A year ago, approaching the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Rick Mears still had painful leg and foot injuries from an accident in September 1984 in Canada. So, car owner Roger Penske replaced him with Al Unser, 45, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, for the grueling road race.
Unser finished fifth in the run through the seaside streets of Long Beach and, when Mears did not respond to rehabilitation as quickly as hoped for, went on to win the CART/PPG Indy car championship.
Mears was ready to take back his ride late in the season, but when Unser and his son, Al Jr., became locked in a tight battle for the title, Mears withdrew from races in Phoenix and Miami and let Unser continue to drive. The elder Unser won in Phoenix, and when he finished fourth at Miami, he had beaten Al Jr. by a single point.
One of the rewards for the champion is to carry No. 1 on his car for the following season.
Another Long Beach Grand Prix will be run Sunday, but Unser is not entered. Mears is back and he will have No. 1 on his Chevrolet-powered Penske PC 15.
After receiving $300,000 for the championship, Unser gave the No. 1 honor to Mears.
“He was a hell of a guy to do that (step aside at Phoenix and Miami) for me,” Unser said. “I’ll never forget it. All he had to say was that he wanted the car back, and that’s the way it would have been. I know he wanted to race those last two races, but he stepped aside. It was a hell of a thing to do, I’ll tell you.”
This season, as was the case early in 1985, Unser is under contract to Penske to run only the three 500-mile races, at Indianapolis, Michigan International and Pocono.
In last week’s opener at Phoenix, Unser drove the new Penske model in the manner of a test pilot and got in 100 laps before being involved in an accident. Mears, who drove a 1985 model March at Phoenix, will switch to the Penske-Chevy this week.
Mario Andretti, who has won both previous CART Indy car races at Long Beach, plus the 1977 Formula One race on a course that included Ocean Boulevard, will drive a Lola-Cosworth owned jointly by actor Paul Newman and Chicago importer Carl Haas.
Twenty-seven cars are entered in the 95-lap race around the 11-turn, 1.67-mile course that former world champion Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil calls the best street circuit in America. The 158.65-mile race is five laps longer than last year but seven laps shorter than the 1984 Indy car inaugural.
The circuit, which encircles the Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach Arena and Hyatt Regency Hotel, will be open for racing Friday.
After two morning practice sessions, the first round of qualifying will start at 2:15 p.m. A second qualifying round is scheduled for 11:45 a.m. Saturday, with Sunday’s starting grid of 24 cars determined by the fastest lap in either of the two qualifying sessions.
Two other races, a Bosch Super Vee Cup event and a Toyota pro-celebrity race, are scheduled Saturday. Jeff Andretti, Mario’s son, will drive in both the Super Vee race, an event his brother Michael won in 1983, and the celebrity race. Michael will race against his father in the CART main event.
“I’m looking forward to Long Beach again,” Jeff said. “My dad and my brother have already won there, so the family has had incredible luck so far. I’d sure like to follow in their footsteps.”
Jeff’s luck wasn’t so good in his first start last year. He was involved in a first-lap accident in a Super Vee race.
Sunday, in addition to the Indy cars, there will be a Formula Russell race and a 10-lap International Motor Sports Assn. Camel Pro GTP exhibition for cars that will race April 26-27 in the Los Angeles Times/Ford Grand Prix of Endurance at Riverside International Raceway.
Long Beach Grand Prix entries, including car number, name, hometown or country, chassis and engine:
1. Rick Mears, Bakersfield, Penske-Chevrolet; 2. Roberto Guerrero, Colombia, March-Cosworth; 3. Bobby Rahal, Dublin, Ohio, March-Cosworth; 4. Danny Sullivan, Louisville, Ky., March-Cosworth; 5. Mario Andretti, Nazareth, Pa., Lola-Cosworth; 7. Kevin Cogan, Redondo Beach, March-Cosworth; 8. Geoff Brabham, Indianapolis, Lola-Honda; 9. Roberto Moreno, Brazil, Lola-Cosworth.
12. Randy Lanier, Davie, Fla., March-Cosworth; 16. Rick Miaskiewicz, Denver, March-Cosworth; 18. Michael Andretti, Nazareth, March-Cosworth; 19. Dale Coyne, Plainfield, Ill., Coyne-stock block Chevrolet; 20. Emerson Fittipaldi, Brazil, March-Cosworth; 21. Johnny Rutherford, Fort Worth, March-Cosworth; 22. Raul Boesel, Brazil, Lola-Cosworth; 23. Dick Simon, Capistrano Beach, Lola-Cosworth; 24. Dominic Dobson, San Anselmo, March-Cosworth.
30. Al Unser Jr., Albuquerque, N.M, Lola-Cosworth; 33. Tom Sneva, Paradise Valley, Ariz., March-Cosworth; 36. Randy Lewis, Hillsborough, Calif., Lola-Cosworth; 55. Josele Garza, Mexico, March-Cosworth; 59. Chip Ganassi, Pittsburgh, March-Cosworth; 61. Arie Luyendyk, Waukesha, Wis., Lola-Cosworth; 66. Ed Pimm, Dublin, Ohio, March-Cosworth; 71. Jacques Villeneuve, Canada, March-Cosworth; 99. No driver, March-Cosworth.
SPRINT CARS--Lealand McSpadden and Bubby Jones, the two hottest drivers in the California Racing Assn., will resume their rivalry Saturday night at Ascot Park in a 30-lap salute to the Long Beach Grand Prix. McSpadden won last Saturday night in Phoenix, after Jones had won his first 1986 appearance a week earlier at Ascot when he went wire-to-wire in Alex Morales’ Tamale Wagon.
MOTOCROSS--The Quail Canyon facility on the Ridge Route near Gorman, where the Continental Motosport Club raced 24 events last year, has been permanently closed by the state department of parks and recreation. No official reason was given but insiders believe that it was brought about by the high cost of liability insurance. . . . The weekly Suzuki Spring Classic at Ascot Park will be run Friday night, as usual, this week but next week it will be held on Wednesday to make room for the rain-postponed American Motorcyclist Assn. national championship TT steeplechase race Friday night. A Suzuki race is also scheduled for Sunday at Carlsbad Raceway.
SPEEDWAY CYCLES--Brad Oxley, son of International Speedway owner Harry Oxley, will meet U.S. champion Alan Christian in a match race Friday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Oxley won last week’s scratch main event. . . . The American Speedway Final, a world championship qualifying event, has been moved from June 7 to June 21 at Long Beach Veterans Stadium.
DRAG BOATS--The International Hot Boat Assn.'s In-n-Out Springnationals, postponed last week by rain at Puddingstone reservoir in San Dimas, will be held Sunday at the same site.
STOCK CARS--Saugus Speedway will open its 28th consecutive year of weekly racing Saturday night. Last weekend’s scheduled opener was rained out. Modifieds will run 40 laps, with main events also set for NASCAR sportsman cars, street stocks and Figure 8s. Saugus’ hobby stock division will race Friday night. . . . The Curb Motorsports NASCAR series will continue Sunday night at Ascot Park on a card that also will include Figure 8s, bomber cars and a destruction derby. . . . Cajon Speedway in El Cajon will open its season Saturday night on a newly repaved 3/8-mile oval.
DRAG RACING--Andy Brizio’s Muscle Car Shootout, featuring anything that is street legal, is scheduled Sunday at Famoso Drag Strip north of Bakersfield. More than 800 vehicles are expected to run.
NEWSWORTHY--Old-time cars and drivers of the Vintage Auto Racing Assn. will run Saturday and Sunday at Willow Springs Raceway. . . . The Rim of the World pro rally will be run April 26, starting in Lancaster. . . . Student engineers from 15 colleges will compete Friday and Saturday on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus and the Santa Maria Spillway Park in self-built off-road vehicles. The final event will be a four-hour enduro at Santa Maria.