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Sam Moses
August 13, 1990
Al Unser Jr. won the fastest 500 in history
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August 13, 1990

One Quick Kid

Al Unser Jr. won the fastest 500 in history

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When four-time 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 mph.

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 was gone."

"Little Al says you're the one who didn't slow down," Rahal was told.

"That's because I figured he wouldn't," replied Rahal.

Ah, race drivers.

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.

Somebody asked 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."

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