Motor Racing: Racing destiny of the Unser dynasty: Toni Toomey on the latest in a long line of Indy 500 champions who have emerged from the same family

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The Independent Online
'YOU just don't know what Indy means,' a tearful Al Unser Jnr said from the victory circle at the 1992 Indianapolis 500. Unser knows what it means. His grandfather, his great uncle and another uncle all died here. His uncle, Bobby Unser, won the Indy 500 three times, and his father, Al Unser, is one of only three people to win it four times.

'They quit giving me a hard time for about a day after I finally won it,' Unser joked. Before that they would say, 'Well, you haven't won Indy yet'. Then they started saying, 'Well, you've only won Indy once'.'

When Al Junior and his wife, Shelley, built a fireplace in their master bedroom, he wanted a large indentation on the hearth. It had to be a particular size. 'When I asked why,' Shelly Unser recalls, 'he said, 'It's for my Borg-Warner' (the replica of the metre-high trophy that stays in the Hall of Fame museum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). Unser got his Borg-Warner, and now he wants another.

Bobby Unser and Al Senior both won the Indy 500 in Penske colors. Al Junior's first Indy victory - the closest finish recorded - came driving a Galmer chassis for Rick Galles. When he was offered the ride by Roger Penske, Unser said, 'I asked my dad, and he said 'Take it]'

'This is a dream come true for me,' Unser said. 'Roger Penske wins because of hard work. I have never seen a team work so hard.

'We all work together, help each other share our set-ups, but when the green flag drops we go racing. But if there is a problem they immediately get on the radio and let us know.

'In Long Beach, when Emerson (Fittipaldi) had a problem with his gearbox they got on the radio and told me to watch fourth and fifth gear.'

Unser said that the driving styles of his two team-mates are similar enough to his for information on set-ups, tyres and handling to be useful for all of them.

In an emotional press conference, early in May, Al Unser Snr announced his retirement from the cockpit. 'I am not leaving racing,' a teaful Unser Snr said, 'but when you have given 100 per cent and you know what that is like, then you know when you can't give 100 per cent.' He said he knew it was time to retire 'when I saw my boy qualify on the pole'.

Unser Snr said that in fact he has won the Indy 500 five times, 'because my boy won it'. Mario Andretti has said the same about his son Michael's wins: 'It's like I won.'

The recent lineage of Unsers is not hard to track. There's Uncle Bobby, then Big Al Snr, Little Al Jnr, and mini Al Unser III. As the baton passes to the new generation, and Unser III has begun racing go-karts, the 'Little' has been passed to him, and 'Junior' has become just plain Al.

The closest Unser came to winning the Indy 500 before he finally made it was in 1989. 'Everyone told me I could do it, but that's when I started believing it.' Emerson Fittipaldi had dominated the race but a stop for a full tank of fuel gave Unser, on lighter tanks, the opportunity to hunt him down. On lap 198 the two were wheel to wheel with nowhere to go. The tap put Unser into the wall and gave Emerson his first Indy 500 victory.

No one would have criticized either driver for claiming the other had been overly aggressive, but no such diatribe ensued. In fact, Unser exited his disabled car as quickly as he could, and brushing aside concerned medics he strode to the edge of the track to give Fittipaldi the now-famous double thumbs-up. Fittipaldi said, 'I saw he made a sign at me, I wasn't sure what it was but I was very relieved to see his was okay.'

Unser explained: 'I wanted him to know I was alright so he could enjoy his win.'

(Photograph omitted)