Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Unser Gibbs and Hendrick

2016 NMPA Hall of Fame inductees

 By Kevin Triplett


Three legendary names in motorsports have been chosed for induction into the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion driver Al Unser along with NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Racing) multi-championship team owners Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs make up the 2016 NMPA Hall of Fame induction class.  

Hendrick received 88 percent of the votes cast by NMPA members, while Gibbs received 76 percent and Unser received 66 percent. Curiously, fellow four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears also received votes but not enough for election into the NMPA Hall of Fame.
Al Unser in 1987

The Unser family name appears frequently in the annals of open-wheel racing history, with no less than six family members who have driven in the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but no member of the Unser family has achieved more racing success than Alfred “Al” Unser.

The Albuquerque, New Mexico native born May 29 1939 the youngest of four sons enjoyed a career that most racers only dream about, including being one of only three drivers (others are A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears) to win the legendary Indianapolis 500 four separate times and is the only driver to have both a brother (Bobby) and son (Al Jr.) as fellow Indianapolis ‘500’ champions.

Unser made his first USAC (United States Auto Club) oval track start at the one-mile Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee on August 23 1964 behind the wheel of J.C. Agajanian’s unloved Offenhauser powered Troutman rear engine car. Al spent most of the 1965 USAC season as the driver of Jerry Eisert’s #96 Harrison Special, but his big break came at the 1965 Indianapolis 500-mile race when he qualified Texan John Mecom’s Lola T70 in a last minute deal and went on to finish in ninth place.

Unser drove for the Mecom Racing team through the 1968 USAC season before the team was sold and became Vel’s Parnelli Jones (VPJ) Racing in 1969. Behind the wheel of a VPJ 'Johnny Lightning Special’ Colt/Ford, Unser won the 1970 Indianapolis ‘500’ in dominating fashion, as he led 190 of 200 laps. Unser went on to win the 1970 USAC National drivers’ championship with 10 race victories during the season.

Unser repeated as the 1971 Indianapolis 500 champion, and continued to drive for the VPJ Racing team through the 1977 season. In 1978, Unser drove Jim Hall’s ‘First National City Travelers Checks Special’ Lola 78/Cosworth and captured his third Indianapolis ‘500’ crown. 

After just  two seasons, Unser left Hall at the end of the 1979 season in a regrettable move to Bobby Hillin Senior’s Longhorn Racing Team, and over the next three seasons, Unser and the uncompetitive team struggled and notched no race wins. His replacement at Hall, drove the radical ground effects Chaparral/Cosworth to five wins in 1980, including the 1980 Indianapolis '500.' 

Al’s career rebounded when he joined Penske Racing in 1983 and in his first six races with his new team, he never finished worse than third and by his consistency won the 1983 CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) championship. In 1987, Al started the season without a ride, and only got his ride at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after Danny Ongais destroyed his Penske PC-16/Chevrolet entry in practice, suffered a concussion and was not medically cleared to drive.

After three days of practice, Al qualified for the 20th starting position on the second weekend in a 1986 March chassis powered by a Cosworth engine which began the month of May as an inoperable show car.  Al dodged a first lap spin by Josele Garza, and went on to win his fourth Indianapolis ‘500,’ as he and his Cummins/Holset Turbo sponsored entry led the last 18 laps after leader Roberto Guerrero stalled on his final pit stop.

Al Unser led 15 laps in Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser Lola/Chevy in his 27th and what proved to be his final Indianapolis ‘500’ appearance in 1993. Al was entered for the 1994 Indianapolis ‘500’, in an underfunded Lola T9400/Ford, but announced his retirement on May 17, 1994, just days before his 55th birthday.  As reported by the New York Times, Unser stated “I always said if the day came when I wasn't producing the right way, if I wasn't happy, I'd get out.  I think the time has come. I'm not all there with the race car, so I decided to pull back and retire."  Al Unser Junior went on to win his first Indianapolis '500' on his father's 55th birthday.

Al Unser’s career statistics at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are amazing: He leads all driver in laps led with 644, is ranked second in the number of races led with 11, and stands second in total race mileage with 10,890 miles (4,356 laps)  completed.  Al scored three season championships and 39 championship car victories on surfaces that included dirt ovals, paved ovals and road courses.  He remains active with The Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   

 Rick Hendrick, right, with Ray Evernham, left,
at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994

Born in 1949, Joseph Riddick “Rick” Hendrick III was raised on the family farm near Palmer Springs, Virginia, and at 27 became the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the United States and built the Hendrick Automotive Group into an empire which is listed as the sixth-largest automotive group in the country with 73 dealerships. Hendrick was the inspiration for the “Tim Daland” character in the 1990 film Days of Thunder.

Since its first race, the 1984 Daytona 500 and its first win seven races later with Geoff Bodine at Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports has amassed countless NASCAR records in its 32-year existence. Among the most notable: 14 NASCAR driver championships, including 11 in the premier Winston Nextel and Sprint Cup Series and 14 owner championships across three national series.

Joe Gibbs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994 

Joe Jackson Gibbs’ eye for talent and the ability to mold individuals into champions has made him successful in both the National Football League (NFL)  and NASCAR. In 16 seasons as an NFL head coach, the Mocksville, North Carolina native compiled an overall won-loss record of 171-101 and three Super Bowl championships with the Washington DC NFL franchise.

In 23 seasons as a NASCAR team owner, Gibbs’ teams have won four NASCAR Cup-level championships, with Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and the 2015 series title with Kyle Busch, and 128 Sprint Cup race wins. Joe Gibbs Racing once involved in NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) team ownership has also compiled four Nationwide/XFINITY Series owner and one driver championships also with Kyle Busch and 112 race wins.

The trio of motorsports legends will be officially inducted in ceremonies to be held at the Embassy Suite hotel in Concord, North Carolina on January 16, 2016. The NMPA Hall of Fame is located on the grounds of Darlington Raceway in Darlington North Carolina and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday – Friday.

Some of the information contained in this article was provided by the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) of which the author is a member.
The photographs that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center of Digital Scholarship.  

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