Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. hit the wall in the first practice session
for the Marlboro 500 at Michigan International Speedway, breaking his right
femur, his collarbone and four ribs, it seemed an omen that Sunday's race might
be as explosive on the two-mile oval. And it was.
There were bursts
of eye-blurring speed, the demolition of records and the revving up of pulses
as the leading contenders' engines blew one by one. And when it was over, the
weekend ended as it had begun, with an Unser making the news. After a brief two
hours and 38 minutes, Al Unser Jr. had his first career win in a 500-mile race,
and he had made it the fastest in history, at an average speed of 189.727
Most of the
practice, the qualifying and the race belonged to Emerson Fittipaldi. The
defending CART points champion qualified fastest at 222.593 mph, an especially
pleasing feat because he has been winless this season. At Indy he dubbed his
Penske-Chevy the Lady in Red because she "responded so beautifully."
Now, after fighting with her through the first 10 events of the 16-race Indy
Car series, he calls her the Bitch in Red. On Sunday she was true to form: She
took him two thirds of the way, then dumped him.
Fittipaldi led for
134 of the first 155 laps before his engine let go. The fans had been on their
feet most of that time, but it wasn't just the blazing Brazilian who put them
there. The track's high banks meant that the cars could run three abreast
through the corners, and the drivers were more than happy to do it. Fittipaldi,
Unser, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, Michael Andretti and Arie Luyendyk, the
front-runners, cut laps in the middle 220's as they diced with each other. But
while the drivers reveled in the racing, their engines were not so happy. In
addition to Fittipaldi, Mears, Luyendyk and Andretti heard the song of their
Chevy V-8s turn into a death rattle.
On Lap 200, with
50 left to go, the yellow flag came out to signal the end of Michael Andretti's
day, and Unser pulled his Lola-Chevy alongside that of Rahal, his Galles-Kraco
Racing teammate. With a two-lap lead over Mario Andretti, who would finish
third, they knew they could afford to cruise in order to preserve their
equipment. Said Little Al afterward, "I looked over at Bobby and he was
doing this [Al gives the universal slow-down gesture], so I went, 'O.K., yeah,
good idea.' [Al gives a thumbs up.] Then the green flag fell, and damn, Bobby
says you're the one who didn't slow down," Rahal was told.
because I figured he wouldn't," replied Rahal.
The teammates tore
off after victory, passing and repassing each other twice a lap for two or
three laps in a row. Meanwhile, their car owners and business partners, Rick
Galles and Maury Kraines, were watching in horror. Galles was overseeing
Unser's pit, Kraines was watching from Rahal's pit, but there was no
communication between them, and no orders were given to their drivers to cool
it and preserve a one-two finish. Explains Galles, "Maury and I made an
agreement that if this situation came up we wouldn't even talk." The
outcome was anticlimactic: Rahal pitted for fuel while leading on Lap 235;
Unser stayed out longer, hoping for a yellow flag, which came out on Lap 240,
with 10 laps to go. Unser was able to stop for fuel and lose little time. He
beat Rahal to the finish by 25.459 seconds.
Unser what it meant to him to enter the record books as the winner of the
fastest 500-mile race in history. "Well, I think it's proper that the
record be in Indy Cars," he said. The old record belonged to Bill Elliott,
whose big ol' Ford Thunderbird had averaged 186.288 mph at Talladega in 1985.
"And I'm proud that it's an Unser who now holds it," he continued.
"But I don't think 189 is fast enough. We can go quicker."