The Racing Unsers
With Little Al coming back to Indy in 2000, where he'll meet up with Robbie and Johnny Unser, it appears we'll have 3 Unsers in the Indy 500 for the 1st time!
Joe, Jerry and Louie Unser started the Unser legend by challenging the demanding Pikes Peak Hill Climb that eventually became "Unser's Hill" during the 1920s. In 1929, the trio of Unser brothers decided to attack Indy. They built and drove three race cars, but their plans were shattered when Joe, probably the best driver of the three, was killed while testing his car on a Colorado highway.
Eleven years later in 1940, Louie finally made it to Indianapolis. He started his rookie test, but failed to take the last phase of 25 laps at 110 mph.
Later in his post-race report, chief steward Ted Doescher wrote:
"Louie Unser did not take his full 25 miles at 110 mph due to the fact that the car he was driving, namely the Bill Holabird Special, was difficult to handle due to an improper front end adjustment. This car was driven in the race by Billy DeVore (to 18th place) after proper front adjustments were made. I mention this due to the fact that I feel Louie Unser will make a good driver on the Indianapolis track providing he is given the proper equipment. In the event he returns in 1941, my recommendation would be to have him start his test at 90 mph."
Louie Unser didn't return.
It wasn't until 1958 that the Unsers resumed the Indy quest. All four of Jerry Henry Unser's sons made it to the Speedway, with Jerry Michael being the first. He became the second Unser to attempt a rookie test and, unlike his Uncle Louie, passed and qualified for the race. He was involved in a gigantic first-lap crash in the north chute, his car going over the wall. He wound up in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder without completing a lap. He returned in 1959, but suffered fatal injuries in a Turn 4 practice crash.
Four years later, brother Bobby took his first shot at the Brickyard. He throttled through his rookie test in the R & P Special (Junior Johnson passed two phases of his test in the same car the next day) and managed to complete two laps in the race driving Joe Granatelli's Hotel Tropicana Special before crashing.
In 1965, the youngest Unser brother, Al, passed his test in the Arciero Brothers Special. It didn't appear he would qualify for the race until A.J. Foyt went to Unser's garage and offered him a ride in his second car, the Ansted-Thompson Special. Big Al ran 196 laps and placed ninth.
A fourth Unser brother, Louie (Jerry's twin and named after his uncle), also was at the Speedway during this period, but as a mechanic. Suffering from a crippling disease, he worked on his cars out of a wheelchair. The Unser brothers' parents, Jerry and Mary (known as Mom and Pop Unser), became noted for their chili feast (burnout) in the garage area each May.
By 1983, both Bobby and Al had won Indy three times each (Al added a fourth in 1987 and Bobby retired in 1981) when the third-generation Unser, Al Jr., showed up as a rookie driver. He passed his test in the Coors Light Silver Bullet, qualified fifth fastest and finished 10th after being penalized two laps for passing under yellow. He completed 192 laps. Later he added to the Unser Indy saga by also becoming a multiple winner with victories in 1992 and 1994.
The year 1995 saw the race without an Unser for the first time since 1962. Little Al was driving for Roger Penske, and while this team is a tough force at the Speedway, that year neither car qualified. A year later there was another, Johnny, seeking his first opportunity. He was less than 7 months old when his father succumbed to his Speedway crash injuries but was 37 when he finally reached the track as a driver. He took his test and drove the Project Indy/Ruger Titanium Reynard and, like his father nearly four decades before, failed to complete a lap and finished 33rd. He rebounded with an 18th (from 35th) the next year driving for Ron Hemelgarn. He was soon joined at the speedway by Bobby's son, Robbie Unser.
Penske Racing refused to race at Indy for a few years as they were in CART and not the IRL. Al eventually left the team and joined the IRL where he competed in a few more Indy 500s. His son, Just Al, is currently competing in the Infiniti Pro Series, where he is hoping he will soon join an Indycar team.