Dethroning the 'King of the Beach'
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is always guaranteed to be a major event on the Southern California social calendar. But it's not always a classic car race.
However, the 1989 edition of the race certainly was. It ended in a memorable bust-up between two of American open-wheel racing's most prominent families and ultimately resulted in a symbolic passing of the torch between generations.
Twenty years later, Mario Andretti is still sore about the fact that Al Unser Jr. unceremoniously punted him out of the lead of the '89 Long Beach GP with 12 laps remaining in the 95-lap contest. Unser, for his part, says he "remembers just about everything" about a race that he now looks back on as a significant turning point in his career -- one that allowed him to blossom into a two-time CART series champion and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
Not to mention a six-time victor at Long Beach.
In 1989, Andretti was the "King of the Beach" and the PPG/CART IndyCar World Series was in the ascendancy. Mario had claimed four victories on the seaside street circuit -- driving a Formula One Lotus in 1977 and Lola Indy cars in 1984, '85 and '87 -- and he was adored by the Long Beach crowd.
Unser, meanwhile, was the most recent Long Beach winner, courtesy of a dominant drive in 1988. Never the best of qualifiers, he lined up on pole position for the 1989 LBGP, with Andretti's son Michael alongside on the front row. Mario qualified fifth in the 27-car field in what was just the second race with Michael as his teammate at Newman/Haas Racing.
The other favorites included Penske Racing's formidable lineup of Rick Mears and defending CART series champion Danny Sullivan, and Emerson Fittipaldi, who drove a quasi-works Penske PC-18 for Patrick Racing.
After six years and two CART championships with Truesports Racing, Bobby Rahal lined up in the Kraco Racing entry vacated by Michael Andretti when he left for Newman/Haas, while Teo Fabi posted Porsche's best qualifying effort to date by slotting his March BMW third on the grid.
Other notables in the field included A.J. Foyt, Pancho Carter, Tom Sneva, Arie Luyendyk and Derek Daly. At the other end of the spectrum, there were no fewer than five backmarkers worthy of Milka Duno or Marty Roth status: Guido Dacco, Fulvio Ballabio, Tero Palmroth, Randy Lewis and Steve Saleen.
Unser jumped out to an immediate and comfortable lead, but the cagey elder Andretti worked his way up to second place, and when Unser was forced to back off to save fuel, Mario closed right onto his tail by three-quarters distance.
"The car was working so well and I built a big lead, but I had to start saving fuel and Mario started reeling me in," Unser recalled. "I called in on the radio and said, 'Should I let him pass me?' and I remember Rick Galles coming back over the radio and saying, "No! Don't let him pass you! Just try to save fuel but don't give up the lead.'
"We stayed in front of him just trying to save fuel and then we made our final stops. I made mine first, and a lap later Mario made his. He came out in front of me."
Mario was a master of tactical fuel saving; he had used the same trick to take one of his finest victories the previous summer in Cleveland, where he outfoxed Sullivan and Rahal to win one of the all-time classic races of the CART era. Now the four-time Long Beach winner was out front again -- but not for long.
"I didn't take tires, so we played it that way," Andretti said. "I didn't have the best car, so we played for track position."
It was fairly obvious that Unser had a faster car, but Andretti was not an easy man to pass under any circumstances. Still, Unser had about 15 laps to get the job done, so it appeared that victory was destined to be his.
But Unser got a little bit antsy, and on the 84th lap, the two Lolas fought for the same piece of track in Turn 3, with Unser's Galles Racing entry spearing Andretti's Newman/Haas machine into the tire barrier. Mario's day was done, while Al continued on, minus a front wing.
"It was a classic mistake of being too aggressive," Unser lamented. "I wanted to pass him and I got impatient. I tried to make a move on him in Turn 3, but we ran up on Tom Sneva very quickly and we got checked up. I was trying to make a move on Mario at the same time and I wasn't really aware of what was in front of him. He slowed up for Tom more than what I had thought and I ran into the back of him and sent him off."
"I didn't have clear acceleration for that short stretch after Turn 1," Andretti confirmed. "He caught me out there and just took me out of the way. I'm sure he didn't want to do that, but I held it against him, though. ... To be taken out of the lead is not something that you really accept."
Mario was furious as he alighted from his stalled car. Meanwhile, Unser wasn't too happy with himself, either.
"It really wasn't a pass; I knocked him out of the way," he said. "It was just a sad deal because we had led the race all day and we had the car to beat, but we were using too much fuel.
"That's not the way I wanted to win the race. I remember I hit my steering wheel and I can't say the word I used. Because I was pissed! I was mad, because I wanted to pass him right. I had the car."
Unser went on to win by 12.4 seconds over Michael Andretti. Mario was classified 18th.
After the race, Mario charged to Victory Lane to confront Unser.
"Emotions always are tested in events like that," Mario said. "I give him the benefit of the doubt to some degree, but at the same time, I said to him, 'I hope you enjoyed winning the race like that because it's not the way to do it.'
"He was very good there and he proved it more and more," Andretti added. "He certainly won his share there and had that place down pat. So more power to him. But he probably would have won [the '89 race] anyway, and I probably would have finished second and everybody would have been happier that way."
Unser also vividly recalls the awkward victory celebration scene.
"I remember Mario coming into Victory Lane, grabbing me, and going, 'That was fun, let's do it again sometime!'" said Unser. "He was pissed -- and so was I. I did not want that to happen. I wasn't a rookie; I had been racing Indy cars since '83, but it was just a pure example of a rookie mistake. We were in the process of dethroning the 'King of the Beach' and I didn't want to do it that way. I wanted to pass him fair and square.
"If you take my dad and Uncle Bobby out of the picture of my idols, it's Mario Andretti," he continued. "I respected him ever since I was a kid and admired him. To compete against him was something I dreamed about when I was growing up. There was Foyt and [Johnny] Rutherford, but Mario really stood out. Taking him out that way was not what I wanted to do. I was upset with myself more than anything."
Mario wasn't the only one who was upset that day in Long Beach. As the top three finishers were driven around the track in a Toyota pickup truck for a victory lap, Unser was greeted by boos, catcalls and rude gestures.
Taking [Mario Andretti] out that way was not what I wanted to do. I was upset with myself more than anything.” -- Al Unser Jr.
"I tell you what, that was an unpopular win," Al laughed. "We went around in the pace truck and we got over to that Turn 2, Turn 3 area and, man, there was a bunch of boos. They weren't happy about me dethroning Mario the way it happened, and neither was I."
Ironically, the next race on Unser's schedule was an International Race of Champions round at Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania, barely three miles from the Andretti family home. So when he got to the Lehigh Valley, Unser made a trip to the Andretti residence at 53 Victory Lane.
"The press was making a big deal out of it, and even Uncle Bobby chimed in and sort of got carried away, saying Mario shouldn't be throwing rocks at a glass house," related Al Jr. "So at that IROC race at Nazareth, I went to Mario's home. We both agreed we needed to bury the hatchet and get this thing quieted down. Because it was going into the month of May and the last thing that either of us wanted was the press running away with 'He said this' or 'He said that' back and forth."
Unser said the meeting with the Andrettis -- Michael was there as well -- was a crucial moment in his development as a driver.
"We had a good talk," he revealed. "Mario said, 'Al, there's a real fine line between being too aggressive and being aggressive. You have to be aggressive to be a winner, but right now, you're being too aggressive with everything.' I said, 'You're right, I was, and I've tried to learn from it.'"
And he did. Other than taking Mario out of the '89 season finale at Miami's Tamiami Park, Unser pretty much cleaned up his act and developed into one of Indy car racing's cleanest and most ethical drivers.
Looking back, Unser believes that karma played a role, as well. Three years later at Long Beach, he was leading late in the race when Sullivan, then his teammate at Galles Racing, bumped him out of the lead and went on to the win.
Then there is the small matter of the Indianapolis 500. Just six weeks after the controversial '89 race at Long Beach, Fittipaldi put Unser into the Turn 3 wall as they fought for the win with just over a lap to go. Five years later, Fittipaldi crashed out of the Indy 500 while leading, handing the victory to Unser, who was then his teammate at Penske Racing.
"It all came back around, no doubt about it," Unser said with a chuckle. "If you're being too aggressive and taking people out, at races in the future, it's going to come back to you. Emerson took me out at Indy in '89, but it all came back around in '94. I ended up in the wall in '89, Emerson ended up in the wall in '94.
"I remember going back around after the race in a pace car with my dad in '94," Unser continued. "We came around Turn 4 and I pointed out, 'That's where Emerson hit.' And my dad looked at me and said, 'See, it comes back around!' That's the good thing about racing -- there's always more races and God is a part of our sport."
With the benefit of hindsight, Unser says he would have handled the last dozen laps of that 1989 race in Long Beach in a very different manner. And within a couple of years, he truly took over Andretti's crown as "King of the Beach." He went on to win the classic street race again -- fair and square -- in 1990, '91, '94 and '95.
"We came back in the next few years and really worked hard on doing things right," Unser said. "There were good times there -- I truly enjoyed it."
Eventually, so did the Long Beach fans. And when Unser returns to Southern California this weekend, he'll be in search of his seventh Long Beach victory -- behind the wheel of a Scion coupe in the annual Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race.
Don't bet against him.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.