If you’re familiar with the Indianapolis 500 at all you know that Al Unser Sr. became a surprise four-time winner in 1987.
The bigger surprise though may have been that he did it in a car that weeks before had been on display in a Scranton, Pa., hotel lobby.
History is twisted and sometimes good things come to those who wait. Despite being a 3-time Indy winner Al Unser was without a ride for the 1987 Indy 500, but was waiting and watching in Gasoline Alley in case a good opportunity arose.
It did and that’s the car you see here, an Adrian Newey-designed March 86C that had been used the previous season, but now was a Penske show car as the team had moved on to its new PC-16 chassis, at least initially.
The short version of Al’s quick re-entry to a Team Penske car in 1987, after retiring from full-season racing at the end of 1986, is simple. New Penske driver Danny Ongais crashed his PC-16 and was too seriously injured to get back in the car by race day. Teammates Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan qualified a March 86C and PC-16, respectively, and Penske asked Al to drive the third entry with Cummins, Hertz and Miller sponsorship.
Problem was, their other 86C was in a Sheraton hotel lobby as a show car and had to quickly be brought back to racing shape and qualified by Unser. He put it in the show in 20th starting spot and then methodically brought it to the top 5 during the first half of the race.
Mario Andretti had run away with the race, but as usual there was the announcement … “Mario is slowing down.” And he left the race with a two-lap lead over Roberto Guerrero and Unser. In fact, Guerrero was nearly a full lap ahead of Unser, but needed to make one more pit stop. Things didn’t go as planned as Guerrero’s clutch was malfunctioning and his stop took forever, or at least until Unser had assumed the lead with about 18 laps to go. Unser cruised from there and tied A.J. Foyt for the most Indy wins. Rick Mears later joined the club.
For the record, a March chassis won Indy five times in the 1980s, beginning with Tom Sneva in 1983. Mears won with one in 1984, Danny Sullivan in 1985 and then both Bobby Rahal in 1986 and Unser in 1987 with the 86C version. Unser’s was the final March Indy win.
Of course Unser’s winner is beautifully bathed in a deep yellow that would make a school bus blush with envy. And all the sponsor markings are crisp and as expected. First, there’s the bright blue No. 25 with thin black outline. Cummins (the Indiana-based diesel engine maker) has its logo on the large rear wing and side pods. Hertz and Penske logos adorn the front wings, with Monroe and Pennzoil above and below the No. 25 on the nose.
On the engine cover is the number and the Miller beer logo plus American and Computervision. while Goodyear and Monroe are on the side pods and J. Williams Cars is on the wing’s edges. Then there’s Bosch, PPG and Boss, plus Holset Turbo on the cockpit’s side.
USAC, CART and other competition stickers are below the pointed roll bar and Unser’s name is just below that bar inside the cockpit. Let’s start there for physical details, beginning with the black racing seat with bright red safety belts that feature photo-etched clasps. You can also see the edges of the March carbon fiber chassis and a March sticker on the driver’s left.
In 1987 the dash’s and wheels were still simple, the dash featuring two large gauges while the driver got to grasp a small three-spoke black racing wheel. Down along the driver’s right by the chassis edge is a stubby silver shift lever.
On the nose is a tiny radio antenna, plus silver flap on the backside of each nose wing. The March also has a flat silver suspension with steering arm the same, and you can see the drilled disc brakes inside the matte chrome racing wheels. The car’s slicks are crisply printed Goodyear Eagles.
The March’s windscreen is clear with a black lower edge and molded with the flip-up at the front of the screen to direct air up and over the driver’s helmet, reducing buffeting. Thin black racing mirrors protrude from the screen’s lower edge and include real mirrored surfaces.
Those big downforce inducing side pods include openings with matte silver radiators nearly fully exposed on the driver’s left, but mostly enclosed on the right, again for aerodynamics. Small winglets jut up from the side pods’ rear outer edges to direct air up and over the wide rear tires to the wing creating additional downforce. Both winglets feature three delicate-looking wire supports.
The left side also includes the silver fuel coupler just beyond and below the roll bar, and then in back the metal heatshield surrounding the turbo exhaust area. I like the slightly wavy look of this as it reflects the flexibility of the real racer’s panel.
In back of course is the wing on a big black strut, but also the exposed transmission, black wiring and the horizontal shock system that looks impressive.
Then again, the hotel-lobby display car looks pretty darned sharp overall, just as it was when it pulled into Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987, with the then second 4-time Indy winner at the wheel.
Note to potential Replicarz customers interested in this latest Indy winner from the Vermont-based company. Builds are extremely limited and the first shipment was nearly sold out when it arrived a few weeks ago. Snag yours soon if you’re trying to complete an Indy winner collection.
Vital Stats: March 86C, 1987 Indy 500 winner, Al Unser