A Walk on The Beach with Al Unser Jr.
Words: David Barr
In sports there are certain matchups that benefit one over another. In baseball, some hitters have success off particular pitchers. In basketball there are teams that some players look forward to playing against because the matchup is one that they like. In INDYCAR, that is far rarer but in the case of legendary driver Al Unser Jr. and Long Beach no one ever owned a track more or in a more dominant fashion.
In a span from 1986-1996, the King of the Beach stood on the podium an amazing nine times, winning the race six times in eight years (including four consecutive times from 1988-1991). The six victories are the most by any INDYCAR driver in the circuit’s history.
“It was just one of those lucky tracks. There are some race tracks where the ball just bounces your way and it seemed to be that Long Beach was that track for me. It was something that I really felt Long Beach was important in the aspect that generally it was the last race before the Indy 500 and I really felt that race was really key for the team and that if we could win that race, then we could go into the month of May on a real high.”
That combined focus and determination gave huge amounts of confidence that trickled down to everyone on the team. Proof of this comes in the fact that in all the opportunities that Unser had to run at The Beach – he only sat on the pole two times.
“Everybody on the team, the sponsor, the crew, the owner, myself, everybody on the team knew that we can win. Knew that we could, we could beat these guys on a on any given day. And so, they didn’t just think it, they knew it. I really felt that race was important in that reason and I really tried hard at Long Beach to make it happen and then it just kind of fit my style. You know, for some reason the street circuits were where I excelled and honestly, I don’t know why, but it was really both Michael (Andretti) and myself. Michael has six victories at Toronto and as far as Toronto was concerned, it was kind of funny because there was a time span there that if Michael won the race, I ran second. If I won the race, Michael ran second. We were we’re pretty good on the street circuits.”
That rivalry with the Andretti’s – born out of friendship – lasted many years on the track and has continued off it today. But that story rolls back to both of their fathers and how much Unser Jr. wanted to begin cementing his legacy by beating Mario.
“As far as the friendship, it started when Mario and my dad were teammates in the early 70s and Michael and I kind of grew up at the tracks together. It started at a way younger age. Mario was into snowmobiles, my dad was into snowmobiles, so even during the winter, there was a couple times that that we would snowmobile together and that sort of thing. But yeah, I mean, Mario was the man at Long Beach and I remember I concentrated on Mario big time because he was the man at Long Beach and so I’m waiting for him in practice just to follow him just find out where he was quicker and then where I was quicker than him which was not very often. So, once I kind of watched the way he attacked the place then I started really emulating him and when I was successful at that – that’s when I had my run.”
The importance of Long Beach and its history extends way past the “March to May”. The southern California market has a growing base of sponsors, like this week’s lead partner for Harding Steinbrenner Racing at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach – King Taco as well as two greats associate sponsors in the Southern California Acura Dealers and CrowdStrike. Young drivers around the series grew up there like Colton Herta and a fanbase that continues to multiply.
“We were really happy to be racing at Long Beach. That first year was 1984 and my rookie year in INDYCAR was 1983. Before the Long Beach Grand Prix, it was the Ontario 500 and it was the Southern California 500. When Ontario closed, there was a hole, but it was temporarily filled at Riverside and the California 500 where I raced in in 1982 and 83. Then the Southern California race became Long Beach in 1984 and has been there ever since. So really, if there’s a father of street circuit racing, it would be Monaco and if there’s a mother, then the mom is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. I consider Long Beach, the second most popular race in INDYCAR racing, the first being the Indy 500. Long Beach is an international market because of the Southern California connection. and the Formula 1 and all that. So, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach has a lot of tradition. It has a lot of heritage. It’s 45 years old for God’s sake this year and that’s 45 years in a row which is so uncommon – way uncommon for a street circuit.”
When you win six races at one course there are some fond memories.
“Each one was a unique race. The first one in 1988, I started third and I was leading it by the completion of lap one and I never looked back. In 1989 I was super quick there and then at the end of the race Mario made a quick stop – splash and go and he didn’t take any tires. He got in front of me and then started defending really well and I accidentally ran into the back of him because we came up on lap traffic. I was so immersed in trying to pass Mario that I didn’t see the cars in front of him and they checked up, they stopped, and I ran right into the back of him and knocked him out of the lead and knocked one of my wings off. We were so far out in front that I finished the remaining six or seven laps without a front wing. Then in 1990 it was just another one where everything went just right. During practice whatever changes we made the car went faster. It was just one of those races where everything kind of fell my way … until 1992. I was leading with four to go and my teammate Danny Sullivan, spins me out. That was upsetting because that would have been five in a row. I ended up finishing fourth that day. In 1994, that was my first year with Penske. You know, at that time, it was my third race with Roger, and none of his driver’s had ever won that quick. I won for Roger in 94’ and then came back and did it again and 95’ It was just a good run in all of those races. What can I say?”
Unser has been immortalized often at The Beach. In 2009, he was placed into the circuit’s Walk of Fame (Colton’s father Bryan was also given the honor in 2015). This year’s return to Long Beach is special for Unser as he will serve as the honorary starter.
“It’s going to be fun. King Taco is one of the race sponsors and so we’re going to be wearing the King Taco banner and for me to be a part of the team and being able to be the official starter is a real honor. It’s going to be great. We’re going to have a great time like we always do at Long Beach.”
Regarding the 2019 edition of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Unser says advice to Colton has been minimal.
“Honestly, not really. Colton is such a natural talent. I feel that we’re going to do well because not because of my past wins at Long Beach, but because Colton ran so good at St. Pete this year. St. Pete is a street circuit and he knows how to get around the street circuits and so we’re going to unload at Long Beach feeling really good because we had a great setup on the car and Colton did a great job at St. Pete. We’ll see what happens.”