For almost 20 years, Al Unser Jr has been known as the 'King of the Beach' and this year, when the IndyCar Series makes its debut in on the streets of the seaside city, he will add at least one more title to his haul.
Unser, who won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach a record six times between 1988 and 1995 while competing in the CART series, will act as grand marshal for the 35th running of the event this weekend [18-19 April], as well as leading the professional contingent in the popular Toyota Pro/Celebrity race and - along with long-time rival and former team-mate 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, who now holds a driver coaching role with the 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 IndyCars 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 that, 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 blue riband Indianapolis 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'.”
During his eight-year Long Beach run, Unser won six times - in 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 Galles Racing team-mate Danny Sullivan. In that eight-year span, Unser led laps every year except 1993, a record 545 in all.
“He was very good there and 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 coincidentally celebrate his 47th birthday on 19 April, recorded 31 race wins and two championships - in 1990 and '94 - in the CART/PPG IndyCar World Series, and added three more victories under Indy Racing League sanction following the series' split in 1996.