The Unsers- Racing’s First Family

Photo above: Bobby Unser’s 1968 500 winning Eagle Mark 4, the first of nine wins by an Unser at Indianapolis. All Photos: Mike Silver

 

Unsers began racing nearly as soon as racing  began. Brothers Jerry, Louis Jr., and Joe first competed at Pike’s Peak in 1926. Louis Unser won the race for the first time in 1934, the first of nine wins for him, and the start of a family tradition that would result in 39 total victories by an Unser. The original Unser brothers- Joe, Louis Jr., and Jerry, planned to enter the 1929 Indianapolis 500.  The plan ended when Joe died from injuries while he was testing the car in Colorado.

The Indianapolis Speedway Museum celebrates the racing history of the Unser family with a special exhibit. The display opened April 9 and continues through October 28. I had a chance to visit in early May. The exhibit chronicles the entire family history, not just the 500. All the cars that won the 500 are on display, as well as dirt cars, a Pike’s Peak racer, and IROC cars.

It would be the second generation of Unsers that would eventually enter the 500 and go on to unprecedented success after a rocky start. The sons of Jerry Unser, Jerry Jr., Bobby, and Al drove in the 500. Bobby won three times and Al won four 500s. Al’s son Al, Jr. would also drive and win twice.

Jerry, Jr. drove in just one race, 1958. He was caught in the first lap accident in which Pat O’Connor was killed. Unser’s car went over the wall in the north short chute, but he escaped injury. He was not so fortunate the next year. On May 2, he was seriously injured in a practice crash and died May 17.

Bobby debuted in 1963 driving the famed Novi. He crashed on lap 3 and finished 33rd. the following year he was involved in the fiery crash on lap 2 and finished 32nd. He would go on to win in 1968 in a Dan Gurney Eagle, above, and also visited Victory Lane in the rain shortened 1975 race and the controversial 1981 500. Bobby also added two poles to his resume in 1972 and 1981.

Al’s rookie year was 1965. He started 32nd and finished 9th. He had a second in 1967, his third start.After missing the 1969 race due to a non racing motorcycle accident, Al came back to win back to back in 1970 and 1971. He also sat on the pole in 1970. Other victories came in 1978 and 1987, making him the second four time 500 winner. His last race was 1993.

Al, Jr. began his 500 career in 1983. he raised the ire of some fans with his blocking of eventual winner Tom Sneva late in the race as his father was leading. He did not complete the 500 miles until 1992, his tenth race, which he won, edging Scott Goodyear. The winning margin was the closest 500 finish at that point. Jr. won again in 1994, driving the powerful Mercedes/Ilmor engine. He did not qualify in 1995 in one of the biggest Bump Day shocks ever.

Link to my May story- https://wordpress.com/post/thefirstfiftyracesarethehardest.wordpress.com/8144

Because of the open wheel split the next year, Unser did not compete in the 500 again until 2000. He was mostly uncompetitve situations, managing a best finish of 9th in 2003. His final 500 was 2007.

The museum display contains a lot of memorabilia in the back room, including some great paintings. The Unser exhibit is included in regular museum admission. Here are some photos of the winning Unser 500 entries.

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Al Unser, Jr.’s 1994 500 winning car.

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Al Unser’s 1970 winner. He won in 1971 in a nearly identical car.

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One of Bobby Unser’s Pike’s Peak cars. Of the Unser family’s 39 wins, Bobby won 13 times.

I have different feelings about each Unser. Bobby was always my favorite of the family.  I loved his aggressive style. Al, Sr. was always steady and calculating. I have come to appreciate how great a driver he was. Al, Jr was never really a favorite of mine, although like his dad, I appreciate him more as I look back on his career.

It was a treat to see Bobby at the track this May. We need to treasure every appearance of these aging legends.

 

 

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Dan Gurney, the All American Racer

Name a racing series, any series past or present. Run your finger down the list of race winners from that series. You are likely to find the name Dan Gurney somewhere in the list.  Gurney died yesterday in California, closing the book on one of the most brilliant drivers and minds to ever set foot on a race track.. He drove anything, anywhere. He won in anything, anywhere. He built his own cars, developed engines, and wrote a white paper outlining what the future of Indycar should be. CART used his ideas to form their series. If Gurney had chosen to run CART, Indycar racing would be on very solid ground today.

I cheered for A.J. Foyt win every race. I loved watching Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones drive. Bobby Unser’s aggressive driving was beautiful to watch, and his brother Al’s cool, let the race come to him strategy made for some late race intrigue. Then there was Dan Gurney. I loved the five regulars, but I admired and adored Dan Gurney. I liked that he didn’t race exclusively in one series, and that he had success no matter where he raced.

Gurney was the first driver to win races in Indycar, Nascar, and Formula 1. Only Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya have duplicated that feat.  What Andretti and Montoya didn’t duplicate was building their own car to race and drive to victory. The Eagle Mark I, shown below, is the only American built car to win a Formula 1 race. Gurney won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in it. It remains the only time an American won a Grand Prix in a car they built.    This win came just one week after he and A. J. Foyt won LeMans in a Ford GT40.

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Gurney made nine starts at Indianapolis. He started on the front row twice, second in 1967 and third in 1965.  In his last three 500’s- 1968, 1969, 1970- Gurney finished second, second, and third. His Eagle cars won the race in 1968, 1973, and 1975. He only led two laps, both in 1967. He took the lead when Parnelli Jones took the turbine for short detour through the north short chute grass.

I will not bore you with every statistic of his racing career. I followed him avidly. He was never in any series long enough to win a championship. He would have been a multiple titlist in several series.  After his driving career, Gurney continued to a force in racing with his cars, innovations, and ideas. The Gurney flap, a small tab on the trailing rear wing, is still in use today. His Eagle cars were the dominant chassis in the mid 70s.

I met Gurney after he won a road race at Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway Park) in 1963. He autographed my event program, and was very gracious to an awkward 16 year old kid. I wish I knew what happened to that program.

All racing is poorer for his passing. I’m thankful I grew up in an era when the sport’s great legends raced and drivers weren’t limited to one series for their entire career. If you see A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, or any other driver from that time period at a track, please take a minute to say hello to them. We have no idea how much more time we will have them around.

Photo notes:  The Indy 500 car pictured at the top is on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum at the Barber race track in Birmingham. The Formula 1 Eagle in the lower picture is in the REVS Institute in Naples, Florida.  Top photo captured from internet; bottom photo my own.

 

True Racer- McLaren Movie Review

Just one more lap before lunch. Bruce McLaren, always looking for more from himself and his car, wanted to try a different downforce level.. He left the pits but didn’t return that day in June 1970, ending a meteoric rise from champion driver to successful car builder. A view of the accident scene comes at the end of the documentary, McLaren, a film making sporadic appearances in the United States. I had the good fortune to see it Thursday night.

The film chronicles McLaren’s life in chronological order from his humble beginnings in New Zealand. Bruce knew he wanted to be a race car driver by the time he was 5 years old. When he was nine, he developed Perthes disease, a disease that causes the head of the femur to lose blood flow and die. As a result his left leg was shorter than his right one. McLaren was bedridden for nearly 2 years as doctors tried to strengthen the hip and lengthen his left  leg.  While the hip got stronger, his leg did not get longer. Mclaren walked with a permanent limp.

He went to Europe to drive F2 in 1958 and won his first Formula 1 race the following year, the U.S. GP at Sebring. At the time McLaren was the youngest F1 winner in history, a distinction he held for 44 years. He drove as a teammate to Jack Brabham for Cooper.  Brabham won the World Championship the following year and McLaren finished second.   Both drivers  left Cooper and eventually each built their own Formula 1 cars.

McLaren’s greatest success came in the Can Am series.  In 1969, McLaren-built cars won every race on the Can Am schedule. The three McLaren  cars swept the podium twice that year.  Dennnis Hulme and Mark Donohue were McLaren’s teammates that year.

The movie contains interviews with many racing greats including Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, and Chris Amon. McLaren’s family also appears, lending a personal view of the man. We also hear from several engineers and mechanics, mainly Robin Heard, who came to work for McLaren after helping design the Concorde supersonic airplane.  Many of the airplane’s aerodynamic principles, and some of the same materials, were applied to the cars.

My favorite segments were the vintage racing footage. The race films contain shots of Graham Hill, James Hunt, Jack Brabham, and many other drivers of that era.  We see Le Mans in 1966, Monaco in 1958, Sebring in 1959, and Spa in 1968.  Several things in the films stood out. Grand prix races used to start 3 wide and both F1 and F2  raced at the same time just as sports cars race today. It was great to see the traditional Le Mans start again, with drivers sprinting across the track to their cars. How would that work today?

Several McLaren home movies brought a personal touch to McLaren’s life. He would send film of his European races home and the family and their friends gathered to watch. I also enjoyed the movies of Bruce with his wife and young daughter.

McLaren is one of the best documentaries I have seen on any subject. It is a new, important contribution to preserving racing history. I’m hoping the movie returns in general release. Had there been a second showing last night, I might have stayed for it.  Look for its return, and go see it.

Preview- Grand Prix of Indianapolis Will Penske Dominate Again?

At last, the Speedway opens for the month of May. Practice for the Indianapolis Grand Prix begins today, when Indycar takes the track at 9:15 this morning.  The race is tomorrow on ABC, beginning at 3:30 pm ET.

The first three editions of the this race have seen Simon Pagenaud win twice, including last year. Will Power won the second year. Pagenaud comes into the event as the points leader, just as he did last year. The difference is he has only won once this year. In 2016, this was third consecutive win.  The points battle is tighter this season so far.

There have been four winners in four races this year, the last two races won by Penske drivers. We may not have a fifth different winner after this race, nor a different team winning.  Pagenaud has excelled on this track , and I expect him to do so again. If he falters, look for Power to get his first trip to Victory Circle this weekend.

This will be another Chevy at the front show, though Honda is  eagerly awaiting the start of 500 practice next Monday. Honda will be happy with a top five on Saturday.

As far as this weekend’s attendance, I have no idea. The last two years have seen the crowd shrink from year one, which was between 55 and 60 thousand. In 2015, rain was predicted for the race, but the race was dry. The weather in 2016 was even colder than the 1992 500.  It will be interesting to see if the improved weather this year draws more fans. In any case, there is Indycar racing at IMS this weekend, and then the best two weeks of the year begin.

News and Notes:

Sebastian Saavedra was confirmed as driver for the second Juncos car. He will drive car 17, sponsored by AFS.

Several teams have revealed their liveries for the 500 the last few days. This will be one of the best looking fields in recent memory.  Several cars have a retro look with hints of cars from the past. I’m excited to see the entire field together.

Back with a race recap Sunday and a preview of what I hope to bring you during practice week.

 

 

 

Honoring A Legend- The A. J. Foyt Exhibition at the IMS Museum

First, a bit of news: Spencer Pigot has been confirmed as a driver for Juncos Racing in the Indianapolis 500. he will drive car no. 11, with sponsorship from Oceanfront Recovery, an organization involved in helping people overcome issues with opioids. This will be Pigot’s second 500. he drove last year for Rahal letterman Lanigan. Sebastian Saavedra has been announced as the driver of the second Juncos car.  These two cars and the entry from Lazier Racing brings the car count to 33.  I don’t believe this to be fully firm at this point.

 

The Speedway legends I grew up with are all in or nearing their 80’s.  They race during what I consider the Golden Age of Indycar racing.  Foyt,  Andretti, Jones, the Unser brothers, and Gurney would race almost anything on almost any kind of track- pavement, dirt, oval, road course. When the checkered flag waved, it was highly likely that A. J. Foyt was the first to see it.

Full disclosure- I was a crazy Foyt fan back then. Yes, I appreciated the skills and talents of the other drivers, but Foyt was my man. Thanks to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, I had a chance to see his entire career on display.

Virtually every car he drove, including the four he drove to his 500 wins, is on display.  One car I didn’t see was the car he and Dan Gurney drove to victory in LeMans in 1967.  I  was really looking forward to seeing that one. It did not take away from my enjoyment of the exhibit, however. Several of the cars I had completely forgotten about, like the Scarab MK IV from 1964. A. J. won 3 races in 1964 driving for Lance Reventlow.

One poignant entry was the 1981 Coyote, the last coyote chassis Foyt produced.

The cars and their histories are displayed clearly. It would take a while to read every word. I have all summer. The display is at the Museum until October. Even more intriguing than the the cars was all the memorabilia and photos. People apparently donated things from their private collections for the show. Make sure to walk to the display room in the back.  The most fascinating item to me was a set of micro-miniatures cars, replicas of many Foyt’s Indy 500 cars, labeled by year. The photo collection the walls, including a couple of murals take you back in history.

I plan to return to see the exhibit in more depth later this year.  I will close with some photos, including a mural of A. J. on dirt.foytexhibit 025

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This is the car Foyt drove to the first of his 67 wins in Indycar. The Scarab is the blue car in the background.
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The car A. J. Foyt drove at Indianapolis his rookie year, 1958
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Midget racer from the early 1960’s.

The Greatest 33 Non-Winners: Final Grid

What a fun project this turned out to be! It was fascinating seeing how much those who submitted grids both agreed and disagreed. Some drivers got just one mention, while others appeared on every ballot.  There was near unanimous placement for some drivers, and some drivers were near the front on some grids and near the back on others. The driver nearly everyone agreed should be on the pole is Michael Andretti (pictured above, from 1992).

I  noticed the rankings were along age lines. Older fans close to my age seemed to have near identical grids,  and younger fans as a group submitted similar lineups.  Many drivers from long ago in general fared better on the lists from the older group. I was surprised how well the current drivers stacked up against the racers of the past. Another interesting detail is that all 50 driver finalists had at least one mention. I didn’t expect that.

To rank the drivers, I assigned points to the drivers corresponding to their spot on each person’s grid. A driver on pole got 1 point, the last driver got 33. If a driver was listed on pole on five grids, his total was 5. The lowest total won the pole. If a driver did not appear on someone’s grid, he/she was given 34 points. To my shock, there were only two ties. I resolved placement by averaged each driver’s highest and lowest rank of all the grades, with the lowest average getting the higher spot. One of the ties was for 32nd and 33rd. It was just like qualifying for the 1963 500.

The front row- Michael Andretti, Rex Mays, and Ted Horn, is strong. These drivers were in the top 10 on everyone’s grid. Andretti led 431 laps, the most by any non-winning driver. he started on the front row three times and had 5 top 5 finishes.  Rex Mays, in the middle of the front row is the only other driver to lead more than 200 laps and not win. Mays was on the pole four times. Ted Horn, on the outside of the front row, finished in the top five 9 times in 10 starts.

So here they are, the Greatest 33 Non-Winners of the Indianapolis 500:

Row 1

Michael Andretti

Rex Mays

Ted Horn

Row 2

Harry Hartz

Marco Andretti

Lloyd Ruby

Row 3

Gary Bettenhausen

Ralph Hepburn

Roberto Guerrero

Row 4

Scott Goodyear

Carlos Munoz

Robby Gordon

Row 5

Eddie Sachs

Tony Stewart

Jack McGrath

Row 6

Wally Dallenbach

Tomas Sheckter

Will Power

Row 7

Danica Patrick

Tony Bettenhausen

Joe Leonard

Row 8

Jimmy Snyder

Ed Carpenter

Danny Ongais

Row 9

Pancho Carter

Mel Kenyon

Kevin Cogan

Row 10

Vitor Meira

Russ Snowberger

Paul Russo

Row 11

Tom Alley

Johnny Thomson

George Snider

it’s kind of fitting that Snider is last on the grid. his trademark was jumping into a car on Bump Day and getting into the field starting near the back. Thanks to everyone who submitted a grid. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and reasoning as to how yo put your grids together.

I will be back tomorrow with some 500 news and a report on my visit to the A. J. Foyt exhibit at the Speedway Museum. The cars were great to see, but the memorabilia was even more amazing to me. Thursday I will have my Indianapolis Grand Prix preview with my normally inaccurate winner’s prediction.

 

 

 

 

 

The Head and the Heart- Another Fan’s Greatest 33 Non-Winners Grid

Tuesday afternoon I received a grid from Patti Nolen.  Patti blogs on wordpress under the name ikissedthebricks. She recently wrote a book review of Chris Workman’s The Spectacle. Check out her blog.  Patti put a lot of research into creating her grid.

Here’s how Patti approached building her grid:

” I first ranked the drivers I knew. Then I researched everyone on the list.- not extensively but looked up everyone. Then I ranked them… Most of it was from my heart and then checked the statistics to see how they matched up.Finally I waited to see if I changed my mind and after all the interviews with Dan Gurney the past week I did change my mind and moved him up.  Mostly I had a ton of fun and learned something.” (bold mine)

Here is Patti’s grid:
1 Michael Andretti
2 Harry Hartz
3 Scott Goodyear
4 Lloyd Ruby
5 Gary Bettenhausen
6 Rex Mays
7 Ted Horn
8 Eddie Sachs
9 Marco Andretti
10 Robby Gordon
11Carlos Munoz
12 Tony Stewart
13 Roberto Guerrero
14 Vitor Meira
15 Tony Bettenhausen
16 Dan Gurney
17 Danica Patrick
18 Will Power
19 Ed Carpenter
20 Ralph Hepburn
21 Mel Kenyon
22 Paul Tracy
23 Joe Leonard
24 Pancho Carter
25 Eddie Hearne
26 Johnny Thomson
27 Jack McGrath
28 Duke Nalon
29 Tomas Scheckter
30 Danny Ongais
31 Kevin Cogan
32 Teo Fabi
33 Johnny Boyd

 

Please have your grids in by May 2. I would like to put out the final grid on the first day of practice for the 500, May 15.  Thanks.