Fifty years ago today, Al Unser’s life changed in a way he could never have imagined a few years earlier.
“When I came to Indianapolis as a rookie (in 1965) they tried to throw me out,” recalls the four-time Indy 500 winner. “Harlan Fengler (chief steward) was not going to let me take my test because I only had one Champ Car race and one dirt race under my belt.
“But Rodger Ward was the driver’s rep, and he went in and argued for me, and Fengler finally agreed to let me try. But he called me in his office and told me if I made one mistake, he would send me home instantly.”
By 1968 though, Unser was one of USAC’s newest stars, and on May 30, 1970 he drove into Victory Lane at IMS for the first time after one of the most dominating victories on record. Now, he’s being honored with a Baby Borg trophy by the BorgWarner Company.
“It’s a neat thing, for sure, and unbelievable to still be here,” said the 81-year-old legend. “I’m honored to get it, and want to thank BorgWarner for remembering us old guys.”
Unser will receive the trophy this summer at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.
Unser’s career rocketed to the top in 1968 when he joined master mechanic George Bignotti and scored five consecutive victories. He broke his leg in May of 1969 and missed three months, but came back in August and knocked off five wins to still take second in points.
“I got along with rear-engine cars but George was the best thing I could have hoped for at that stage of my career,” says Unser. “He had a way about him that nobody understood, but he very clever and surrounded himself with good people, and it was a great team.
“We’d run a Lola in 1968 and 1969 and it was a good car, but George had some ideas. He wanted to strengthen the tub in certain areas and make it larger to carry more fuel. It held less than 75 gallons, so he made a side tank for 1970 and then some little suspension tweaks.”
Unser captured the 1970 season-opener at Phoenix in his new Colt chassis with Ford power, but didn’t know it was going to be such a dominant combination.
“I don’t think anyone ever thinks that,” he says. “You always want that edge, but you don’t know you’ve got it until the race is over. We knew beforehand if everything went good we had an advantage. And winning Phoenix told us we had a strong team and a good chance at Indy.”
‘A good chance’ turned out to be total domination as Big Al led 190 of 200 laps after winning the pole position in his Johnny Lightning Special. “I never knew I was going to dominate and I’m still surprised, but that car was really, really good – especially that day at Indianapolis,” he says.
By season’s end Unser had amassed 10 wins and taken the USAC title by almost 3,000 points over brother Bobby. He would go on to triumph again the following May, and added two more in 1978 and 1987. And now he’s being rewarded with a miniature copy of one of the most famous trophies in sports, and BorgWarner seems as pleased as Unser.
“It’s important for us to keep that tradition going, and it’s very humbling to call the drivers and hear the emotion in their voices when we tell them they’re getting a Baby Borg,” said Michelle Collins, director marketing and public relations at BorgWarner. “We see how much it means to them, and we’re honored to be a small part of the greatest race in the world.”
This is the 30th-straight year that sculptor Will Behrends has put the winner’s likeness on the BorgWarner trophy, and Unser’s will be the third retro Baby Borg.
“The thrill of this year is that I watched Al win Indy on the Wide World of Sports and then I got to meet him last May in Indianapolis,” said Behrends, who has created 30 of the 34 images at the base of the BW trophy from his studio in Tryon, N.C.
“I don’t think it could get any better to do images of my childhood heroes like Parnelli, Mario and Big Al. I love doing it.”