The golden anniversary of Al Unser

  The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation or postponements of racing as we know it in the United States. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and the Indianapolis 500 have become unwilling victims of the pandemic.

  It will be the first time in history that the race will not be ran in May and many race day traditions will also be cancelled. There will be no 500 Festival and the traditional balloon release will be cancelled. Worst of all there will be no fans in the grandstands.

  One tradition at the Speedway has been to honor formerChampions for their many accomplishments while racing at IMS. This year is the Golden Anniversary of the legendary Al Unser’s 1970 500 win. He would go on to win three more Indy 500’s and join A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears as the only four time winners of the Speedway Classic.

  The Unser family has been known for years as the first family of auto racing. Starting with brothers Louie, Jerry and Joe the Unser the name is still honored today. Jerry had four boys who would become famous at IMS.

 Louie and Jerry Jr. were twins with Louie becoming a great mechanic and car builder. Jerry, who had a great future ahead of him, was tragically killed while practicing for the1959 Indy 500.Bobby would become a three time winner of the 500 with Al accomplishing the same feat four times. With that said here is a review Al Unser’s Indy 500 win.

  The first great driver/crew chief combination of the early70’s was Al Unser and George Bignotti. Along with Jimmy Dilamarter they became the first super team of the decade. Al raced for Bignotti in 1965 when he drove for A.J Foyt and Bignotti was the chief mechanic for the team.

  It was a year later when they got back together. Foyt and Bignotti split up right after the 1965 Indy 500 and Bignotti was working for John Mecum for the 1966 race. Graham Hill and Rodger Ward were his drivers with Hill winning the race and Ward pulling into the pits early in the race stating that he didn’t feel like racing any more. Al had signed with Andy Granatelli to drive a Lotus Ford in the race. Late in the race, while running in 3rd place the suspension broke putting Al into the wall.

 At the Victory Banquet Ward announced his retirementfrom racing and Hill was going back to England. That left Bignotti with no drivers. Al was out of a ride since his deal was with Granatelli for only the 500. Al knew that Bignotti was a great mechanic and driving for him would be a great opportunity. Al approached Bignotti immediately and they got back together with their first race together at Milwaukee the weekend following the 500.

  Fast forward to 1970 and Al Unser stated that he knew he was going to win the 500 on the second day of practice. His confidence came from knowing that Bignotti, Diamarterand himself were now a great team. They had a great car owner in 1963 500 winner Parnelli Jones along with a great car designed by Bignotti and Jones called the PJ Colt.  Topper Toys came in to sponsor the team and the car became known as Johnny Lightning.

 Al sat on the pole with a speed of 170.221 mph with Johnny Rutherford starting second at 170.213 mph withA.J. Foyt completing the front row at 170.004 mph for an all 170 mph front row. It was the second year in row that a new track record was not set during qualifications. It was the first time since the 40’s that two consecutive years went by without a new track record.

  Al dominated the race leading 190 of the 200 laps whichhe described later as a perfect race. He didn’t make a slip all day and he knew he had a car that was as perfect as it could be. He joined Bobby as the first two brothers to win the 500.

  The 1970 500 was indeed a historic race. Car owner Parnelli Jones became only the second individual behind 1925 race winner Pete De Paolo to win the race as a driver and a car owner. Al won $271,697 out of a record $1,000,002 purse which was the first time in 500 history that the total purse exceeded one million dollars.

 It was the first time that all 33 starters engines were turbocharged. It was also the last year that victory lane was at the south end of the pits. It would be moved to just north of the start/finish line.

  Other bits’ of trivia was Al Hirt played the National Anthem and Saverio Saridis would sing “Back Home In Indiana”. NASCAR great Donnie Allison, the brother ofNASCAR legend Bobby Allison, was the rookie of the year.

  This would also be the last year that the race would be scheduled on the fixed date of May 30th. From 1911 to 1970 the fixed date of May 30th. was the scheduled race day regardless of the day of the week it fell on. If the 30th fell on Sunday then the race was scheduled for the 31st.

  The Uniform Monday Holiday Act would take effect in 1971. Please read a separate article about how this would effect future Indy 500 race dates.

  There have been many stories about written about the Unsers. Some are true stories and others are folklore. The following story is one of them.

Parnelli Jones was visiting Al and Bobby in their home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bobby and Parnelli were taking a ride through town when Parnelli noticed thatBobby was running a number of red lights at the intersections. He asked Bobby about it and Bobby said that he and Al did it all the time. They were both well known and the police had never stopped them. As they approached an intersection where the light was green Bobby suddenly stopped. Parnelli asked him why he had stopped. Bobby said “I have to be careful because Al may be coming from the other direction”.

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