Al Unser Is the Forgotten Man at Indy : Three-Time Winner Will Be Driving in His 20th 500 Today

Associated Press

Al Unser is the forgotten champion at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The three-time winner from Albuquerque, N.M., is one of six former champions qualified for the Sunday'sIndianapolis 500.

But the 45-year-old driver no longer makes the top of the list when favorites are chosen at the famed Speedway. And, though the fans wandering through Gasoline Alley still seek his autograph, Unser's garage no longer has three-deep crowds standing outside hoping for a glimpse of his handsome, sun-creased face.

Unser, who won here in 1970, 1971 and 1978, has won just one 65 races since the start of the 1980 season, and none of his last 26. His 37th career victory came at Cleveland in July, 1983.

Unser's 20th ride here is in a third car fielded by Roger Penske, for whom he was a full-time driver the past two years. But he was replaced in the team's second car this year by 35-year-old Danny Sullivan, and, after failing to come up with a full-time ride over the winter, Unser took Penske's offer of rides in the three 500-mile races this season.

He did drive the season-opener last month in Long Beach, taking the place of defending Indy 500 champion Rick Mears, who is recuperating from serious foot and leg injuries. Penske asked Unser to drive because Mears was not ready for all the shifting needed on a road course.

"I don't worry about any of that stuff, I never did," he said of his lessening attention from fans and the media. "It just isn't important to me. Never has been."

As for his part-time ride this season, the soft-spoken Unser said, "I really don't care. I might run 'em all anyway. I don't want to take Rick's place because of his misfortune, but I'll help out if Roger needs me."

While the spotlight was on Mears, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Colombian Roberto Guerrero and others last week, Unser quietly got his Cosworth-powered March prepared for qualifications.

Others -- including teammates Mears and Sullivan -- were running a series of unofficial laps over 210 mph, while Unser was working his way carefully toward that level.

When the time came to qualify, some of the others -- hampered by gusty winds, high humidity and high temperatures -- were disappointed. Unser simply went out and put together his best four laps since arriving here, averaging 210.523 and earning the seventh position in the tenative starting lineup -- ahead of both Sullivan (210.298) and Mears (209.796).

"My qualifying felt pretty good," he said. "The speeds just make the heart tick a little faster, and the wind was gusty, but I'm happy with it. We're up near the front, and that's the right place to start the race from.

"The weather always effects the cars, but it hasn't ever been as drastic as it was this year. That's because of the range of speed we're in. Still, there's only three-tenths of a second between first and 10th."

Unser, whose 23-year-old son, Al Jr., is entered in his third Indy 500, has seen a number of his contemporaries retire. That includes his older brother, Bobby, who left racing in 1981 after his third Indy victory, and 48-year-old Gordon Johncock, a two-time Indy winner who called in quits in a surprise announcement earlier this month. But Unser isn't ready for retirement.

"I still love racing," Unser said. "I don't want to quit. Not running every race just gives a guy an opportunity to enjoy life a little more. There's some things my wife would like to do that now maybe we can do together.

"But I don't really think about retiring. If the fun wasn't there, I wouldn't still be out there."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World