Al Unser Sr: The Ageless Record Holder
The Indy 500 has given us many racing heroes but few will have matched the achievements of Al Unser Sr. For sheer longevity, his feats will be tough to match in a sport which, in the modern day, is very much a young man's game.
Al Unser Sr’s biography will tell us that he is the oldest man to have ever won the Indianapolis 500 but there are many great racing moments in his career which we are about to highlight.
Al Unser was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico on May 29, 1939 in the Unser family, what would become a dedicated auto racing family. His brothers Robby and Jerry would also go on to compete at a high level while Al’s son, Al Unser Jr, has also been looking to match his father’s accomplishments.
Al Unser’s father Jerry and his brothers Joe and Louis Unser were also racers so the competitive edge was in the family blood. In those early days of a dangerous sport, the family, like so many others, was blighted by tragedy: Joe Unser was killed in testing in 1929 while Al’s brother Jerry Unser also lost his life in 1958 during a practise session.
Undeterred, Al Unser and his brother Bobby took up the Unser family torch and they were soon making inroads into professional sport.
Al Unser’s racing career began in 1957 when he was just 18 and, after progressing through minor disciplines, he was ready for greater things. Unser’s first ever Indy 500 came along in 1965 and a respectable finish of 9th in a strong field suggested he was in line for an impressive career in racing.
Al continued to progress and it seemed certain that he would win the Indy 500 at some point but his brother Robby just beat him to it. In 1968, Robby Unser took the trophy but Al Unser Sr would finally get over the line two years later.
The 1970 Indy 500 saw a dominant race performance from Al Unser Sr, who started from pole position, and led for all but ten of the 200 laps. Around the track, he averaged a speed of 155.749 miles per hour while rapid pit stops aided his success. Unser Sr won a record 10 times on oval, road and dirt tracks that season.
Al Unser Sr successfully defended his Indy 500 title with victory in the 1971 race but he narrowly missed out on becoming the first man to win the race for three years in succession. In 1972, he finished in second place behind Mark Donohue but moving forward, he was very much the man to beat as far as the rest of the racing field was concerned.
Sustained Success and a Record Breaker
The 1970s would bring just one more Indy 500 win in 1978 but there was plenty of success elsewhere for Al Unser. His Champ Car career produced first place finishes in 1970 and into the 1980s with wins in 1983 and 1985. He would also finish his racing career as a Daytona 24 hour winner so he was clearly able to mix speed with racing endurance.
Unser would remain competitive in the Indianapolis 500 and even when he wasn’t winning, he was setting benchmarks for others to follow in the future. When he finally retired in 1983, Al Unser Sr had led the race for an overall total of 644 laps and that’s a record.
That career in Indy 500 would last for 28 years but in 1987, he set another race record that has stayed in place for over 30 years. In that season, Al Unser senior became an Indy 500 winner for four times but on this occasion, he became the oldest ever Indy Car champion.
Unser won at the age of 47 and therefore beat the previous Indy Car race record - set by his brother Bobby Unser - by two years. It was an incredible achievement - made even greater by the fact that he had been dropped by his original team and went into the start of May without a ride. Determined to compete, Al Unser continued to look for a racing seat and was eventually picked up by his previous Penske side.
Unser Sr had to be patient: He started in 20th place and didn’t take the lead until the 183rd lap when Roberto Guerrero stalled in the pits. Eventually, he came home with a 4.5 second lead over the chasing pack to claim the race just five days short of his 48th birthday. Al Unser Sr would go on competing in the Indy 500 until 1993 and while he wouldn’t claim another win, his place in motorsport history was already assured.
Keeping in the Family
We’ve looked at the career of Al Unser Sr and while we’ve briefly mentioned his family, we have yet to underline just what a force the Unsers have been in motorsport. Between Al Unser Sr, his brother Robby Unser and his son Al Unser Jr, they have won the Indianapolis 500 race on no fewer than nine previous occasions.
It’s an incredible set of careers in the Unser family, but perhaps the most remarkable of those nine Indianapolis 500 victories was delivered by Al Unser Jr who holds the record for the narrowest winning margin in the Indy 500. In 1992, Unser Junior won the event by a scarcely believable mark of just 0.043 seconds. Effectively, this meant that Al Jr claimed Indy car victory by less than a metre and once again, this is an Unser family record that may never be matched.
Al Unser Senior finally retired from the race track in 1994: The racing veteran was effectively dropped by Penske Racing in 1990 but continued to look for rides across the next three seasons. In 1992, when Al Unser Jr won by that ridiculously narrow racing margin, Al Unser Sr actually came home in third place after replacing the injured Nelson Piquet in Team Menard's car.
Even at such an advanced stage in his racing career, Al Unser Sr remained competitive but finally, at the age of 54, he called time and departed the wheel.
In later life, he founded the Al Unser museum which celebrates the auto racing success of the Unser family in Albuquerque, New Mexico while containing some incredible exhibits. It’s a fine testament and a legacy to an amazing race career but the Unsers aren’t finished yet. Al Unser’s grandson and nephews compete so we could yet see some more silverware in the museum’s trophy cabinets.