Here's what the son did for his father. Al Unser Jr. cheated. They caught him. Then he tried to help Dad win by driving in front of a faster car to keep it from catching the old man. Motor racing etiquette accepts such behavior, as decreed by Mr. Anthony Joseph Foyt when he said, "Like hell I'll move over to let that poet pass." (Not in those exact words.)
Anyway, ol' Dad Unser, on his 44th birthday, was driving down the street about 200 miles per hour with Junior tagging along behind when what does Junior see? He sees bad news in his rear view. There's a guy back there with a star on his car and the guy wants around to flag down Dad. So what does Junior do?
Al Unser Jr. did what his genes made him do. He went racing. He seems an innocent Huck Finn with that red hair, cute button nose and freckles. You want to buy him two dips of strawberry. Huck Finn would have waved Tom Sneva around. But when your dad is a racer and his dad was a racer and your uncle is a racer and your granddad's two brothers were racers, you don't wave anything but bye-bye.
A racer takes his best shot, even if it's slightly illegal and borderline suicidal, and hopes nobody notices until he's out of town. Between accusations and imprecations against youth, Tom Sneva gave his respects to Al Unser Jr.: "The kid's gonna be a racer."
The illegality came when Al Jr. passed Al Sr. and Sneva during a caution period. He had this idea. He slowed down, let Dad go by and slipped in front of Sneva. He was gone from the track when the bigwigs penalized him two laps for that. By then he had confessed without apology that his main idea was to run interference against the charging Sneva in his Texaco Star Special.
"Indeed, I was trying to help my father," Al Jr. said outside his garage after finishing 10th. "I was trying to mess up the air that Sneva was running into. But from the way he passed me, it was obvious he could have passed anytime he wanted to."
Someone pointed out that the race flagman had waved the blue "move over" flag at Unser, a request, not an order, that he let a car pass.
"I was holding my own ground," Unser said. "I knew the blue was there. But I had my own race to run. I wasn't messing up Sneva, anyway."
Sneva told reporters that Unser deserved a black flag ordering him out of the race.
"Down the straightaway, I stayed in the middle to try to mess up his air. But I wasn't blocking him, otherwise. I was trying to help my father, but there was no reason to black-flag me."
Had the son thought of this strategy in advance?
"No. It turned out to not be worth it, anyway. I was out of contention, so I thought, 'What the heck?' I decided to get between them and see if I could mess up some of the air . . . I wanted to try to do it. If I could get away with it, I'd do it."
Al Sr. was 10 minutes away from a record-tying fourth victory here when Al Jr. tried to help. Two Mays ago, remember, Uncle Bobby Unser won this race by passing cars during a caution period. Clearly, nephew Al, 21 and in his first 500, paid attention in the family driver's ed classes. So he ignored the yellow light and put his car behind his father's.
Then, to win his first 500 after three second-place finishes, Sneva needed to pass both Unsers. Not many people pass Al Sr. when it matters. It turns out that Al Jr. is a chip off the old magneto. When Sneva moved down low to try to pass him on lap 187, the freckle-faced kid did the grizzled-veteran thing that chills spines for miles around. He moved low on the track, too, forcing Sneva to slow down.
It went for naught, as the kid pointed out, because Sneva later simply hauled his turbocharger past both Unsers.
Al Unser Sr. first drove at Indianapolis 18 years ago, finishing ninth. Al Jr.'s work today made them the first father-son combination to race together here. Al Jr. and his wife, Shelley, walked to his race car hand in hand this morning. Then at racing speeds near 200 mph, the kid ran with the old-timers all day.
"I congratulate him," Al Sr. said. "He did a heckuva job . . . It makes me very thrilled. It makes you feel good to have him as competitive as he was."
The father wasn't so sure the son was trying to help him at the end. "If he was," Al Sr. said with a laugh, "how come he passed me, too? No, he was still running and that's what it's all about."
The father said he hadn't talked with the son about driving at Indianapolis. The son has a mind of his own, the father said, and he has talent, too. They'll race together a lot before it's over, because the kid "has a heckuva future, and I don't have any ambitions to quit."
What did the father think those times today when the son passed him?
"Just another car. Pass him back."
The father's eyes were unblinking.
So were the son's when someone asked if he would run at Indianapolis with his father again.
"Sure," Al Jr. said.
As if an Unser could say anything else.