Unser Jr. to be honored at Long Beach For almost 20 years, Al Unser Jr. has been known as the “King of the Beach.” This year, when the IndyCar Series makes its debut in on the streets of the seaside city, Unser will add at least one more title.
Unser, who won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach a record six times between 1988 and 1995 while competing in CART, will be the grand marshal for the 35th running April 19. In addition, Unser will lead the professional contingent in the popular Toyota Pro/Celebrity race, and he and longtime rival (and former teammate) Bobby Rahal will be inducted into the Motorsports Walk of Fame.
“Southern California is always beautiful at this time of year, and the fans make Long Beach more than just a race,” said Unser, driver coach with the sanctioning Indy Racing League. “They love the single-seat open-wheel cars, and what I’m really excited about it is now it’s back to where they can see the Indy cars that will run the Indy 500 on the streets of Long Beach again, like it used to be back in the 1980s and ’90s. That’s what made it special.”
Unser believes one reason he always performed well on the tricky street course was despite the fact that it was such a different kind of track compared to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he treated the event as a warm-up for Indy and the month of May.
“For me in particular, it was the race before the Indy 500,” said Unser, a two-time winner of the 500-Mile Race. “You really want to do well the race before the Indy 500 so you can take that momentum into the month of May. I really, really worked hard on that race in particular because it generally fell before the month of May. If you could win that race, the whole team would take that momentum into the month of May and think, ‘We can win against these guys.’
“When you take that momentum into the month of May, it’s great for the entire team so we really worked hard at it. It just makes for an exciting event.”
During his eight-year Long Beach run, Unser won six times (1988, ’89, ’90, ’91, ’94 and ‘95) and added a fourth-place finish in 1992. He looked set to win that year, too, only to be bumped out of the lead late in the race by his Galles Racing teammate Danny Sullivan. In that span, Unser led laps at Long Beach every year except 1993, totaling a record 545.
“He was very good there and he proved it more and more,” said three-time Long Beach race winner Mario Andretti. “He certainly won his share there and had that place down pat.”
Unser, who will celebrate his 47th birthday on April 19, recorded 31 race wins and two championships (1990 and ’94) in the CART/PPG IndyCar World Series, and he added three more victories under Indy Racing League sanction.