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Tony Kanaan chasing Triple Crown

Al Unser is the only driver to win the Triple Crown of Indy car racing, with wins at Indianapolis, above, Pocono and Ontario in 1978. The IndyCar Series returns to Pocono Sunday for the first time since '89. Bob Harmeyer/Archive Photos/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- A Triple Crown of three highlighted events has been an important part of horse racing for a century or more. Indy car racing featured a Triple Crown of 500-mile races from 1971-89, and the concept is being revived this year by the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka has put up a $1 million prize to any IndyCar driver who wins the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono IndyCar 400 and the MAV-TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in California in the same year.

By default, that means Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan is the only driver eligible to win the Triple Crown this year. Fuzzy's will pay Kanaan a $250,000 bonus if he wins two of the three Triple Crown races.

From 1971-1980, the Triple Crown consisted of the Indy 500, the Pocono 500 and the California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway. When Ontario closed, Michigan International Speedway took over the third leg, taking away some of the purity of three 500-mile races on 2.5-mile tracks.

The Triple Crown disappeared when Pocono dropped off the CART-sanctioned Indy car schedule after the 1989 season. Now it's back -- albeit as a 400-miler, which could increase to 500 next year if all goes well. And, thanks to Fuzzy's, so is the Triple Crown.

The list of 500-mile race winners in the 1970s and '80s is like a who's who of Indy car racing history. The Unser brothers, Bobby and Al, won seven apiece; Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt are next up with half a dozen, followed by Johnny Rutherford with five and Danny Sullivan with four. Sullivan won the last Triple Crown race, the 1989 Pocono 500.

But only one man won the Triple Crown: Al Unser, who drove Jim Hall's Cosworth-powered Lola T500 to victory at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario in 1978.

Unser, in fact, won four 500-mile races in a row, because he won the 1977 California 500 to start his streak.

A contemporary report in Autosport magazine portrayed Unser as tired but exuberant in Victory Lane after his 1978 Ontario triumph. He won by five laps (that's right, laps) over Pancho Carter to clinch the Triple Crown.

"Oh yeah!" he exclaimed. "This is just about the most exciting moment of my life!"

Thirty-five years on, Unser still can't believe it actually happened, especially that year. The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner struggled with the new Lola chassis all season long and managed only three other top-five finishes outside his three 500-mile wins.

"That Lola was a disgrace," chuckled Unser during a recent interview. "That car tried to kill me. We were always chasing ourselves and playing catch-up with that car, seemed like we were every weekend. Take Pocono; if we had an on-board camera back then, people would see how that car darted and bounced around on that track. It was very rough. I kind of had to just hang on and let the car do want it wanted. It was never the same, a constant handful. It had its own head.

"But I'd hang on, drive and let them [competitors] come back to me. I'd be driving around and one by one I'd catch up to them. Soon enough, I'd be leading the race."

Unser was always a master at conserving his equipment, and that was particularly important in the late 1970s. The Cosworth was taking over from the Offenhauser and the Foyt/Ford engine as Indy car racing's dominant powerplant, and the engine war took its toll on reliability. At Ontario, when Unser clinched the Triple Crown, his was one of only five cars running at the finish and fifth-place finisher Lee Kunzman was 20 laps down.

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Winning them all was a great gift. We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three, we really did. In each one of those races I didn't think I had a chance of winning.

"-- Al Unser on winning
the 1978 Triple Crown

Although he's best known as a four-time Indianapolis winner, Unser is immensely proud to be Indy car racing's only Triple Crown winner.

"Winning them all was a great gift," Unser said. "We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three, we really did. In each one of those races I didn't think I had a chance of winning. You just never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who's going to win, and we just did it the right three times that year.

"I got a ring that said I was a Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000, I think," he added. "I know for sure we didn't get a million dollars. I am positive about that."

Kanaan, who was 3 years old when Unser won his Triple Crown, is eager for the opportunity to create some modern history -- and collect a big payday.

"Obviously I'm the only one that has a chance to win the Triple Crown, so the pressure is on," Kanaan said. "But I'm excited. I have never raced at Pocono Raceway, but we know we had a good car at Indy and had a good test at Pocono a few days ago.

"Pocono will be the third of four races I will run in the Sunoco 'Turbo' car, and after the success we have had in the first two -- finishing on the podium at both Texas and Iowa -- I really want to keep that momentum going at Pocono and hopefully do even better."

For his part, Unser will be watching Sunday when Kanaan tries to clinch the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pocono. He thinks the Brazilian is capable of getting the job done.

"I think Tony is a good racer, a real good racer," Unser said. "I thought the Indianapolis 500 was a pretty good show. For Tony to win after all his tries, it was really good for him.

"I give IndyCar credit for bringing back the Triple Crown, and if he can win Pocono and then California, I'd be happy to have him join me as a Triple Crown winner, for sure."