At age forty-seven, legendary Indy driver, Al Unser, showed up at the brickyard without a ride. Roger Penske, the owner of Penske Racing had downsized his team from four drivers to three, in favor of younger drivers –Mears, Ongais, and Sullivan. During the first week of practice, Danny Ongais crashed into a wall. He suffered serious head and ankle injuries and was declared unfit to race. Penske determined he would field a third car to fill the spot. Since his new Chevrolet-Ilmor had been unreliable, he brought last season’s car, a 1986 March-Cosworth, which had been on display at a Sheraton hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, the team’s hometown, to Indianapolis. At that point, he asked Al Unser to drive the re-commissioned machine. Most of Penske’s efforts were directed toward Mears and Sullivan’s cars; still, Al managed to qualify the old car in the 20th starting position.
The race was run 25 years ago next month, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was off on a Sunday for the first time in months. I was a professional speaker and worked every weekend and three or four days during the week. I worked all over the country, and, when I wasn’t speaking, I was traveling, so a day off was memorable. A week or so prior to the race, I read that the Indie 500 would, for the first time, be televised live. I made plans then to watch it, and I didn’t miss a second of the broadcast. I watched the pre-race show and heard the commentators tell the “wonderful” story of how old, Al Unser, got one more Indie start. I heard them add, “He doesn’t have a chance. He’s running last year’s car, and he’s starting in the 20th position. No one has ever won the Indie 500 starting from further back than 12th.”
I watched the race begin and for the next hour or more I didn’t hear the name Al Unser. With 25 laps left in the 200 lap race, the commentators gave a standings recap – “Rick Mears is in the lead and Pedro Guerrero is in second place. There is only one other driver on the lead lap with them, it’s…” There was a long pause and then one of the announcers said, “I don’t believe it. It’s old Al Unser.” He quickly added, “But old Al can’t win, he’s almost a whole lap down. Then a funny thing happened. Rick Mears’ car stopped running. It just died on the backstretch and barely managed to coast into the pits. The announcers were shocked but quickly noted that Pedro would win easily. With less than ten laps to go, Pedro came in for a fuel stop. Al Unser elected to stay on the track. At that point Al was 30 seconds behind Pedro and a slow pit stop takes less than 7 seconds.
Pedro’s pit stop went way beyond slow. He popped the clutch and killed the engine. His pit crew jumped back over the wall and push started the car. Again Pedro killed the engine. After the second push, Pedro carefully engaged the clutch and charged down pit lane. Just before he got to the track, a bright yellow car flashed by – old Al Unser had taken the lead, and Pedro couldn’t run him down. Al became the oldest man to win the Indy 500, his fourth victory there, by the way, and he won my heart, even though I was a kid of 45 at the time.
Naturally I couldn’t wait to tell the “Old Al Unser” story. In fact, I told it hundreds of times.
Once, I told it in Phoenix, and a young woman came to me afterwards and said, “I loved the old Al Unser story, even though I’m a member of Pedro Guerrero’s pit crew. I should tell you this, it was more than unusual for him to kill the car once, much less twice, and it wouldn’t have happened, if he hadn’t been distracted.”
“Distracted?” I asked.
“Yes. The fuel can didn’t connect properly with the car, there was a leak, and then there was a fire. An alcohol flame is invisible, but the crew chief told Pedro what was happening, and he simply overreacted. If it hadn’t been for that…” Her voice trailed off and then she smiled a bit, looked at me, and said, “But I’m glad Al won. He is a hell of a driver and a hell of a man.”
A month or so later I told the story in San Diego. As I told it I, noticed a man in the front row. From the start, I thought he was crying and by the time I finished, he was having serious problems hiding the tears. I finished the story and was about to leave the stage for a break, when the man came up to me.
“I hope I didn’t distract you with the crying. I just couldn’t help myself.” He wasn’t totally over the experience so I waited until he was ready to go on. Finally he said, “I’m not a nut case. Or at least I hope I’m not. I’m an air traffic controller and I have been one for eighteen years. I was one of the first black air traffic controllers in the country and the very first one in San Diego. My wives’ a school teacher, we were fresh out of college when we moved here.
We worked hard, didn’t take a single vacation for five years, then we decided to take a trip back to Texas, our home. I bought a new Volvo, one of the first on the west coast. And we headed out. We had a delightful trip and were headed home early on Sunday morning. As we passed through Albuquerque, the car stopped running without warning. I pulled onto the shoulder of the interstate and tried everything I could think of to get it going, with no luck. At that point a policeman stopped. He took one look at me and another at my Volvo and said, “You have a big problem. There aren’t any shops open in Albuquerque on Sunday, and even if there were, no one could work on this, whatever it is.”
I told him that I had to get back to San Diego so my wife and I could go to work and I asked if there was anything he could think of that I could do.
Well, he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “Look, this is a long shot, but I can’t see that you have much choice. There’s a man who works on cars a lot who lives just down the road. He doesn’t have a shop, but I hear he’s a good man, and he just might help you.”
He choked up again, and I waited again. I know a great story when I hear one. Then he continued, “My wife stayed with the car, and the officer dropped me at a driveway about a mile away. I walked up a long hill to a modest home that appeared deserted. I knocked at the door three times and was about to give up, when someone called out, ‘hold on, I’m coming.’ The door opened and there stood the whitest, white man I’ve ever seen. He was wearing only pajama bottoms, and it was obvious that I’d just woke him up. I expected him to be less than happy about that. Instead he apologized for taking so long to get to the door. He said, ‘my brother and I race cars on the weekend, and I didn’t get home until 2:00 AM.'”
The air traffic controller paused, looked at me and grinned, and then said, “Yep, it was Al Unser. We jumped in his old pickup truck, towed the Volvo to his house, and he had it fixed in just a few minutes. I offered to pay him but he said, ‘I don’t want your money, but I would like to know that the next time you see someone down on the side of the road that you’ll stop and help them.'”
He choked up again, and so did I. Finally he managed to say, “I told him that he could count on it and I hope he believed me because I haven’t passed a stranded motorist since that day, and I don’t ever intend to.”
We hugged, and I thanked him for sharing the story with me. And though he’ll probably never know about any of this, thanks to old Al Unser, I’ve never passed a stranded motorist and I never will either.
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