Who Is IndyCar’s First Family?

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After I watched The Book of Manning, the excellent documentary on the Manning family that aired Tuesday night on ESPN; I began to ponder how this compares with the history of IndyCar. Since I am a Tennessee alumnus, I’ll admit I’m a little biased – but I don’t think there is much debate over which family is the First Family of football. It’s the Manning family.

Patriarch Archie Manning was the second overall pick in the NFL draft and played for three teams over fourteen seasons, including ten full seasons with the New Orleans Saints. His eldest son, Cooper, was slated to be a standout wide-receiver at Ole Miss before a congenital spinal disorder was detected thus ending his playing career. His two younger sons, Peyton and Eli, were both the first player picked in their respective drafts. So far, Peyton has won four MVP awards and one Super Bowl ring. While not raking in the regular season stats that Peyton has; Eli has two Super Bowl rings, with plenty of time to earn more (but probably not this year, based on their 0-3 start).

While there have been many second and third generation players in the NFL, none have approached the success or the notoriety of the Manning family.

It’s not nearly as clear-cut in IndyCar. Who exactly is the First Family of IndyCar? Some will say it’s the Andretti family. Others might tell you that IndyCar racing’s family dynasty is named Unser. There are compelling arguments on each side. The Unser family may have an edge as far as results in the Indianapolis 500 go. Out of the six members of the Unser clan that have raced there, three of them have combined for a total of nine wins.

There were three brothers in the first generation of Unser’s to race at Indianapolis. Each brother had one son that also raced there.

Jerry Unser was a rookie in 1958. He was caught up in the first-lap accident that took the life of Pat O’Connor. Without completing a single lap in his first start, he returned to the Speedway in 1959. He was seriously burned in a practice crash before qualifying. A few days later, he eventually succumbed to a kidney infection that resulted from the terrible burns. His son Johnny ran in the Indianapolis 500 during the dreaded IRL years. His Indianapolis 500 tenure was between 1996 and 2000, with a best finish of eighteenth in 1997. Johnny now serves in Race Control for the IndyCar Series.

One of Jerry’s brothers, Bobby Unser, was a rookie in the 1963 Indianapolis 500. Bobby managed to complete two laps before he crashed. In 1964, Bobby was involved in the crash in which Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were fatally injured. Bobby didn’t cross the start-finish line, so he was credited with one lap. From 1958 through 1964, Jerry and Bobby Unser combined for three starts, three laps completed and one fatality. Better days were ahead. Bobby Unser would win his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968. He would go on to win two more; the rain-shortened race in 1975 and the controversial finish in 1981. He is one of two drivers (Rick Mears being the other) to win at Indianapolis in three different decades. The 1981 race was Bobby’s last at the Speedway as a driver. Bobby’s son Robby Unser raced at Indianapolis twice; finishing fifth in 1998 and eighth in 1999. He failed to qualify in 2000.

The youngest brother, Al Unser, arrived at Indianapolis in 1965. Unlike his brothers, Al tasted success early at Indianapolis. He finished ninth in his first start driving a Lola for AJ Foyt, while brother Bobby finished nineteenth. Along the way, Al Unser won the Indianapolis 500 four times and had twenty-seven starts. He was still competitive at the end of his career, finishing third in 1992 and twelfth in his final race in 1993. He is the all-time leader in laps led in the Indianapolis 500 with 644. The closest of any of today’s active drivers is Scott Dixon with 347 laps led.

Al Unser’s son, Al Unser, Jr., by far had the best career of any of the second generation Unser’s. They are the only father-son pair in the family to have driven on-track at the same time. “Little Al” made his Indianapolis debut in 1983, infamously blocking eventual winner Tom Sneva for his father. When Al Unser was finishing third in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, Little Al was holding off Scott Goodyear to win the closest finish in the history of the race. Two years later, Al, Jr. won his second 500, this time driving for Marlboro Team Penske. Al Unser, Jr. won the Indianapolis 500 twice in nineteen starts, along with two CART championships. His son Al Unser III, drove in Indy Lights for four seasons with good results, but lack of money prevented him from rising to the IndyCar Series nor to the Indianapolis 500.

Six Unser’s raced at Indianapolis from 1958 to 2007. Out of those fifty races, there was at least one Unser in all but six. From 1968 to 1994, there were nine Indianapolis 500 wins by someone named Unser. In that time, there were also seven series championships won by an Unser. So they not only did they perform well at 16th and Georgetown, the Unser’s excelled everywhere in a race car.

So, are the Unser’s the First Family of IndyCar? Well, the Andretti’s may have something to say about that. They are certainly much more visible today in this “What have you done lately?” society.

Mario Andretti and his twin brother, Aldo, immigrated to this country in 1955 after spending several years in a refugee camp after World War II. The two fifteen year olds had left a world of Grand Prix racing, where they had absolutely idolized the great Alberto Ascari.

The twins immediately took to racing in America, racing an old Hudson Hornet on a half-mile dirt track near their new home of Nazareth, PA.They both took turns driving and winning. There was one problem, though – neither of their parents had any idea they were racing. That is until Aldo was so seriously injured, that a priest was called in to read last rites. Since he was unscathed, Mario received all of the wrath of his parents once they found out. Aldo survived and would race again until an even more serious accident in 1969 ended his driving career.

Mario set his sites on open wheel racing. From 1961 to 1963, he raced midgets. In 1964, he moved to sprints. He also made his USAC Champ Car debut on April 19 of that year at Trenton, starting sixteenth and finishing eleventh. It was there that he met legendary mechanic Clint Brawner, who would design the chassis for Mario Andretti’s debut at Indianapolis in 1965.

Mario Andretti finished third in his rookie debut at Indianapolis, behind legends Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones. For his effort, Mario was awarded Rookie of the Year. An award that would be awarded to several Andretti family members over the next few decades, yet somehow eluded every Unser. Over the next few years, Andretti made a name for himself as a hard-charger. He was fast. Very fast. Sometimes to his own detriment. He sat on the pole at Indianapolis in 1966 and1967. However, he didn’t last more than fifty-eight laps in either of those races. In 1968, he started fourth, but only lasted two laps before he broke a piston.

By 1969, Andretti had already won three USAC Championships. At Indianapolis that year, Mario crashed his primary Lotus in practice so a backup Brawner Hawk was wheeled out. He qualified second, but the car was never expected to last. Although he battled overheating problems all day, Mario actually won the race.

With the first one behind him, how any more Indianapolis wins Mario Andretti would accumulate was anyone’s guess. His biggest rival at the time was AJ Foyt, who had already won three 500’s from 1961 to 1967. Foyt had also won Le Mans in 1967, but Andretti won the Daytona 500 that year. By the mid-seventies, the Unser brothers were also racking up Indianapolis 500 victories as well as USAC National Championships. Johnny Rutherford had already won a couple of Indianapolis 500’s as well, while Andretti still had his one. Surely, it was only a matter of time before he would get Number Two.

In the meantime, Mario Andretti had his sites set on his childhood love – Formula One. He had driven in some F1 races from the late sixties through the early seventies, but he moved full-time into Formula One in 1975 for Parnelli Jones’s team, which had been very successful in IndyCar but was new to Formula One. It did not go well. Andretti finished fourteenth in points that season. In 1976, he moved to Lotus driving the John Player Special. In 1978, Andretti won the Formula One World Championship for Lotus. In doing so, he is the only person to have won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the F1 Championship.

Except for 1979, Andretti still ran the Indianapolis 500 while driving full-time in Formula One. Mario’s last full season in F1 was in 1981. That is also the year of the controversial Indianapolis 500, which involved Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti. Near the end of the race during a caution period, Unser was leading the race and Andretti was second. They both pitted under the caution. When they came out of the pits, Unser passed a slew of cars to take what he thought was his rightful place behind the Pace Car. Seeing what Unser was doing, Andretti followed suit, because to blend in at the back would have been suicide if he had any illusions of winning the race. Unser took the checkered flag with Andretti just behind in second.

While Unser celebrated his third Indianapolis win in Victory Lane with the milk and car-owner Roger Penske, Andretti’s Pat Patrick Racing Team was filing a protest. When the official results were posted the next morning, Mario Andretti had been declared the winner. All of the next-day on-track winning photos were of Andretti, not Unser. Five months and many lawsuits later, Unser was reinstated as the winner and was instead fined forty-thousand dollars.

To earn his second win in a bizarre fashion was bad enough. To have it taken away in a court room in October was devastating. Deep down, Andretti was soured on the entire scene, but pretty much stayed quiet about it.

By 1982, Andretti was back in CART full-time. He was now forty-two, but the fire to race still burned. There was another element also. His son, Michael, was coming of age and had been very successful in the various ladder series. Michael joined the series in 1984, the same year Mario won his last championship.

By 1986, the torch was beginning to be passed. In 1986 and 1987, Michael would finish second in the championship, while driving for Maury Kraines. Mario would finish fifth and sixth respectively. While one generation was slowing down, the other was finding his stride.

For 1989 Michael joined his father at Newman/Haas. Over the next four years, Michael would win twenty-one races and the 1991 championship. He would also finish twice in points two other years and third once. In that same period, Mario won no races and finished no better than sixth in the championship in any of those years.

In 1993, Michael left his father, Newman/Haas and CART to go race for McLaren in Formula One. He would be a teammate for the great Ayrton Senna. It was a disaster. First of all, the car was not great. But Michael did not move to Europe. Instead, he tried a trans-Atlantic commute before and after each race. He did not last the season. His best race was also his last – a third place finish at Monza.

Michael’s seat at Newman/Haas was still filled by a now-pouting Nigel Mansell in 1994, when he decided to return to CART. Instead, Michael drove the only Reynard chassis in the filed for Chip Ganassi. He won in his first race back gibing Ganassi his first win and the brand new Reynard chassis its first win. Michael finished fourth that season.

In the early nineties, there were other drivers named Andretti. Aldo’s son, John, had been driving the ill-fated March/Alfa-Romeo in the late eighties before moving over to Hall/VDS racing in 1991. John won at the season-opener in Australia. Although he posted many solid results before moving to NASCAR, John never won in IndyCars again – although he won a few NASCAR races over the years.

Michael’s little brother, Jeff, landed a full-time ride with Bruce Leven’s struggling team for 1991. That put four Andretti’s into the field for the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Jeff finished fifteenth; while Michael finished seventh, John fifth and Mario seventh.

Jeff’s ride went away following the 1991 season, but he landed a ride for the 500 in AJ Foyt’s second car. Just past the halfway point, a hub broke on Jeff’s car sending him into the Turn Two wall head-on. The crash mangled Jeff’s feet and it was questionable if he would ever walk again. Not only did he recover to walk, he qualified for the 1993 Indianapolis 500.

Jeff did not go on to greatness. He drove a few races in the late nineties in the NASCAR Truck Series. He is now retired from racing.

Mario won one more race in 1993, but retired from driving after the 1994 season at the age of fifty-four. Michael was still very competitive, but no longer dominant. Michael would continue to drive until 2003. He would never win another championship as a driver. And of course, the Indianapolis 500 eluded him, just as it did his father except for 1969.

Although he was a great driver in his day, Michael Andretti is creating his own legacy as a car owner and race promoter. It appears that Michael is quite the businessman. His cars have won two Indianapolis 500’s and three IndyCar championships, including 2012. Michael’s son and Mario’s grandson, Marco Andretti, now carries on the family name. Marco currently has two wins in the series, and came within a few hundred feet of winning the 2006 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

Mario Andretti is now seventy-three and continues to be one of the best ambassadors for this sport. He is patriarch to a family that has produced a total of five starters to the Indianapolis 500 over the past forty-nine years. His name is synonymous with racing all over the world. Anyone who knows absolutely nothing of racing knows the name Mario Andretti.

So, now that you’ve seen the basic stats and a thumbnail sketch of each family, who is the First Family of IndyCar? Is it the family that has lost a family member to this sport, won nine Indianapolis 500’s and seven series championships? Or is it the family that, as drivers; has won four series championships, a Daytona 500 win, an Indianapolis 500 win and a Formula One championship – along with two more Indianapolis 500 wins as well as three IndyCar championships as a team owner? Is it The Book of Unser or The Book of Andretti? You decide.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Who Is IndyCar’s First Family?”

  1. As much as I have always been a fan of the Andrettis more so than the Unsers, but I have to give the Unsers the edge. Al Unser Sr. also seems somewhat like an Archie Manning figure to me. Growing up in New Orleans, I had great respect for Archie Manning because of the way he handled himself. No doubt he would have had much more success with a better team but he never complained, never cast blame, he simply got back every time he get knocked down or sacked and went back to work.

    Great Post!

  2. Since Michael Andretti and his wife are expecting twins it may well be too early to close the book on the Andretti legacy.

  3. The Unsers are the Pro football equivalent of the Nesser brothers. Right now it is The Rahals versus The Andrettis.

  4. Two answers. If you’re talking the 500, then it’s the Unser’s in a landslide.

    However, if you are talking Open Wheel Racing in general, then it has to be the Andretti’s.

    But it’s all moot, because A.J. could lick ‘em both with one hand behind his back.

  5. I go with the Andretti family. They are, in my opinion, the first family in American open wheel racing.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    If Indycar’s first family is the Unsers, does that make Gil deFerran Indycar’s Tee Martin? Or if it is the Andrettis, would Indycar’s Martin then be Nigel Mansell?

  7. Historically, I’d say Unser. Currently and near future, I’d say Andretti.

  8. The are good arguments for both families. My vote is Andretti. The edge going to them because of the off track difficulties of some of the Unsers.
    Working the race as a photographer for Associated Press, I was positioned to the immediate right of the race observers on the platform on the inside of the track at the exit of Turn One for many years, including when Bobby Unser made that rule violating pit exit. I never spoke to the observers during the race, but I was so astounded by Unser’s move that I said loudly, He can’t do that,” ro which an observer said, “We know that.”
    I have always wondered why Unser wasn’t penalized immediately.
    In 1969, I watched the race from several places, the last portion, from the infield grass just past the exit of Turn Two. With about six laps or so to go, and with the race seeming to be in hand, Mario came high out of Two, and his rear end started to pass the front of his car. He made a major save, much like Danica Patrick’s on the first lap of her first 500 qualifying run.
    As television coverage of the race was quite primitive then compared to today’s, Mario’s bobble was not recorded as far as I know, and he and I, and maybe a few other close watchers, are the only people who know how close he came to disaster in that race.
    George, if you check the dates of the 500s won by Unsers, you will find another interesting bit of trivia. The first four 500s contested on my son’s birthday, May 24, were all won by an Unser.

  9. It may be a bit of an unusual answer when I say the First Family of IndyCar are the Hulman-Georges because they own the whole thing today. No matter how many of the awesome performances the Unsers and the Andrettis have put in over the years, the Indy 500 would have not continued in the way it did without Tony Hulman. The same can be said about the IndyCar Series and Tony George, although from a somewhat different angle, but I don’t really want to talk about that lengthy episode again in this place.
    NASCAR has their France family, Formula 1 has their Bernie Ecclestone.

    But who is the longest-running family in charge of a major internationally known sports championship? That might be an interesting question to ask Donald Davidson, the Speedway’s historian.

  10. Andretti’s definitely win in media favor and endorsements. I also give Mario kudos on the F1 title. But based on real, on track success, this is an Unser landslide. 500’s, series titles, race wins. No comparison as collective families.

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