T shirts proclaimed it the biggest showdown in motor racing history, and who would argue. It was unique, certainly. Al Unser, 46, bidding to become the oldest Indy Car champion ever, and Al Unser, 23, bidding to become the youngest. Father versus son, cagey old pro facing charging young lion, a duel between creator and creation. Al Sr. had 139 points to Al Jr.'s 136 going into the final race of the CART season, and no one else was within reach of the crown. Other T shirts requested: WILL THE REAL AL UNSER PLEASE FINISH FIRST?
Three generations of Unsers have sped into racing legend. Al Sr.'s father and uncle started it all back in Colorado, smoking and blazing their way to supremacy in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Al Sr. has been a professional racer for 28 years and stands third in career Indy Car victories with 38, behind A.J. Foyt's 67 and Mario Andretti's 45. Both Al and his brother Bobby, now retired, have won the Indy 500 three times.
Al Jr. was trained and raced like a thoroughbred under his father's watchful eye: go-karts at nine; sprint cars at 16; Super Vees, which are open-wheeled racers (and the championship of that series) at 19; Can-Am cars, which are powerful prototype sports cars (and that championship) at 20. Then Indy Cars, the ultimate American racing machines, at 21—and now the threshold of that championship at 23. And along the way, rarely a wheel set wrong.
Neither Al Sr. nor Jr. could really explain how it felt to be racing each other for such a title, although Big Al did say that the championship battle with his son was the highlight of his career, surpassing the thrill of his Indy 500 wins. And Little Al has often said that his father is his racing idol. One thing was never in doubt, not by anyone who knew either Unser: There would be no backing off if and when it got down to the final foot.
November 18, 1985
The difference between $300,000 for first place and $200,000 for second from the $1 million point fund posted by PPG, the series' sponsor, scarcely mattered. "Al wants to beat his father very badly," said Junior's wife, Shelley. "It would mean so much more to him than to beat anybody else. It's because he idolizes him so much."
And that was true. The kid's motivation for wanting to keep his old man off the top was respect. It would be the ultimate compliment. Little Al wanted to make his father proud of him. He had even had dreams about racing his father. "But I never dreamed about him out-running me," he says. "I always dreamed about me beating him."
And Al Sr.? "Either way, I win," he was saying, even before Saturday's showdown at Miami's Tamiami Raceway. "They can print the name on the trophy right now. It's going to say Al Unser, and that's good enough for me."
The saga of Al Sr.'s 1985 season was, as he says, "interesting." After winning the Indy Car championship in '83 and having a terrible season in '84, he lost his ride with Roger Penske's team when Penske hired Danny Sullivan. But Big Al was too good to let go completely, so Penske signed him for a three-race deal in '85, the Indy, Michigan and Pocono 500s. Al's car would be the third in the Penske stable at those events, very much a backup to those of Rick Mears and Sullivan. But Mears's recovery from an '84 crash was slower than anticipated, and at the start of this season Unser was called upon to substitute. One successful substitution led to another as Unser calmly strung together a substantial point total with consistent Top 5 finishes. Mears, meanwhile, did critical test and development driving, and in fact, Mears prepared the car with which Unser lapped the field at the Phoenix oval on Oct. 13 for his only win of the season, a victory that moved him into the series lead ahead of Al Jr., who finished second.
"Without Rick I wouldn't be here today," said Al Sr. "I owe him a lot, and all he has to do is ask."
"I might have had trouble doing it for anyone else," replied Mears. "But I know if the circumstances were reversed, if the same things had happened the same way, Al would do it for me. There aren't many drivers I could say that about. But it wasn't just for Al—it was for the team, for the guys." Mears is a hero to the Penske team today, and just watch how the mechanics work for him next year when he comes back to the full schedule.
When Al Jr. was nine, his father and mother were divorced, and he went with Mom to Georgia. But for a kid who "never wanted to be anything but a race car driver," it wasn't easy, nor was Little Al easy for his mother to handle. So he was glad to go back to Dad in Albuquerque during summers, in part to get discipline. At 16, he was living with Dad full-time. Back behind the wheel of his kart, the boy found direction again.
Despite the fact that Al Jr. has always looked deceptively young, he has always been mature beyond his years. One of his better moves was marrying Shelley, an older woman. Little Al was 18 and Shelley 21 when they started dating. "I can't see myself being married to anyone else," she says, "but it's weird the way it worked out. I didn't like redheads, didn't like younger men." They dated a couple of times, and Shelley admits she was not so nice to him, despite his giving her a big owl candle, because he thought it would make her think of him (Al-owl). So he stopped calling, and she missed him. One day she walked out of her college class in Phoenix, sold her books, flew to Dallas and took a taxi 40 miles to the track where Al Jr. was racing. She walked up dragging her suitcase. They've been together ever since. Now they light the owl candle on their anniversary, of which they've had three. They also have a child, Alfred Richard—Mini Al. At three he's a hot-rod go-karter. Al Jr. wants a daughter now, and he wants to make her a winning race driver.
The season's final battlefield was the brand-new circuit at Tamiami Park. The 1.784-mile track was an overnight sensation. It is smooth, wide, fast, rhythmic and safe. It was officially considered to have nine turns, but because one was an S-turn, the drivers figured it as an 11-turn course—all of them great. The race cars—Marchs, Lolas and Eagle-Cosworths—reached 180 mph on the 2,000-foot-long backstraight but geared down to second and about 60 mph on the slower sections.
The fastest driver in practice was Indy 500-winner Sullivan, but during Friday's qualifying session Bobby Rahal excelled. Rahal's driving for the final third of the 15-race Indy Car season had been overwhelming—he had won three of the previous five races and taken four pole positions. On Friday he added the Tamiami pole, clocking 56.408 seconds, 113.856 mph. Little Al in his Lola and Big Al, driving a March, qualified eighth and 12th, respectively. Needing to gain four points, Junior could claim the championship either by winning the race or finishing two positions ahead of his father, as long as he was sixth or better.
The first turn, a challenging right-hand bend, immediately began claiming victims. At the start the cars of three major competitors—Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Roberto Guerrero—squeezed into the turn together, and none came out in one piece. "Too many of us going for the same hole," said Andretti, the '84 champion, as he ended a troubled season. "I really don't know what happened," said Fittipaldi. "It was Mario," said Guerrero. "He tried to get past Emerson, and then Emerson slid me into the wall."
Seconds later, in the chicane, the Brazilian rookie Raul Boesel spun and took out himself and a whole team—the two Kraco Marchs of Andretti's son Michael and Kevin Cogan. "Boesel spun right in front of us," said the younger Andretti. "He nailed my left rear," said Cogan. "Michael Andretti hit me," said Boesel. Whatever, with one lap run, six cars were down. Eleven laps under the yellow flag were needed to clear the course, after which Al Jr. was seventh and Al Sr. ninth.
In front, Rahal ran off and began working traffic superbly. He was zipping his bright red March through the chicane with masterful precision, clipping the curbs with nary an inch to spare. Chasing him were Bruno Giacomelli, Jan Lammers and Roberto Moreno, all European road-racing veterans, while Sullivan seemed to be cooling it behind them. When Geoff Brabham dropped out with a failed ignition system, Little Al moved to sixth and Big Al to eighth, about five seconds apart.
Except for the temporary shuffle during pit stops, relative positions remained constant for the next 50 or so laps. Then Giacomelli (a.k.a. Guacamole and Jack O'Malley to the American drivers) looped his March in the first turn and backed into the wall. Under the subsequent yellow flag Lammers and Sullivan closed in on Rahal. The second round of pit stops was a boon to Sullivan, whose crew received him in second place and sent him out in first. Little Al's crew had also gotten him in and out quickly, Al screaming away from the pits to cheers from the grandstands, where the same fans greeted Al Sr. as fervently on his stop. Little Al came out ahead of Moreno, which put him a distant fourth. His father was out of sight behind Moreno.
For a while, there was a hot three-car dice for the lead among Sullivan, Lammers and Rahal, but then Lammers went the way of Giacomelli. Little Al was now third, and Big Al moved up to fifth behind Moreno.
"I had to stay out of trouble, but yet I couldn't get too far behind," said Unser Sr. "I was trying to save everything till the last, hoping I could have a shot at it." Mears, stationed in Al Sr.'s busy pit, commented, "Al always seems to muster up something at the end. You watch."
Then Rahal's left rear tire blistered, a problem most of the cars were having. On the turns, Rahal had to fight his March's steering as well as the road. "It was all I could do to hang on," said Rahal. "I knew there was no way I was going to catch Danny, so I figured second was better than putting it in the wall somewhere."
Suddenly all eyes were on Moreno, the man in fourth, separating father and son. Al Sr. had Moreno in his sights and he knew he had to pass him to win the championship. If Al Jr. finished the race in his present position—third—he would get 14 points. Fifth place would be worth only 10 to Al Sr. Fourth would bring 12. With 12 laps remaining and the senior Unser four seconds behind Moreno, Penske said to him over the radio, "It's up to you." Al Sr. inched up on Moreno, who was also driving with a blistered left rear tire. Moreno dived under a slower car to lap him in the first turn, and Unser went right with him because he couldn't afford to lose him. It was a banzai move, right in front of his crew, and it took their breath away. "Had to do it," he said later. "No choice."
On Lap 108, with four laps remaining, Unser outbraked Moreno and passed him going into the second turn to take over fourth place.
Sullivan's March took the checkered flag 16.8 seconds ahead of Rahal. Chalk up another one for the Penske team, which has won seven of the last nine Indy Car championships. Danny (Hollywood) Sullivan, who shines in the flashy races, won $57,634 for a season-record total of $950,432. His next stop: a guest spot on Miami Vice.
After he had taken the checkered flag in third, Al Jr. slowed and awaited his dad, who crossed the finish line five seconds later. As father pulled up beside son, they exchanged a look that went deeper than just two rivals acknowledging a hard-fought battle. The two cars completed a victory lap in tandem.
When Little Al finally pulled into his pit and parked his Lola, he didn't get out. He didn't move much, in fact. He flipped up his helmet visor and stared wearily through glazed eyes, dead ahead. The crowd around the car remained still and silent, waiting for him to make some kind of move. Only now did Little Al's disappointment seem truly to show. He had so wanted to pay his father the compliment of beating him, and he had lost by the smallest possible margin, 151-50.
Then he got out, slowly, removed his helmet and fire-retardant balaclava, and smiled. "How do you feel?" someone asked. "I feel good," he said softly, meaning it.