The father said: you always want to outdo the person you idolize most.
And his son, told this on the telephone a few days later, said: you want to outdo him even when it's your own father and you love him and feel proud of him and know he's the best friend you've ever had and will ever have.
Al Unser Jr. likes to remember all the good things, being raised as he was the son of Al Unser Sr., most famous for winning the Indianapolis 500 three times. Little Al likes to remember the look in his father's eyes when they stood next to each other on the winner's stand after the Budweiser Cleveland Grand Prix. This wasn't so long ago, only about a week now, but Little Al likes to figure he will hold onto it for as long as he's able, which comes out to not one second short of a lifetime of days.
The look, Little Al said recently, was a pride thing. But it was more. It was as if the old man wanted to say: So this is where we've come. Look at you, boy. Or: I raised you and you are my son and a good one at that.
Whatever it meant, Big Al was looking at Little Al that way when Little Al said, "I love you, Dad."
How do you explain it? At only 23, Al Unser Jr. had just raced to his second Indy-car victory in eight days after Mario Andretti's engine burst into flames and stopped three laps short of victory. Andretti had lost third gear late in the run but still led Unser by about 36 seconds on lap 84 of the 88-lap cruise. Little Al, who everybody says bears an uncanny resemblance to Huckleberry Finn, had won the U.S. Grand Prix at the New Jersey Meadowlands June 30. And for the second week in a row, his father had come to stand in the emboldening light of somebody else's glory, a third-place finisher.
"On that stand, I was remembering that he always said he would be a racer," Al Sr. said. "He always said he wanted to be like his dad. And I was remembering that he said he wanted to outrun me. It wouldn't be any good to him unless he could, you know. This is because you always want to outdo the person you idolize most."
They were the first father-son driving team in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Al Sr.'s brother, Bobby, won there twice. Another brother, Jerry, was killed at Indy during practice in 1958 before he ever made the race. Even Little Al said he wonders if it's something in the genes that makes the Unsers go, although after thinking it over a couple of moments he dismisses the notion with a huff.
Big Al says it may very well be the blood, because, "If it was only conditioning and training, I could look in a young man's eyes and figure whether he has what it takes to be a good driver. Thinking that it's in us makes me proud. I gave Al my name, whatever that means. But he worked hard at making himself into the driver he is today."
Al Jr. started racing Go Karts when he was 9 years old, out in the lakes of sand near Albuquerque, N.M., where he grew up and still makes his home. About seven years later, he started racing sprint cars and told his father he wanted to make a career doing what he felt he was born to do. Big Al, known around most every garage as being a pretty quiet fellow, sat his son down at home and let his tongue roll. It proved to be little more than his heart talking.
"I don't care what you want to do making your living," Little Al recalled his father saying, "so long as you do it the best you can."
Basically, Al Jr. later confessed, "My daddy didn't want me to be a bum on the street. He wanted me to do what was good and right. I said, 'Why don't we try racing some?' And Daddy made a point of reminding me that everything comes down to winning. You could say he's by far my greatest hero, my only real one.
"The kind of man he is, and knowing the kind of competitive drive that gives him fuel, and how he came to be who he is, it was important to me that I prove myself. It was a pressure I felt without him having to direct it at me. He wouldn't do that. After Cleveland, he gave me that look and everything seemed okay. It being my second win this year, I'd showed everybody that it wasn't a fluke. It was like everybody quit looking at me to be anything but a good driver."
But Al Jr., who never once had to work at being humble, proved that during his rookie year. At Indy in 1983, his first run there, Little Al made a mess of racing etiquette by running interference between his dad and Tom Sneva, who eventually won the race. The 10-lap buffer allowed Big Al to move a heartbeat, then two, then three, away from the field. Whenever Sneva went high, hoping to work around the kid on the straightaways, all he saw were exhaust pipes from a heap painted silver and white. The hard turns offered even less room. Sneva finally passed Al Jr. with 10 laps to go, but only after losing valuable seconds to Al Sr. Somewhere on the next circuit, Sneva overcame the elder Unser and coasted the last 10 miles. The young man -- he was barely 21 then -- finished 10th in the 33-car field.
"The kid's gonna be a great racer," Sneva said when it was over.
Al Jr. won his first Indy-car race at Portland, Ore., last year. Both he and his father admit it meant even more to them than the victories at Cleveland and the Meadowlands. It meant so much because there was another Unser racing a car at a speed of about one football field a second. You wanted to take pebbles off the track and seal them in test tubes for all-time. Al Jr. had seen men who drove cars since the moment he'd first opened his eyes. He told people this was why he felt so damned good out at Portland -- with his father hugging him on the winner's stand -- because he had joined the ranks of hard-chargers in a fashion that meant he truly belonged.
"When he wins," Al Unser Sr. said, "it's his deal. But when you hear people talking about him later, saying what a fine lad he turned out to be, it's like they're talking about me. For them to say something nice about my boy, they're saying it about me. I can't see the difference."