UNSER’S UNIQUE ACHIEVEMENT
(FAR LEFT) Jim Hall
in Texan hat stands
back as Unser
the Triple Crown with
victory at Ontario.
(LEFT & BELOW) Indy
win was conclusive.
mINE’S A TRIplE
“We weren’t thinking about the Triple
Crown; we didn’t assume the Lola was going
to be strong anywhere!” chuckles Unser. His
misgivings increased after a crash in practice
for Round 3 at Texas World Speedway, which
also kept him from racing the following
week at Trenton. With a new chassis for
the Indy 500, though, he qualified fifth.
Al recalls: “Before the race, we knew
we’d be competitive, but didn’t think we’d
be as strong as we were. That race was
wonderful. I remember looking up at the
board and seeing we were leading…and
then we just kept leading. I thought, ‘Gee,
this is alright!’ One of those days where
you can’t seem to do anything wrong.”
The lead battle distilled to a battle
between Tom Sneva’s pole-sitting Penske,
Ongais and Unser. In the closing stages,
Ongais’ engine blew and Unser held off a
charging Sneva to the checkers, having
led 121 of the 200 laps.
At Pocono’s tri-oval, the Lola qualified
5mph from pole, but the Chaparral team’s
smart strategy put Unser in the lead for
65 laps – including the last one.
Unser dismisses his victory in the
final leg of the Triple Crown, Ontario’s
500-miler, as “Lady Luck came my way.”
Well…yes and no. He was fortunate that
many rivals self-destructed and that
Gordon Johncock’s Wildcat ran out of fuel,
but after suffering both fates himself that
season, Unser was a deserving beneficiary.
So the Triple Crown was his. Not that
his bank manager would have noticed.
“It might have been worth about
$10,000, if that much. When I heard the
Triple Crown was being revived this year
and it would be worth a million dollars to
the winner, I thought, ‘What the heck?!
That would have been sweet.’
“At the time, we were just happy to have
won three races, especially in a not very
good car, and especially as one of the wins
was Indy! But looking back, yeah, I like
that we’re the only ones to have won the
Triple Crown…so far.”
Ultimately, Al Unser and
Chaparral narrowly missed
out on the 1978 Indy car
championship, losing out to
Penske’s Tom Sneva,
despite that combo never
winning a race – a fact that
Unser concedes does bug
him a little. More important,
though, was the future.
“I told Jim Hall, ‘I won’t
drive that Lola again. If you
don’t build a new car, I’m
not going to stay with this
team.’ I had John Barnard
the designer, a very
talented guy, and Hughie
Absalom lined up.
“I can’t say the Chaparral
2K came about because of
me, though, because Jim
himself knew the Lola
wasn’t any good and
wanted a car of his own.”
marvel wasn’t ready for the
opening rounds of the
newly launched CART series
in ’ 79, and so the Lola T500
– now in Pennzoil livery –
was pushed into service in
both Phoenix and Atlanta,
Unser finishing third in his
final race with the car.
Yet by the time the 2K
was as reliable as it was fast
and Unser was able to win
the season-closer in
Phoenix, he’d decided to
quit Chaparral, leaving the
best seat in the house to
Johnny Rutherford. As
Big Al went off to spend
a largely frustrating three
years at Bobby Hillin’s
Longhorn team, Lone Star
JR won the 1980 Indy 500
and the Indy car title.
FROM LOLA LOWS TO HIGH CHAPARRAL
WHAT UNSER DID NEXT
Unser helped Barnard and Hall make the Chaparral 2K into a
world-beater, then left as the fruits of his endeavor ripened.