A Big Name in Racing: “Little Al”
The 2019 campaign of the NTT Indycar Series kicks off on March 10 in St. Petersburg, Florida, and in advance of the racing season, we spoke with Al Unser, Jr., the two-time CART Indycar champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. More than a decade after he retired from driving, “Little Al” is enjoying his mostly-behind-the-scenes role in Indycar racing.
Everyone who follows racing knows the story of Al Unser, Jr. The son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, Sr., he was nicknamed “Little Al” even before he arrived on the racing stage. A prominent, and perhaps controversial figure in his very first Indy 500, he went on to become a fan favorite, winning the 500 twice and claiming victories in racing disciplines as diverse as the Pikes Peak hill climb and the 24 Hours of Daytona. A second nickname, “King of the Beach,” was bestowed upon him for his successes at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
Part of a racing family that can claim nine Indianapolis 500 victories, and with 34 overall Indycar wins to his personal credit, Al Unser, Jr., rightly occupies a prominent position among racing’s greats.
Personal and professional challenges late in his racing career threatened to tarnish his reputation, but Unser overcame these troubles and retained the respect of his racing colleagues and the admiration of his fans.
“Little Al,” who many of us still see as the baby-faced kid who did or did not block Tom Sneva in the 1983 Indy race, turns 57 years old in 2019. Quietly and without fanfare, he has settled in as a key part of Harding Steinbrenner Racing, which is entering the 2019 season as a new organization with new driving talent.
Harding Steinbrenner Racing was formed during the off-season by a partnership between Harding Racing, led by Mike Harding, and Steinbrenner Racing, led by George Michael Steinbrenner IV. Mike Harding is the owner and CEO of the Harding Group, an asphalt and concrete contractor based in Indianapolis. George Michael Steinbrenner IV is the grandson of the late New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner III, and his uncle, Hal Steinbrenner, is managing general partner of the Yankees. Another uncle, Chris Simmons, is an engineer on Chip Ganassi Racing’s IndyCar team, and a cousin, Tony Renna, raced in the Indycar series before losing his life during a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003.
Veteran Indycar insider Brian Barnhart serves as the Team President, and initially, the driver lineup for 2019 was to be Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta. O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, will mark just his 20th birthday this year, while Colton Herta, son of four-time Indycar race winner Bryan Herta, is even younger, turning 19 in March. O’Ward captured the 2018 Indy Lights driver’s championship and Herta finished second.
Herta already has a 2019 race victory to his credit, having been one of the team drivers for the winning GT Le Mans class entry at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. En route to the win, Herta set the fastest lap of the race in GT Le Mans in what was his first-ever GT race.
Unser’s somewhat flashy title of “Executive Consultant” with the team stands in contrast to his aw-shucks demeanor, and he describes his responsibilities for the team as “wearing many hats.” He is, of course, a mentor to the team’s drivers, which at the time we spoke with Unser were O’Ward and Herta – more on that in a minute – but Unser is involved with virtually every aspect of the team’s operation.
“I consult with the mechanics, I consult with the team as it tries to get sponsorship, I consult with Mike Harding himself because he is so new to owning a team, I consult with the engineers. I’m here to try to share my experience in racing with everybody involved, to try to make the team a better team.”
How is the team shaping up for 2019? “We haven’t signed a major sponsor yet, but we have a lot of irons in the fire and it is looking really good.” Alas, Unser’s optimism in the first week of February was not borne out by developments in the days following our conversation. Funding issues made it not possible for the team to have two cars ready for pre-season testing, and just weeks before the opening race at St. Petersburg it was announced that O’Ward was released from his contract so that he could pursue other opportunities. The bottom-line issue in O’Ward’s departure was that lack of sponsorship for his car.
Team President Brian Barnhart told the media that “things haven’t developed as quickly and successfully as we’d hoped since the partnership was formed, and it’s not for a lack of trying. We have a lot of discussions and a lot of proposals out; it’s a slow-moving process, but we’re still full steam ahead.”
Unser had been pleased with the O’Ward and Herta matchup, telling us that the team had “the top two, the best young talent out there.” During our conversation, Unser said that “We’re expecting great things in 2019,” so he has to be disappointed that the pairing could not be maintained.
Despite the unfortunate news concerning O’Ward, the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team was in a far more favorable spotlight when the Indycar Series’ “Spring Training” took place on the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, February 12-13, shortly after we spoke with Unser. Herta, now the team’s sole driver, was the fastest driver in three of the four test sessions and recorded the fastest overall lap time of the two-day testing session. Herta’s best lap was a 1:46.6258 for an average speed of 115.132 mph on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile COTA road course.
The only session in which Herta was not the fastest was the final session, when Alexander Rossi logged what proved to be the second fastest overall time of the pre-season test. So Unser’s optimism for the team, even when diminished by one, remains well-founded.
Unser doesn’t deny the personal and professional difficulties that bedeviled him toward the end of his driving career, but at this stage, he’s far happier to discuss everything that is going well for him. “It’s all old history,” he says of the dark times, and tells instead of how as a native of Albuquerque he’s now made a home in Avon, Indiana, just a 15-minute drive from the Harding Steinbrenner Racing HQ in the appropriately named town of Speedway. Cheerfully he relates that his mother lives just a mile away and that he visits her for morning coffee most days. There is palpable happiness in Unser’s voice as he speaks of these little details of life.
But even though he no longer competes as a professional racing driver, Al Unser, Jr., remains active on the track. In recent years he has participated in the Long Beach Pro/Celebrity charity race and in the Indy Legends Charity Pro/Am race at Indianapolis. Also at Indianapolis, “Little Al” has driven parade laps in historic Indy Cars. This August, he will be a guest at the Classic Racing Times’ 2019 Vintage Celebration at Pocono during the Indycar weekend, where he will be signing autographs and, if the organizers can convince him, driving at least one vintage Indy machine in exhibition laps on the 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle.”
It shouldn’t take much convincing. “I don’t know if I’ll be actually driving a car,” Unser said. “Gary [Mondschein, organizer of the event] has asked me to, but I don’t know. Maybe.” But he then continued: “Chances are that I am going to get in one and drive it.”
The underlying message was clear. Unser was not in a position to make a commitment to driving a car at Pocono, but he’d like to do it.
We also asked Unser about his first Indy 500, in 1983. It was a memorable race because as a rookie he ran very well and was credited with a tenth-place finish in the official rundown. But late in the race, Unser found himself between the race leader – his father – and challenger (and eventual race winner) Tom Sneva.
In the live television broadcast of the race, commentators Jim McKay and Sam Posey discussed at length whether “Little Al” might be blocking to help his father. Fellow commentator Jackie Stewart said that Unser, Jr., was “being a wee bit naughty.” Asked in the minutes following the race if he was trying to obstruct Sneva, “Little Al” said, “That’s what I was trying to do.” But he went on to say that “I wasn’t blocking Sneva,” that he was only trying to “mess up” Sneva. “If I could help Dad win the race I was going to.”
All these years later, Al Unser, Jr’s, explanation remains unchanged. “I wanted my Dad to with the race,” he told us, “so I got between him and Tom Sneva. It’s the Indy 500. I wanted my Dad to win.” Categorically denying that he was blocking, Little Al told us that “If I was blocking for my Dad, my Dad would have won the race. I wasn’t blocking, but I was making it as hard as possible for Tom.”
Unfortunately for the Unsers that day, Al Senior’s car was not as fast late in the race as it had been earlier, and Sneva was able to pass both father and son and go on to claim the victory. But Al Unser, Sr., would win the Indy 500 for the fourth time in 1987 and Al Unser, Jr., would win in both 1992 and 1994. At the time of “Little Al’s” 1992 win, he was asked in victory lane why he seemed close to tears and he spoke an emotionally-charged line that remains one of the iconic quotes surrounding the Greatest Spectacle in Racing:
“You just don’t know what Indy means.”
The NTT Indycar Series’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg takes the green flag at 1:30 PM on Sunday, March 10. Tickets remain available and the race will be broadcast on NBCSN.