BRYAN HERTA TALKS TO AL UNSER JR.
Portraits Lesley Ann Miller/LAT
Junior’s championship fight with his
father in 1985, with the points battle
literally decided in the closing laps of the
finale. I was fascinated to hear his
accounts of both events looking back
through the prism of time.
won and I finished second, and that let
him take the points lead. For the first
time in more than half the season, I
wasn’t at the top of the championship
table. So we knew after that race that it
was going to be my dad or me who would
win the title.
For decades, he’s been known to millions of race fans as Little Al. As part of the Unser racing dynasty, he
literally grew up at the racetrack. We all
remember him as that baby-faced kid
who looked too young to have a driver’s
license, let alone wheel one of the fastest
racecars in the world around tracks from
Long Beach, Calif., to Tamiami, Fla., to
the big daddy, Indianapolis, Ind.
What I needed was to finish in front
of my dad but with one car between us.
Al was involved in what was for me
and countless others, two of the most
iconic moments in IndyCar racing in the
mid- to late-’80s era. The battle between
he and Emerson Fittipaldi in the closing
laps of the 1989 Indy 500 has been
replayed perhaps more than any other
I had qualified well ahead of him but
after a couple of corners of the race, I look
in my mirrors, and there’s no one there
and the yellows are out. So we reduce our
pace, go all the way back around, and the
first car that appears behind me? My dad!
What had happened was that Mario
[Andretti] tried to gain a bunch of spots
Brickyard moment, with Junior ending up
on the wrong end of a bump with Emmo.
Just as memorable was him walking out
to the track as millions waited for him to
give Emmo the one-finger salute…only to
confound them by giving him the double
The other amazing moment was
Bryan interviewed al at Milwaukee, a track where Unser won in both of his car T/Indycar championship years – 1990 and ’94. (rIGHT) In 2003, he scored his 34th and final Indycar victory at Texas Motor Speedway.
BH Your father was a big influence, and
you were very close to him through your
formative years, so talk about 1985, your
third full year in the IndyCar. You and he
were battling for the IndyCar
championship and he beat you to the
title by just one point. That’s got to be a
weird dynamic; you’re happy for your
dad, but you’re beaten to the title by the
AU Oh, man, it was hugely emotional.
I was a nervous wreck going to Tamiami
Park for that final race. I had broken my
leg but never missed a race, and I had led
the championship for most of that year
in Doug Shierson’s team. But at
Phoenix, the second-to-last race, my dad
in the first corner and took out some cars
and himself, which backed up the field
and then some more people had run into
each other. So now here’s Dad right
where he needs to be – and we haven’t
even completed one lap yet!
racer.com AUGUST 2011 33