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Long Beach Grand Prix : Unser Runs Into a Friend on Way to Win : Victor Says He Made a Mistake in Collision That Knocked Angered Andretti Out of Race

<i> Times Assistant Sports Editor</i>

Was it an honest error or blatant disregard of common sense?

Did Al Unser Jr. run his second-place machine into Mario Andretti’s leading car because he simply couldn’t avoid it, or was it a case of “Here I come; get out of my way?”

A somewhat subdued Unser, who went on to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Sunday, for the second consecutive year said it was his mistake--an embarrassing mistake--but nothing more than a mistake.

A hot Andretti said that Unser, in his eagerness to win the Indy car event, quite simply knocked him out of the way.

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“He can’t be congratulated on this . . . victory,” Andretti said, after having been restrained in an attempt to get at Unser just after the race.

Unser said he understood Andretti’s emotion.

“He was (extremely angry),” he said. “I would be, too, if someone came up and did that to me.”

The incident occurred on the 84th lap of the 95-lap race over the 1.67-mile course through the streets around the Long Beach Arena.

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Unser, who led comfortably for just about all of the race in his Lola-Chevrolet, was pushing Andretti’s Lola-Chevy hard, trying to regain the lead, after having lost it during a round of pit stops. A routine change of tires kept him in slightly longer than Andretti, who had taken on only fuel for the dash to the finish.

As they started through Turn 3, a 90-degree right-turn corner, they caught Tom Sneva’s slower running Lola-Buick. Unser cut the corner short and ran into the right rear of Andretti’s car, which had taken a wider line.

The crash knocked Andretti’s car out of the race with a blown tire and assorted other damage, and cost Unser’s car its left front wing. But Unser, scarcely missing a beat, kept right on going and easily outran Michael Andretti, Mario’s son and teammate, the rest of the way, finishing with a hefty 12.3-second margin of victory.

The victory, after a second-place finish a week ago in the season opener at Phoenix, left Unser with the lead in the PPG Cup series, 38 points to 32 for Rick Mears, and $117,660 for him and his team. But he said that the run-in with Mario had dimmed the luster.

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“We were having a good day and when the inexperience slaps you in the face like that, and you don’t look so good, it hurts,” he said. “It doesn’t matter when or where or what, it hurts.

“It’s great for the team. I’m very proud of the team. They did their work, the car finished and we equaled our goals. We had a great weekend, myself, with sittin’ on my first pole and all that, but the race is where it’s at and I respect all the other drivers enough that it hurts when they are upset with me.”

That, however, is not a new experience for Unser, who in his eighth year of Indy car racing is hardly a rookie. Twice in the last year he has been criticized by veteran drivers.

Last November, in the Marlboro Challenge all-star race at Miami, Mario Andretti was leading when Unser hit him from behind, spinning Andretti out of that race, which Unser went on to win. And last July at the Meadowlands at East Rutherford, N.J., Unser had a similar incident with Emerson Fittipaldi, knocking him out of the race, which Unser also won.

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Still, Unser said, Sunday’s get-together was not the result of being overeager, but rather of his not being sharp enough to anticipate trouble.

His version:

“We were coming down into Turn 3 and we caught Tom Sneva on the entry of the corner. I poked down to see what was going on and I saw that we were going to catch him. Tom slowed down quite abruptly and it was a chain reaction.

“I then slid into Mario because he stopped abruptly going into the corner and my (front brakes) locked up and there it was.

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“It sounds like I’m puttin’ the blame on Tom but I don’t want to do that. In our profession, the driver should read what’s going on and react accordingly. I blame myself for not readin’ what was going on and expecting the unexpected. Murphy’s law hit me square in the face.

“I apologize for what happened to Mario. It could have been anybody there and I’d have ran right smack into him. It could have been a lapped car. . . . They stopped, right in front of me. I had no place else to go.”

Mario was having none of that.

“If that’s the way he wants to do things, OK,” he said. “We both drive hard but there is absolutely no excuse for this. He made a mistake. To try to get the lead, he knocked me out of the way.

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“This is not my version of what happened, it is what happened. To be put out of two races in six months by the same guy in the same way is insane. . . . It was stupid driving.”

Simple mistake or stupid driving, the incident robbed the announced crowd of 85,000--a Long Beach record--and a national TV audience of what promised to be a great duel in the closing laps.

Unser, after leading led by as much as 15 seconds in the early going, backed off because of alarming fuel consumption--a problem for everybody in this race of no sustained yellow flags. Had he not done so, the pit stops probably would have been inconsequential.

Instead, though, when Unser pulled out behind Andretti, he immediately began to do something about it. He quickly closed a three-second gap, putting himself squarely in Andretti’s mirrors.

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He said, though, that he was in no particular rush to get back into the lead, because he knew his car was faster.

“I wasn’t worried a bit,” Unser said. “I was a little bit surprised to see Mario ahead of me but it didn’t bother me. I was just driving my own race. I didn’t get in a hurry with Mario. . . . I was going to line him up (for a pass) wherever it came open.

“The car was handling great and I could see I was going to catch him. I was going to go after him in a scientific way and, whammo, they stopped.”

He said that he hadn’t talked at length with Andretti, which might have been his smartest move of the day, but he probably would.

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“The drivers in this series are professional enough that if they got a problem with one another, they’ll speak to one another. The deal with Emmo (Fittipaldi), the very next race, both of us talked with each other and whatever was lingering in the air was straightened out.”

Michael Andretti said that he wanted to take up the chase on his father’s behalf but that his crew, citing the excessive fuel use, held him in check.

“I wanted to catch him real bad but they wouldn’t let me,” he said. “They started hollering at me on the radio.”

Resigning himself to second place, ahead of Fittipaldi, he did the only thing he could for his father, picking him up at the accident site after the checkered flag and giving him a ride back to the pits on the car’s side pod.

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And he had no input on the accident.

“I have no idea what happened,” he said. “But it moved me up a position.”

Fittipaldi’s third-place finish made it a sweep for Chevy power--he drove a Penske-Chevrolet--but, in something of a surprise, the Penske cars of the Penske team were never a threat. Mears, in one, was lapped by Unser on the 47th lap and finished fifth, behind Bobby Rahal’s Lola-Cosworth. And Danny Sullivan, winner of last year’s national championship, blew a tire late in the race, after battling handling problems for most of the afternoon, and finished eighth.

It also was not a day of note for Italian Teo Fabi in the March-Porsche, which he had qualified third. He pitted after the first lap with radiator problems, got out much later for one more lap, then retired.

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With the scarcity of caution flags, Unser averaged 85.503 m.p.h., which is not a record but is the best since the track was changed to its present configuration in 1986.

And although he was contrite about the accident, he said he wouldn’t dwell on it.

“It ain’t that big of a deal,” he said. “It happened and everybody knows what happened and you learn from it. But I’m not going to psychoanalyze it.”


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