Al Unser reflects on the Triple Crown, now that it’s back in IndyCar

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Within IZOD IndyCar Series circles, chances are you’ve heard the legend “Big Al” Unser’s name more than normal the last several weeks.

Unser is the first – and thus far only – driver to have claimed IndyCar’s “Triple Crown.” He did so 35 years ago, and the focus is on his legacy and Tony Kanaan, in his quest to emulate Unser’s feat if he can win the second leg of the Fuzzy’s Vodka Triple Crown at Pocono Raceway this weekend.

Unser reflected on his record-setting season in a Fuzzy’s advance ahead of this weekend’s Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco.

“Winning them all was a great gift,” Unser said. “We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three. Jim Hall was really happy and the whole team was, too. In each one of those races I didn’t think I had a chance of winning. We figured we had a chance of competing up front. You know, winning, oh man. We were not happy with that Lola. Then all of all of a sudden, like at Indy, I looked up at the board and we were in the race. Ontario was the same way.

“I didn’t think we’d be all that competitive even though we won Indy and Pocono,” he added. “And we pulled it off between Jim (Hall), Huey (Absalom), Franz (Weis) and the whole team. At Pocono, we gambled by not changing tires. We took a big chance and it paid off. You never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who’s going to win. And we just did it the right thing time times that year. I got a ring that said I was a Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000. I know for sure we didn’t get a million dollars.”

Unser can’t – but Kanaan can if he wins all three. Unser expanded on what it meant for IndyCar to bring back the Triple Crown for 2013.

“I give INDYCAR credit for bringing back the Triple Crown,” Unser said. “You know it used to be three 500-mile races and over the years the tracks and track distances changed. In the beginning it was three 2½-mile tracks. Then we lost Ontario and raced at Michigan that was 2 miles so we had to run 250 laps. I am glad it’s back and maybe in the future they can make Pocono 500 miles to keep it all 500-mile races across the board. This is a start, a positive start.”

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994