The 1987 Indianapolis 500 was an upset win, but not concerning the talent the eventual winner possessed.
Sure, Al Unser, Sr. had won at the Brickyard three times, but 30 years ago things were different. Despite winning the CART Championship in 1985, Roger Penske released Big Al after the 1986 season. With Unser out, the Captain filled his seat with veteran Danny Ongais. In addition to the inclusion of the Flyin’ Hawaiian, the squad chose to run its own chassis, the Penske PC-16. The in-house design coupled with a developing Chevrolet-Ilmor engine were off the pace when practice open.
One driver that figured out the new GM power plant is Newman-Haas Racing’s Mario Andretti. The 1969 winner is fast during the opening week and easily snatched the pole position.
Unable to post a competitive time with his own car, Roger Penske reverts to the familiar March chassis. Rick Mears immediately joins the chase upfront and qualifies on the outside of the front row. After a slow four-lap average with the PC-16, Sullivan also moves to the March and posts a safer speed. Ongais however, is unable to join in the party. The veteran crashes two days before Pole Day and suffers a concussion with doctors not clearing him to participate for the rest of the month.
With one place in his operation open, Penske calls on Unser, who has been on the sidelines for the first week supporting his son’s effort at Shierson Racing.
“Penske called me if I would run the car and I said, ‘Heck yes,‘“ Unser told IMS Productions. “I didn’t have to take a second guess about it because that is a team capable of winning.”
Even the team owner understood the reasoning behind the three-time champion’s decision to wait for the best opportunity.
“The thing about Unser was he wasn’t going to drive anything that was not a decent car,” said Penske. “He would certainly be the first guy you would call.”
With the deal in place, there was still a problem – what car would Unser drive? Ongais had destroyed the PC-16, and the organization was low on Chevy engines. Penske did have access to another year-old March chassis that was equipped with a Cosworth engine, which was being utilized as a show car, on display in the lobby of a Sheraton hotel in Pennsylvania. After retrieving the machine and bringing it to Indianapolis, Unser qualified solidly on the second weekend in 20th.
Unser’s shot to win his fourth Indy 500 still seemed like a long shot when the green flag flew on race day, especially with the way Andretti was running. The No. 5 Hanna Auto Wash Chevrolet crushed the competition through the first 450 miles, leading 170 circuits and building a one-lap advantage on second-place Roberto Guerrero. As attrition began to eliminate the rest of the field, Unser quietly became a factor running a solid third.
Suddenly, Andretti’s car slowed to a halt with electrical problems ending his quest for a second Indy win. Guerrero took over first, but the Colombian required a splash of fuel to make the finish. When the Vince Granatelli Racing pilot completed his pit stop, he stalled out. and for a moment the No. 4 True Value Cosworth laid stranded on the pit lane with his crew not realizing the situation.
The two mishaps in only four laps vaulted Big Al to the number one position with just 18 laps to go. Even a late caution period could not prevent the No. 25 Hertz Special from reaching the checkered flag first. Guerrero recovered from his pit road malady to take runner-up honors, while Italian newcomer Fabrizio Barbazza finished third to secure Rookie of the Year.
The victory allowed Unser to join A.J. Foyt as a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, a feat that would be repeated in 1991 when his Penske teammate Rick Mears outlasted Michael Andretti to win from the pole position.
“It’s nice to be able to win four, and I’m very grateful (of that),” said Unser. “(Indy) is hard, it has a finesse to it to where there are many excuses for being unable to win it, you are lucky to be able to win it once.”
Stay tuned to POPULAR SPEED during the month of May for more memories on the road to the 101st Indianapolis 500.
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