Fittipaldi crash gift-wraps Unser's Indy win

May 30, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- It had been a quiet moment, a father and son talk. Al Unser Jr. asked his father, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Sr., what he wanted for his birthday.

"All I want is for you to win the race," said Big Al, who retired as a driver last week and turned 55 yesterday. "That would be the best present I could get."

When Al Jr. climbed out of his race car in victory lane at the end of the 78th Indianapolis 500, the first person he saw was his father.

"Happy birthday, Dad," he said, delivering a broad smile and a hug.

The victory came in the Marlboro Penske powered by the Mercedes-Benz engine. The stock-block engine took advantage of a loophole in the rules to achieve an estimated 150-300 horsepower advantage that turned 31 other cars into little more than background.

The two Penske cars of Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi dominated here. They led all but seven of the 200 laps.

Unser averaged 160.872 mph for an 8.6-second victory over rookie Jacques Villeneuve, who was running in his fourth IndyCar race.

The victory margin for the Penske team would have been much bigger if Fittipaldi, who led 145 laps and was ahead of Unser by 44.4 seconds, hadn't crashed with 16 laps to go and handed the win to Little Al.

"I looked in my mirror and saw Emerson hit the wall, and felt bad for him -- for about a second," said Unser. "When he passed me a few laps earlier, I almost went headfirst into the wall. I had run up on slower cars just before Emmo passed me, and when you run up on the back of another car -- like I did and like Emmo did on me -- it sucks all the air away and you lose all your down force. I was lucky, but he got out too far and the old vacuum cleaner got him."

Just 75 laps into the race, there were only three cars left on the lead lap: the Penskes of Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. and Villeneuve's Player's LTD Forsythe-Green Ford.

"You couldn't really race against the Mercedes," said Villeneuve. "I knew, after Emerson went out, that I couldn't fight for the win with Little Al.

"With guys everywhere around me, I preferred not to take risks and backed off. I just wanted to make it to the finish."

It was Little Al's second 500 triumph and the 10th in Roger Penske's career as a car owner here.

But for nearly all of the afternoon, this race belonged to Fittipaldi, who had lapped everyone, including Unser, by Lap 181.

But Little Al unlapped himself two laps later, and then disaster struck.

Just 16 laps from the finish line, with everything seemingly in control, Fittipaldi took a last run at lapping Little Al, moved too close, got caught up in the turbulence and hit the wall.

He sat defeated alongside the track, rubbing his fists into his eyes in frustration.

Afterward, he was asked whether, having achieved such a large lead, he shouldn't have driven more conservatively and been content to maintain his lead rather than attempt to put Unser a lap down.

But Fittipaldi, who drives every lap as if it is the last one, didn't appear to understand the question.

"I was just about a half-foot too low," he said. "I hit the apron, but I was just about hitting the apron on every corner anyway."

In 1989, Fittipaldi and Unser had come through this same turn side-by-side when the two had touched. Little Al smashed into the outside wall and watched as Fittipaldi earned his first 500 victory.

"I didn't have any flashbacks until Dad and I were in the pace car, taking the victory lap," said Little Al.

"When we came through Turn 4, I pointed to where Emmo had hit the wall, and Dad said, 'See, it comes back to you at this place.' "

This is the second time that a driver in his first year with the Penske team has won this race. Danny Sullivan did it in 1985.

"The Indy 500 is what I love more than anything," said Little Al. "The first one, I always said I just wanted to win it once, was very special. Now, this one, winning for this team, is special, too.

"My Uncle Bobby won his last race with the Penske team and my Dad won with them twice. They always said if I had a chance to go with Roger, I should go. All Roger had to do was breathe in my direction, but he did more than that. He created a third team just for me and gave me a car that won Indianapolis. I'm very grateful."

Yesterday marked the first time in the race's history that a stock-block engine won here.

But to Little Al, it was the family portrait that mattered most.

"I wasn't here when my dad won in 1970 or in 1971," he said. "In 1978, I was a sophomore in high school and had started racing sprint cars. I thought I walked on water, and when Dad went to Indy, I convinced him not to get me a baby sitter. Then when he left, I ditched school for a week. When he found out, he took my sprint car away, grounded me and wouldn't let me come to Indy -- which he won.

"When he won the last time, in 1987, I was a competitor. And when I won in 1992, he was.

"So I never saw victory lane with Dad the way my son did today, and Dad wasn't able to be there waiting for me the last time I won."

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