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Unser's engine burned to win

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Al Unser Sr. is oldest Indy 500 winner
By Bob Phillips
Special to

Signature Race
May 24, 1987 - Al Unser Sr., behind the wheel of a year-old car he had to beg to drive, won his fourth Indy 500, tying A.J. Foyt's record. At 47, Unser was the oldest to win the race. Quite a feat, considering the only reason he was even competing was that Danny Ongais crashed during a practice run and wasn't healthy enough to race.

Unser's victory margin was 4.496 seconds over runner-up Roberto Guerrero and his average speed was 162.175 miles per hour.

"It means everything to Dad," said Al Unser Jr., who finished fourth. "They called him retired and washed up and all that. He's far from that. I've got goose bumps. I'm ecstatic for Dad."

Odds 'n' Ends

  • As a dirt racer, Unser won the prestigious "Hoosier Hundred" sprint four years in a row.

  • He became part of the Unser family legend at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado by winning in 1964 and 1965.

  • Al's brother Louie, who was stricken with multiple sclerosis in 1964, served as his mechanic in his first Indy 500, in 1965. Louie was the best mechanic of the Unser brothers and got a shop in Santa Ana, Cal., where he made engines for cars and mostly for boats.

  • A.J. Foyt gave Unser get his first Indy ride at Indy.

  • Unser was voted USAC Rookie of the Year in 1967.

  • Before the 1969 Indy 500, Unser was clowning around on a motorcycle when he crashed and suffered a broken ankle. After recovering, he won five races over the remainder of the year.

  • He was a two-time Driver of the Year (1970 and 1978).

  • In 1978, when he captured his third Indy 500, Unser also won the Pocono and California 500s, making him the first driver to earn an "Indy Car Triple Crown."

  • He was a three-time Indy Car champion. He won the USAC award in 1970 and the CART titles in 1983 and 1985.

  • He gained the 1985 title in the last race of the season. When he finished fourth, one place behind his son, it was enough for him to edge out Al Jr. by one point. In doing so, Al Sr. became -- at 46 -- the oldest Indy Car champion in history.

  • When Unser won the Indy 500 in 1987, he became the driver with the longest span between first and last Indy victories - 17.

  • Unser's 27 Indy 500 starts trail only Foyt's 35 and Mario Andretti's 29.

  • In the 27 races, Unser completed 4,356 of a possible 5,219 laps - 83.5 percent.

  • He led 644 laps at Indy, the most by any driver.

  • He also holds the Indy 500 record for most times running at the finish -- 18.

  • Unser has the Indy 500 record for the most top-three finishes with 11 (three seconds and four thirds to go along with his four victories).

  • Unser's career earnings in Indy cars were $6,740,843, with more than half ($3,378,018) coming at the Indy 500.

  • He was voted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991. Seven years later, he was voted into the International Motorsports Hall.

  • In 1992, when Al Unser Jr. won his first Indy, Al Sr. finished third.

  • Al married Wanda, his first wife, in 1958. However, his celebrity status had a negative effect on their marriage and they divorced in 1971. They had three children.

  • Unser remarried in 1977, to Karen Barnes.

  • Unser's 21-year-old daughter Debbie died in a dune buggy accident in Elephant Butte State Park, New Mexico, in 1982.

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