Friday, February 14, 2014

The Unser Racing Museum

In a museum in Albuquerque, a replica race car sits on a revolving platform. It is the centerpiece of the museum. It tells a story of a driver that was not invited to participate, a car that was not even near the race track days before the Indianapolis 500 was to begin, and a strange set of circumstances in a record-setting race.

With apologies to Don Wildman of the television series Mysteries at the Museum, we return to the spring of 1987:

“For the 1987 season, Penske Racing cut Al Unser, Sr., opting instead to employ the services of Danny Ongais. Unser had come to Indy in May expecting to get a ride with a new team. But when the deal fell through, the 47-year-old veteran was left walking the garage area like so many other jobless drivers.

“Then, when Danny Ongais wrecked one of Roger Penske's Ilmore-Chevrolet-powered cars during practice May 7, suffering a concussion that put him out of the 500, Roger Penske once again turned to Al Sr. for help.

“With the primary car destroyed, Penske Racing scrambled to produce a backup car, ultimately pulling a 1986 March Cosworth Indy Car from a display at the Sheraton Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. With little time and insufficient funding to prepare the year-old car, few at Penske expected much from Al Sr., but all knew that the veteran driver would take his best shot at winning the race.
"With 23 laps remaining, Al Sr. found himself in third position, behind race leader Mario Andretti and second-place Roberto Guerrero. Then, the Andretti curse struck, and Mario slowed on the track’s front stretch, taken out of the race by a faulty fuel metering device. That left Guerrero in the lead and Unser trailing, but Guerrero had one final pit stop to make, and had already destroyed his clutch on an earlier pit stop.
"When Guerrero entered the pits, it seemed like a normal stop; exiting the pits, however, Guerrero stalled the car twice, and the resulting 69-second stop was enough to give Unser the lead on lap 182. It seemed like a certain victory until Mario Andretti’s car, hastily repaired, stalled on track and produced a yellow flag on lap 192. When the race was restarted on lap 196, both Unser and Guerrero were on the lead lap, but Unser quickly pulled away from his rival, determined to capture a fourth Indy 500 win. As the closing laps ticked by, Unser stretched his lead on Guerrero, ultimately crossing the finish line nearly 4.5 seconds ahead of the second-place car. At age 47 years and 360 days, Al Unser Sr. had become the oldest driver to win the Indy 500, a record that stands to this day.
"At the end of the race, only 11 of the 33 cars that started the race were still running. Mario Andretti, who had led for 170 laps, finished ninth" (

This car and driver stand as reminders to be ready to answer the door when opportunity knocks.

The Unser Racing Museum chronicles the racing history of the Unser family.

Immigrating from Switzerland, their father Louis and mother Marie eventually settled in Colorado Springs, raising a family by the nearby mountain Pike's Peak. In September of 1915, Louis rode a motorcycle and sidecar to the summit of Pike's Peak, a mountain previously declared to be unscalable.

In 1916 a mineral tycoon named Spencer Penrose completed a dirt road to the summit—the highest thoroughfare in the world at the time—and decided to celebrate his achievement with a race. Thus began the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, the country's second-oldest motor race after the Indianapolis 500 (first run in 1911). The course—12.42 miles long and rising 4,708 feet from its starting point, more than halfway up the mountain—contains 156 turns, some hanging over nearly sheer drops of hundreds of feet. None of the turns are protected by guardrails, or even by dirt curbs.
#58 driven by Jerry Unser in the 1958 Hill Climb

Pikes Peak is also known as Unser Mountain. In the 50 climbs that have been held since Louis Unser first won, in 1934, seven Unsers have won 30 class championships. Three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser, Louis's nephew, leads the clan in Pikes Peak victories with 13.
#56 driven by 22-year-old Al Unser in the 1961 Hill Climb

1963 Kurtis KK 500K Novi Hotel Tropicana Las Vegas Special Roadster

"The Novi was ahead of its time in many ways. Ed and Bud Winfield designed and built a 181-cubic-inch supercharged VS engine in 1938, and it was then arguably the most advanced piston engine in the world" (
2001 Starz Superpak G-force

#31 1994 Indy car, driven by Al, Jr. who won his second 500

PJ Colt Johnny Lightning Special, won Indy and national championship in 1970

#56 2001 Legends Car, 5/8-scale

In the International Race of Champtions (IROC), drivers from a broad range of racing disciplines raced identically-prepared stock cars set up by a single team of mechanics in an effort to make the race purely a test of driver ability. The last non-NASCAR champion of the series was Al Unser, Jr. in 1988.
IROC car, Dodge Avenger, "Pink Panther" 1994, driven by Al, Jr.

Other displays in the museum showed some engines,
Offenhauser, 1968, 159 Turbo

Cosworth 2.65 liter


and quilts. Jeanetta Holder, of Avon, Indiana, has been making a quilt for the winner of the 500 every year for over 30 years. As the drivers arrive for the preparations for the Indy 500, she obtains their autographs on quilt squares, embroiders the signatures, and puts the finishing touches on the quilt, which is presented to the winner at the post-race banquet. The Unsers have four of her quilts on display.
1987 winner Al Unser

Detail on 1987 quilt

1994 winner Al Unser, Jr.

1992 winner Al Unser, Jr.

1978 winner Al Unser

There is still one more room in the museum.