Unsers mix laughs, competition in SVRA weekend at Indianapolis

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INDIANAPOLIS – It's another Unser family reunion at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, but with a twist. 

The roles are reversed for father-and-son Indianapolis 500 winners Al Unser and Al Unser Jr. as they participate in the Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am during the fourth annual Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) event that is bringing many familiar racers back together.  “Little Al,” a two-time Indy 500 champion as well as a 2014 winner of this race, is the mentor. “Big Al,” a legendary four-time Indy 500 winner who is still spry at 78, is the SVRA “rookie.”

Once upon a time, Al Jr. said of Al: “Dad, taught me everything I know. Unfortunately, he didn’t teach me everything he knows.” 

That hasn’t changed, all these years later. 

“He still has not taught me everything he knows,” Al Jr. said Friday. 

“I better take the ‘mic’ away,” Al said, reaching for the microphone. 

The amused son chuckled when asked if he would take it easy on his father. 

“Did he ever take it easy on me?” Al Jr. said. “No.” 

“Well, you learn a lot of time you’ve got to look at both sides,” Al said. “You look at it now and say, ‘You’ve got to help me.’ It’s paybacks. He can sit back and kind of giggle now.” 

Al's teammate is SVRA President Tony Parella, and they are a No. 05 red-and-white 1972 Corvette. It’s the first time Parella has participated, but Al insists he's the one who is rusty.  “It’s been since 1994 that I’ve driven anything competitively,” Al said, “and it shows.” 

Al Jr., who rejoins Peter Klutt in a No. 42 blue-and-white 1969 Corvette, heads a field of 33 former Indy 500 starters that also includes the dynamic NASCAR duo of Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham. Today’s event features two engine-size classifications. Competitors race for 45 minutes and must make a five-minute pit stop to switch drivers. 

It was 55-year-old “Junior” who talked his dad into participating in the Father’s Day weekend event and, truth be told, he’s been helpful in showing the racing lines on the speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course layout. 

“I couldn’t have asked for a better Father's Day present than the time I get to spend with my dad, talking about the car and getting in it, him running around here,” Al Jr. said, “taking him in the rental car with Tony Parella around the track. ‘This is the line. This is where you need to go. This is how you need to do it.’ I was making sure he was OK, making sure he was having fun. 

“What he did with me when I was 9 and 10 years old, it was exactly the opposite just the other day. It was a true blessing to be able to have that with your dad. It was a super-special day. This whole event has been super special.” 

Any Unser reunion at IMS wouldn’t be complete without Al’s older brother Bobby, a three-time Indy 500 winner who is grand marshal. Not only that, but 83-year-old Bobby intends to take a ceremonial spin in one of his old Indy cars, a restored Rislone Eagle in which he earned his first Indy car victory, in 1967. 

“I’m ready to go,” Bobby said. 

Always eager to stir the pot with a wisecrack, Bobby couldn’t resist some good-natured ribbing of Al and Parella. 

“You can tell Tony’s not too smart because he took my brother as his teammate,” Bobby said. 

“I would say he’s the smartest guy in the room, Bobby,” Al said. 

Two other family returnees are Johnny and Robby Unser. Johnny is Al and Bobby’s 58-year-old nephew, a six-time Indy 500 starter and a race participant for the third time. Robby is Bobby’s 49-year-old son, a two-time Indy 500 starter and like Al Jr. has been in this race since its 2014 debut. Robby and former longtime Indy car driver Paul Tracy are defending class champions. 

“It seems to have a different feel here,” Robby said of the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational. “It’s quite competitive, believe it or not. I mean, everyone wants to win. But we’re very happy to run with each other. We know we can’t beat up on the cars too much. For the short week that we’re here, it’s one of the funnest and most exciting times of the year, for sure.” 

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