There wasn’t a $1 million bonus for Al Unser when he became the first – and still only – driver to sweep Indy car racing’s “Triple Crown” in 1978.
The Fuzzy’s Triple Crown, whose second leg will be contested July 7 at Pocono Raceway, renews the tradition of the three 500-mile races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Ontario (Calif.) Speedway from 1971-1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indianapolis, Pocono and Michigan International Speedway.
The $1 million bonus compliments of Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka will be awarded to Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan if he can complete the sweep of the superspeedway races at Pocono Raceway and Auto Club Speedway on Oct. 19.
Unser (circa 1978 in photo at right) won all three races in that single season in the Jim Hall-owned First National City Travelers Checks-sponsored car (he started fifth at Indianapolis, 10th at Pocono and seventh at Ontario). He recently talked about the Triple Crown and related topics:
Q: What do you think about the Triple Crown coming back to Indy car racing
A: I give INDYCAR credit for bringing back the Triple Crown. You know it used to be three 500-mile races and over the years the tracks and track distances changed. In the beginning it was three 2½-mile tracks. Then we lost Ontario and raced at Michigan that was 2 miles so we had to run 250 laps. I am glad it’s back and maybe in the future they can make Pocono 500 miles to keep it all 500-mile races across the board. This is a start, a positive start.
Q: To win all three 500-milers in the same year …
A: Winning them all was a great gift. We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three. Jim Hall was really happy and the whole team was, too. In each one of those races I didn’t think I had a chance of winning. We figured we had a chance of competing up front. You know, winning, oh man. We were not happy with that Lola. Then all of all of a sudden, like at Indy, I looked up at the board and we were in the race. Ontario was the same way.
I didn’t think we’d be all that competitive even though we won Indy and Pocono. And we pulled it off – between Jim (Hall), Huey (Absalom), Franz (Weis) and the whole team we pulled it off. At Pocono, we gambled by not changing tires. We took a big chance and it paid off. You never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who’s going to win. And we just did it the right thing time times that year. I got a ring that said I was a Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000. I know for sure we didn’t get a million dollars.
Q: On your 1978 Indy car season and why join Jim Hall’s team
A: You search out who wants to go racing and win. When Parnelli (Jones) ended his Indy car operation at the end of the 1977 season I talked to Jim Hall, who wanted to get into Indy car racing. Jim came to Albuquerque and we sat down and had a long talk about all parts of the future operation – engines, chassis, sponsors, personnel. Jim’s first proposal was way off and I said, ‘We’re not going to make it,’ so Jim left and then he called me back two weeks later and we met again. This time he had everything in line, it all came together -- the right dollar figures, team members, sponsors, the engine department and we were good to go racing.
Jim got Huey (Absalom) and Franz (Weis); they were key people in the success of our program. Jim really wanted to win and made it happen. I felt that’s what drew me over to race with the team.
Q: Why were you and the team so good in the 500 milers
A: Pocono was the trickiest track because Indianapolis and Ontario were smooth and the corners were all kind of alike. At Pocono, it was rough and each corner was so different – Turn 1 was like Trenton, Turn 2 reminded me of Indianapolis and Turn 3 was flat like Milwaukee. But it was important to try to get the last turn right for a good lap. I’d try to drive steady and smooth and it just seemed like they kept coming back to me, and soon enough my pit board had a “1” on it and I was leading.
Actually, driving for Parnelli, I won the final 500-mile race of ‘77 at Ontario. So I won four straight 500-mile races – one in ’77 then the Triple Crown in ‘78. At Ontario, we just ran steady all day. I remember running against (Gordon) Johncock and (Johnny) Rutherford for the lead and Johncock ran out of gas at the end so that made it easier for us. He had the boost turned way up and just ran it out of fuel trying to keep the lead.
Q: What are Tony Kanaan’s chances to win the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown
A: All I can say is he is capable of winning. He showed that. But there are about 10 other guys out there that will be close chasing him. If he can win Pocono and then California (Auto Club Speedway) I’d be happy to have him join me as a Triple Crown winner.