- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

“Oh, I remember the race,” Al Unser Sr. says. He’s being asked to reminisce, over the phone from Albuquerque, N.M., about his first Indianapolis 500. The year was 1965. The Beatles were big. So, come to think of it, was the Volkswagen Beetle.

“I was in Ford’s backup car,” he says. “The engine went bad on it. I dropped a cylinder, was running on seven cylinders. So it was a matter of survival then. But I finished, and that’s what I wanted to do. So it made me happy.”

Unser came in ninth, in fact, and, for risking life and limb, was handed a check for $12,500 — which would buy you a tank of gas today. But he was on his way to racing immortality.

There figures to be a lot of story swapping this weekend as Unser and scores of other legendary drivers return to Indy to celebrate the race’s 100th anniversary. It’s such a hallowed place, Indianapolis Motor Speedway — the Fenway Park of the Burnt Rubber Set. And Al, with his record-tying four wins at the Brickyard, is a Mount Rushmore-type figure. So is Rick Mears, who also took four checkered flags there.

“Home away from home,” Mears calls it. “Just a great time in my life, something I never dreamed of doing or being involved with. I’m just honored to be a part of it. The history of that place is just incredible.”

What’s equally incredible is that he and Unser can feel this way even though Indy, as everyone knows, almost always extracts its pound of flesh. Mears, for instance, suffered facial burns during a pit fire in 1981 and had scary mishaps in ‘91 (in practice) and ‘92 (in the race) — the latter leaving him “upside down.”

As for Unser, his older brother Jerry died in 1959 after crashing at the Brickyard during a training run. He was 26 and, given his success on the stock car circuit, figured to have a bright future driving Indy cars.

“It’s risky business,” Mears says. “I’d be lyin’ if I told you it didn’t scare me. But heck, public speaking scares me to death. I’m in awe of anybody who can get up there and comfortably do that. I’d rather run 230 miles an hour inches from a concrete wall than [speak in front of a group].

“Besides, the fear I had was a healthy fear, and a healthy fear is a good thing because that’s what keeps you from making mistakes. I always tried to keep it to a calculated risk. That means I didn’t do anything that wasn’t within my limits or the car’s limits. But there’s always the chance of something unforeseen happening.”

Probably the biggest difference between the Indy of old and the Indy of today is that, over the years, great pains have been taken to prevent those unforeseen things from happening. The sport, quite simply, is safer. Cars are better built and less apt to break down. They also have smaller tanks, so they carry less fuel. On top of that, the fuel is now alcohol-based (read: less easily ignited).

In 1965, Unser’s first visit to Indy, only 11 of the 33 cars were running at the end. Last year, nearly twice as many — 21 — completed at least 196 of the 200 laps.

“They still have crashes,” Al says. “That’s never going to change. But the failure of mechanical parts … the engineering factor is just so much better today. Also, when drivers say they have a full fuel load now, they’re talking about 25 gallons. When we put a full fuel load in, it was 75 gallons. The difference in weight makes it tremendously difficult as far as how the car handles.

“So it tickles me when [current drivers] say, ‘I went out with a full fuel load and I slowed down and this happened and that happened.’ They should load it up with 75 gallons and see what it’s like.”

This is why somebody will undoubtedly break Unser and Mears’ record of four Indy victories (a mark they share with A.J. Foyt). To win, you first have to finish, and more races these days are being finished. That’s how Unser and Mears managed to win as many as they did — by having great cars to drive, sure (both hooked up with Roger Penske), but also by being very good at dodging disaster.

“Never touched a wall [at Indy] until ‘91,” Mears says. “A big part of driving is [knowing] when to and when not to.”

Mears nominates Helio Castroneves, who already has won three Indys at 36, as a driver with “a very realistic shot at getting five” — or more — “if we can give him the tools he needs.” (Castroneves also is a Penske man.) Another possibility is Dario Franchitti, who has won two while still in his 30s (inspired by actress wife Ashley Judd, the celebrated Kentucky Wildcats fan).

Still, will Helio or Dario ever do what Unser did in 1987 — show up at Indy without a ride, replace an injured driver (Penske’s Danny Ongais, who had crashed in practice) and, from the 20th position, steer his way to victory (his fourth and last)? That’s fairy tale stuff.

It’s Al favorite Indy, of course. The last win is always the sweetest. Isn’t that right, Rick?

“That No. 4 [in 1991, after wrecking his original car in practice] is very special to me. First because I never dreamed of being there, and then because it put me in a class with two of my heroes. Every time you win Indy, the odds of you doing it again just increase. I didn’t really understand that at first, what it meant to win Indy, because we won it right away [in ‘79, the second time he qualified]. I didn’t know a lot of the history.”

Now he and Unser are a huge part of that history. And this weekend, at Indy’s 100th birthday party, they’ll take their bows with the other racing greats — the guys who came, saw … and stepped on the gas.

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