As 100th Indy 500 nears, Unser Jr. recalls the one that got away

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Al Unser Jr. won the Indianapolis 500 twice in his career, in 1992 and 1994.

But for all the plaudits, celebration and recognition that came with those two momentous wins, Unser still carries a torch for what could have been: his true first win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I felt one of my best drives ever of the 500 miles was in 1989,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “We didn’t lead many laps or anything like that, we just hung out with the leaders and stayed out of trouble.

“I had an extremely fast car that year. I was going off pretty much what my dad taught me to do, which is the most important lap you want to lead is the last one. That’s the one that pays the money, that’s the one that does everything. I find that ironic nowadays because my dad is the absolute all-time lap leader at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Unser Jr. led a total of five laps in the No. 2 Valvoline Lola/Chevy, including Laps 196-198 in a tight battle with Emerson Fittipaldi. Caught behind lapped traffic, the two went side by side heading into Turn 3.

“Traffic came up and kind of got me caught going into Turn 3 as we were coming around for the white flag, and only one of us was going to come out of that turn,” Unser said. “It wasn’t me, unfortunately. We touched, I ended up in the wall and Emerson went on to win his first 500.”

Naturally, the fiery Unser was angry at crashing and losing his bid to capture the Indy 500 for the first time. He climbed from his wrecked race car and was ready to confront Fittipaldi – or at the very least, give him a one-finger salute.

Somewhere between the time he climbed out of his car and prepared to confront Fittipaldi as Emmo took the final lap under caution, the younger Unser had an epiphany of sorts that forever changed his life – and his outlook on Indianapolis that fateful day in May.

“I had gotten out of the car, the track was under yellow now and I start walking out to the track,” Unser said. “One of the safety crewmen, this big guy, got in front of me and asked, ‘Al, where’re you going?’

“I told him, ‘I’m going out there.’ He said, ‘What, you want to flip him off?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. Duh.’ Then he stepped aside and said, ‘Well, go right ahead.’”

But something stopped Unser and his demeanor went from wild to mild and he went from being ticked off to being a perfect picture of good sportsmanship.

“I gave Emerson a salute all right; I gave him a thumbs up,” Unser said. “He was behind the pace car and I guess it was a moment of clarity, he’s coming around to win the Indy 500 and to get the checkers, he’s led it the whole day and I tried to steal it from him, so I congratulated him and applauded him.

“We were in the Indy 500 and both of us were going for the win. Unfortunately, I ended up not and he did.”

Unser would not be denied in 1992. Michael Andretti dominated the race and appeared to finally be ready to end his own winless streak at Indy.

“At one point, (Andretti) had the entire field down one lap,” Unser said. “So with 15 or 18 (laps) or something like that to go, his car broke. Scott Goodyear and I had been passing each other like that for the last 50 or 60 laps, but it was for second and no one knew that race was going on.

“Finally, we were fortunate to win and be a part of it. It was great. I went home and I could finally hold my head up, especially with Uncle Bobby (Unser, who had ribbed Al Jr. about not having won Indy up to that point).

“The first win is always the important one. For me, that was getting all the pressure from my family, the fans, the sponsors, myself – the pressure I put on myself to do well. For that to finally take place after 10 years of trying, that was very, very special.”

And then came Unser’s second win, where he suddenly became a believer in karma after what had happened five years earlier.

“Then, the second one and that effort with the Mercedes was huge in my first year with Penske. Emerson had everybody covered and was trying to lap me, but then he crashed.

“Honest to God, ’89 was the year I had the best car, the crew didn’t make any mistakes, the car was reliable, no one made any mistakes and we had them covered and had the fastest car at the end of the race when you needed it, and then things out of our control snatched it away.”

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