Wednesday, May 29, 2024

1971 – Al Unser Wheels Racer into Victory Lane


Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser is interviewed by Chris Economaki in victory lane. – Steve Manning Collection

Indianapolis, Ind. (May 29, 1971) – Al Unser, charging through a myriad of wrecks and mess of racing confusion, rode his Johnny Lightning Special to victory in the 500-mile auto race Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a record speed of 157.735 miles per hour.

Unser’s triumph, for the second straight year, came after a stunning crash as the race began, when the pace car skidded sideways down the pit apron and into the photographer’s stand at the end of the homestretch. Twenty persons were injured, one of them seriously.

Unser, who celebrated his 32nd birthday with his victory, was the first driver to win the fabled race consecutive years since the ill-fated Bill Vukovich won in 1953 and 1954 – and then was killed on the track while leading the race in 1955.

Unser, who will probably earn $280,000 of a record purse estimated at 1.1 million, paced the field for the final 82 laps of the 200 which made the distance, taking over from Joe Leonard on the 118th turn of the 2.5-mile track.

It was the fifth time Unser had moved in front of the chase, run before some 300,000 spectators in great racing weather, a temperature in the low 70’s with the sun modified by light breezes.

The race, with the drivers ignorant of the pace car crash, started fast and ended fast. In between with the four yellow caution light on four times for 53 minutes, the speedsters slowed to 125 miles per hour, more than 50 miles per hour below their usual pace.

There was no slowdown when the pace car, driven by astronaut John Glenn and speedway owner Tony Hulman, slewed into the stands. The racing field got away with a burst as ambulances carted away injured spectators to the infield hospital.

Mark Donohue, who missed a record 181 miles per hour in trials by a clock’s tick, swooped by pole sitter Peter Revson on the first lap and he was going a record 166.359 miles per hour on the first lap when Denis Hulme spun on the second lap and the yellow flag waved.

The field didn’t get back to the record speed until 180 laps were completed and Al Unser was clocked at 157.844 miles per hour.

Donohue, driving one of four new British-designed M16 McLaren cars, seemed about to run off with the race as he led the first 50 laps. Then he had to stop for fuel, yielding the lead to Leonard, who in turn gave way to Bobby Unser before Donohue took charge again on the 65th lap.

Then luck ran out for Donohue. Something went wrong in the gearing, and he spun in the northwest turn. What happened to him could have been the tale of the fabulous McLarens, which dominated qualifying runs.

Gordon Johncock, driving a year old McLaren, got involved in a four-car pileup on the northeast turn which put Johncock, Mel Kenyon, Steve Krisiloff, and Mario Andretti out of the race.

Hulme kept his new McLaren in the running, despite the early spin, until he had gone 137 laps and then mechanical trouble put him out of action. Only Peter Revson managed to keep a McLaren running, and he finished second.

Unser’s victory was the third for the family at the same site which has brought tragedy to them, the death of brother Jerry in a racing accident. But Bobby won the race in 1968 followed up by Al’s back-to-back wins.

Results –

1. Al Unser
2. Peter Revson
3. A.J. Foyt
4. Bill Vukovich Jr.
5. Jim Malloy
6. Donnie Allison
7. Bud Tinglestad
8. Roger McCluskey
9. Denny Zimmerman
10.Gary Bettenhausen
11.Lloyd Ruby
12.Bobby Unser
13.Mike Mosley
14.Dick Simon
15.George Follmer
16.Cale Yarborough
17.Denis Hulme
18.Johnny Rutherford
19.Joe Leonard
20.David Hobbs
21.Rick Muther
22.Bob Harkey
23.Bentley Warren
24.Wally Dallenbach
25.Mark Donohue
26.Art Pollard
27.Sam Sessions
28.Larry Dickson
29.Mario Andretti
30.Gordon Johncock
31.Steve Krisiloff
32.Mel Kenyon
33.George Snider

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