thoughts on being back here for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500?
Al Unser: It’s really a pleasure being here to help the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 100th year and to help promote the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational (June 16-19). Tony Parella (CEO of SportsCar Vintage Racing Association) puts on a fantastic gathering here. We were here last year when he and the racing fraternity honored the Unser family.
PW: You’re also promoting the Motostalgia Indianapolis Brickyard Auction on Jan. 18 at the Speedway?
AU: Yes, there’s a group of cars that’s unbelievable. I wish I could have a lot of those cars, if I had a lot of money. But I don’t have the money.
PW: What do you mean? You’re a four-time Indy 500 winner?
AU: It’s funny, a guy named Uncle Sam takes most of it. I’ve never met him before. (Laughs.)
PW: What’s your place in history here? The Unser family has played such a memorable part in that history?
AU: We’re very proud just to be able to come here and be honored the way the Speedway honors you. You win it one time and you think, “I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.” But then the others you come up with and to have the Unsers come up with nine Indy 500 wins here, it’s unbelievable. It’s an honor to come back here.
PW: You’re in select company. You’re mentioned with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears. Mears always says, ‘Those guys are my heroes. I don’t belong with them.” Foyt always says, “This place has been very good to A.J.”
AU: Foyt is the one who gave me a break here, you know? He’s the one who hired me the first year (in 1965). I’ve got to kind of put him up on a statue and say he was my hero.
PW: He’ll take that.
AU: I know he will, but that’s a true statement, though. The man might be a big tiger to you guys but I think he’s a little kitty cat. He’s got a heart big enough to float a battleship. To be put into the class you just said, Mears, Foyt and I, it’s an honor. Rick can say we are his heroes. Well, Rick is also my hero. He was one heck of a race car driver. If he wouldn’t have retired, he would have been a five- or six-time winner at this place. Rick had a way of finishing at this racetrack. Foyt was another. He won all the races and left. He didn’t give us enough chances to fight him back.
PW: I was talking to Johnny Rutherford and your brother, Bobby, both three-time Indy 500 winners, about how dangerous it was back then and yet you all came out of it. You’re also looked at as legends because you survived that time.
AU: Well, I think the good Lord upstairs protects you on that. You often wonder why the sport used to be the way it was. Is it better then or now? I think the cars are safer now. But I think the cars are going too fast. There’s something wrong in the corner speeds because the driver doesn’t have time to react to the cars. If the car misbehaves or the driver misbehaves, they don’t have the time to gather it up like we used to. We were not better race car drivers. We’re not better than they are. People are people. Put (1911 winner) Ray Harroun back in the driver seat today. In three days, he’d be running these cars just like they are running them today. The cars today look like space capsules now instead of race cars, I’m sorry.
PW: I was watching some old “500” races and saw your 1987 win. I don’t think you thought you were going to win your fourth. Even when you got to Victory Lane, you were like, “How about that?”
AU: It’s one of those days the place can smile on you or frown on you. It smiled on me. With Mario (Andretti) that day, I couldn’t beat him. (Roberto) Guerrero, I could outrun him, but everything had to be right. Just like Guerrero outrunning me. He would have had to have everything just right. The decisions (car owner) Roger Penske made about calling me in on that last pit stop, he told me on the radio, “We’re calling you in early and we’re going to put the pressure on Guerrero.” Nobody understood that. He did. Roger is Roger. Why has he won as many times as he has won (16 times)? You can sit back and say, “You best do what he calls you to do,” and I did.
PW: Roger is a legend of the Speedway, his 50th anniversary at the Speedway.
AU: Yes, and he deserves it. The man set out to win this place. He doesn’t come here to run second. Second to Roger Penske is not winning. When I run second the first time here, I thought, “I’ve really accomplished something.” A guy asked me the next day, “Where did you finish?” I said, “You don’t know where I finished?” The guy said, “No.” I said, “I ran second.” The guy said, “So?” That taught me right then there’s only one place and that’s No. 1. That’s the way Roger Penske thinks. No. 1 is his number.
PW: What’s your favorite memory at the Speedway?
AU: You have to remember your first win (1970) is very important to you. You dreamed about the place, you’ve wondered about it, you wondered how to make the race, you wondered how to finish the race and you finally win the race the first time and you say, “Man, this is fantastic.” But I think my last one (1987) would equal that because I came back here without a ride. I ended up getting a ride through all the circumstances that happened that year. I turned down probably five or six people with rides. By the time you finish with three wins, you’d better know how to win at this place and what it takes to win at this place. When Roger called me, he said, “I’ve got an ’86 car with a year old motor. Would you run it?” I said, “Yes.” I didn’t ask anything else. I just said, “Yes.”
PW: Anything else stand out? You joined Foyt as a four-time winner. Mears came later in 1991.
AU: No, you win. I didn’t look at numbers. Numbers I’ve never looked at.
PW: You didn’t think about joining Foyt as a four-time winner?
AU: No, oh no, that didn’t even enter my mind. I never tried to compare myself to Foyt because he is a fantastic man.