Under the Radar, as Usual

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No one has really mentioned one of the things we are losing this Month of May. For the last several years, it has become something of a “new tradition” to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of famous wins of the Indianapolis 500.

In 2015, we recognized Jim Clark’s win in the beautiful Lotus 38 powered by Ford. In 2017, the IMS Museum celebrated fifty years since AJ Foyt’s third win (and forty years from his fourth win) with the AJ Foyt Collection; a display of not only his four winning cars, but many others from Indianapolis and other forms of racing. The following year celebrated the Unser Family, on the fiftieth anniversary of Bobby Unser’s first “500” win. Last year was a celebration of Mario Andretti.

My question is this…Before the pandemic turned May upside-down, was Al Unser going to be recognized this year for the fiftieth anniversary of his first of four Indianapolis 500 wins? If not, was the Unser celebration in 2018 supposed to cover Big Al’s historic win? That hardly seems fair. It’s like the younger brother continuing to get big-brother’s hand-me-downs.

With this year’s Indianapolis 500 being moved to August, and the now-traditional Month of May being broken up with the GMR Grand Prix being run in July – it doesn’t seem that any type of milestone celebration would be as significant over a two-weekend span in late August. Chances are, whatever celebration was planned will be more subdued, or possibly done away with this year.

Fortunately for Big Al, if he was due to be short-changed for his deserved recognition by current circumstances – he can get a do-over next year. Not only did Al Unser win his first Indianapolis 500 in 1970, he backed it up with his second win the following year – thus becoming only the fourth of five drivers to ever accomplish that feat. Wilbur Shaw was the first to do it in 1939-40; Mauri Rose pulled it off in 1947-48; Bill Vukovich did it in 1953-54; Al Unser in 1970-71 and then Helio Castroneves was the last to do it in 2001-02. That’s some pretty distinguished company, no matter how you slice it.

I was present for both of Al Unser’s back-to-back wins. Going into the 1970 season, I had not given Al Unser much thought. Then again, I was only eleven when that Month of May rolled around – so what did I know? Al was a rookie during my first race in 1965. His brother, Bobby, got all the headlines. I remembered he had qualified well in 1967 and finished second in the race; but he crashed early in 1968 on the same day his older brother won his first Indianapolis 500. The only headline he made in 1969 was when he broke his leg, messing around on a motorcycle in the infield – after Pole Day had been virtually rained out. He missed the race.

As a kid, I didn’t follow the USAC Championship season – just Indianapolis. I did not know that Unser had already won at Phoenix and placed third in two other races before 1970’s Month of May got started. Had I known that, it might have given me an indication of what we were in for that year.

In 1970, Al Unser showed up at Indianapolis with one of the best-looking liveries ever. Big Al later recounted that when he had heard that his car would be sponsored by a toy company, he laughed. But when he first laid eyes on the paint job of his Colt chassis, he said “Man, that thing’s purty”.

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For those too young to remember, kids in those days love to collect small cars. Matchbox was the brand to have going back as far as I remember. But they were meant to looked at and be played with. That was about it. Then Hot Wheels came out with cars about the same size, but with wide tires and a spring suspension. They were designed to race on special Hot Wheels tracks. At first, they were gravity fed tracks that went straight. Then they developed turns and even “Supercharger” stations that would give the cars instant acceleration each time they rolled through them.

Hot Wheels was the toy-item of the late sixties. My collection of Hot Wheels cars, Superchargers, track sections and turns are still in my mother’s attic. I’m sure heat and age have taken their toll on the track sections, but it might be fun to pull them down sometime. Anyway, I digress…

Like any good idea, competitors soon followed. Gillette has Schick, Hertz has Avis and Hot Wheels had Johnny Lightning. Hot Wheels was a product of Mattel, the leading toy company at the time – while Johnny Lightning was developed by Topper Toys, who always seemed to be copying Mattel products. Being a Hot Wheels guy, I never owned an Johnny Lightning products. A kid down the street brought his Johnny Lightning cars to my house a few times. He always claimed his Johnny Lightning cars were faster, but they weren’t – at least not on my tracks.

So when Al Unser showed up in his Johnny Lightning Special in 1970; I loved the paint job, but I was not happy about the name of the car.

The Colt chassis (or some refer to it as the PJ Colt chassis) was a derivative of the four-wheel drive Lola from 1968. Team-owners Parnelli Jones and Vel Miletich had bought out the team owned by Al Retzlaff and its stable of Lola chassis. Along with the deal came driver Al Unser and legendary Chief Mechanic George Bignotti. USAC had limited the four-wheel drive car to ten-inch width tires, so Bignotti converted the car to rear-wheel drive and made several other aerodynamic and suspension-related modifications. This car was referred to as a Lola-Colt, and was very successful in 1969.

In 1970, Bignotti copied this new design and added even more modifications. Since it had evolved so much from the original Lola it was derived from, they re-named the car the PJ Colt.

Al Unser put the Colt on the pole in 1970; but barely. Johnny Rutherford was only .01 seconds slower. Unser’s four-lap average speed was 170.221 mph, while Rutherford’s was 170.213 mph. AJ Foyt completed the front-row in 1970. Many regard the 1991 front row of Rick Mears, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti to be the most iconic ever; but the 1970 front-row of Al Unser, Rutherford and Foyt ended up with two more wins than that 1991 front-row.

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Not only did Al Unser win the pole in 1970, he absolutely and completely dominated the race. He led 190 of the 200 laps. By Lap 175, Unser had lapped the entire field. He essentially coasted for the last few laps, allowing second-place finisher Mark Donohue to get his lap back. Unser won the race by 32.19 seconds over Donohue in what appeared to be a very easy victory.

What did this eleven year-old take away from that race? The best looking car in the field won, but teammate Joe Leonard had an identical looking car that year. I also recall that Al Unser had a closed-faced helmet, which was still such a rarity in those days that they were considered funny looking. If I’m not mistaken, he was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 wearing a closed-faced helmet.

I also remember seeing crowd favorite Lloyd Ruby, charging up from his twenty-fifth to take the lead just around the one-quarter distance mark, in another good looking livery. He led for two laps before smoke started pouring out of the back of his car. By Lap 54, he was done for another year.

While there was not a lot of drama near the front in the 1970 Indianapolis 500, there was quite a bit leading up to it. The combination of car-owner, chief mechanic, car and driver all came together in an almost magical form to dominate the race.

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In 1971, Unser piloted a similar looking, but different car to Victory Lane again, as he picked up his second of four Indianapolis 500 wins and Bignotti won his fifth of seven wins as a Chief Mechanic. The early seventies as a whole were good for the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. Between 1970 and 1973, Unser won two Indianapolis 500s and one National Championship for the team, while Joe Leonard won two more National Championships.

If you ask me, Al Unser deserves his own celebration – not just to be tagged along with brother Bobby’s in 2018. He didn’t ride Bobby’s coattails to any of the success he experienced on the track. Not only did he match his brother’s success, he improved on it. He was only the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and is still one of only three to do it ever. Unfortunately, circumstances dictate that if there is any celebration at all, it will be toned down and shortened in August. That’s almost symbolic in how the understated little brother from Albuquerque spent most of his career – under the radar.

But who’s to say they can’t do a full-blown celebration next May, when we can celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his 1971 win? I’m all in. What say you?

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Under the Radar, as Usual”

  1. One of my favorite cars of all time. Al as a four time winner deserves to have his own celebration. My dad brought me home a whiskey decanter in the shape of the Johnny Lightning Special. Wish I still had it.

  2. I still collect diecast cars, have probably over 500 Matchbox sized cars and nearly 1,000 cars total, including some Johnny Lightning cars. I have four of the Johnny Lightning packages that include the winning 500 car and the pace car from that year, one for each of the four time winners and a Bobby Unser one too.

    There’s a guy on YouTube that does some pretty amazing diecast racing videos and I’ve been really enjoying them during this prolonged off-season.

  3. Tony Geinzer Says:

    The Johnny Lightning Special is one of those cars you’d recognize from anywhere with its image.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is interesting to me that decidedly iconic paint schemes won the three 500s where most of the cars had, perhaps, the least iconic shape in the race’s history. The doorstop shaped cars of 69-71 ruled a very short era, and I don’t think they are as fondly or easily remembered as the preceding roadsters and cigar-shaped rear-engine cars or the following winged cars that led to the dart-shaped look of the modern Indycar. Nevertheless, Mario’s STP and Al’s Johnny Lightning paint schemes are as iconic as any in the race’s history.

    The Johnny Lightning brand was resurrected during my 90s childhood, but aimed more at collectors who would display the models instead of children who play with them. The 500 winner/pace car sets they made, that Brandon mentions above, are very cool… though they failed spectacularly to match the papaya paint of Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 winner (there are two versions, one a rich yellow that is forgivably wrong and the other a baffling pink with a hint of orange).

    I’m an avid 1:64 diecast collector as well, but almost exclusively open wheel racers (whether they are based on real race cars or not). I make exceptions for AMCs, Mazdas, some stock cars, and some sports cars. I ran a racing series with my diecast Indycars for longer than I care to admit…

  5. SkipinSC Says:

    I loved the Johnny Lightning livery and saw it up close and personal during my first visit to the race in 1971. it seemed that every race I saw in 1970-71 the Vel’s-Parnelli Jones cars were winning, many times easily.

    This is hard to say, as a fan of AJ Foyt, but Al Unser was the guy I feared most when they lined up on race day. It seemed for several years that no matter where he started, Al would, by about the halfway mark or before, be right in the thick of the competition.

    Even crusty ol’ AJ himself admits that Big Al was one of the few drivers he really trusted to always race clean and fast. Accordingly, he deserves the full-blown celebration of 2021.

  6. Daddy stepped on one too many JL cars left on the living room floor where they were not allowed. that was the end of that collection.

  7. It would be great for Al to be recognized and celebrated for both victories this year and next. I saw that the Indy Legends Shirts site is currently selling a 50 year commemorative shirt
    https://www.promoplace.com/233418/stores/indylegendshirts/Al_Unser.htm

  8. Bruce B Says:

    Even though Al Unser Sr is a 4 time Indy 500 Champion, I contend he’s one of the most under rated drivers. He squeezed the most out of every car and was usually a contender every May. A couple years ago on legends day he did a few laps in that beautiful Johnny Lightning car. Big Al should have his special day as he is one of the best ever at Indy.

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