Race Weekend Central

Al Unser Jr.: King of Long Beach

The Grand Prix of Long Beach has been a fixture on the NTT IndyCar series schedule for more than 40 years.

That makes it the second-longest running event in the series, behind only the Indianapolis 500, and its list of winners is a who’s who of some of the greatest open wheel drivers in the history of the sport.

But one name stands alone on the top of the winners’ list, and that’s Al Unser Jr., who conquered the streets of Long Beach six times, including four victories in a row from 1988-91.

The Unser name is most associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for good reason. Between Al Sr. (4 wins), Bobby (3) and Al Jr. (2), the Unser family has been to Victory Lane at the Brickyard nine times. That’s far and away the most for one family, and a record that will probably stand forever.

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They also have quite a legacy in Southern California, a place where IndyCar has competed at various tracks since the 1960s. Unser Jr. is also very proud to be part of that legacy.

“Long Beach is pretty special,” Unser Jr. told Frontstretch. “Next to the Indy 500, it was the premier race in IndyCar in my era. It always ranked as one of the top races of the season where you wanted to race and do well.

“Dad and my uncle had great success out at Ontario and I had success at Long Beach. I don’t know why, it was one of those tracks that we went to that whatever I did to the car it made the car quicker.”

Unser Jr., who has always been very politely humble, credits much of six wins on the streets of Long Beach to things just always going his way. In racing, that’s always true, but while he is a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, his record on street or temporary courses is exceptional.

Of his 34 career wins, which ranks him ninth all-time in IndyCar history, 20 of them came on street or temporary courses, including places like Cleveland, the Meadowlands, Vancouver, Denver and Toronto.

“Street circuits just fit my style of racing,” he said. “The walls were the apexes and marked the edge of the track, so I thought I could be really precise and technical.”

In Unser’s era, the stars of Hollywood were also part of the show, and the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race was a popular event on the race weekend. While the celebrity participants took the race in various levels of seriousness, it was a big deal to the pro racers.

Unser Jr. won that event twice, but one year stands out above all the rest and makes for one of his favorite Long Beach memories..

“I remember one year that Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney were in the race,” Unser Jr. recalled. “I had to start behind them because I had out-qualified them (it was an inverted field), and they were giving me a hard time saying ‘you aren’t going to get through us’.

“During the race I passed one on the right and one on the left, I just zig-zagged right through them. It was fun to race against them, because they were my idols. It was a dream come true (to race against them).”

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To put Unser’s six wins in perspective, when the current field takes the green flag Sunday, they will have nine wins between them, with Will Power and Alexander Rossi the only two drivers with multiple wins, as they have two each.

Unser’s record has stood for 28 years, and will likely do so for many more, but he feels like someday a driver will come along that will take the crown as King of Long Beach for themselves.

“It was a lucky place for me, but like my dad always said, records were made to be broken,” he said. “I don’t know when it will happen, but someone will come along and have great success like I did.”

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