There comes a moment of truth in a race driver’s life where danger doesn’t matter – it’s a chance to win the biggest race of their career and they aren’t about to flinch.
In the 1989 Indianapolis 500 Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr. were faced with that moment as they sped down the backstretch side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel, on Lap 198 with the checkered flag set to fly on Lap 200. The previous 13 laps were a thrilling duel, unlike any ever seen before in the closing stages of the Indianapolis 500. Each driver daringly took the lead from the other until the “Moment of Truth” faced each driver squarely in the face.
It’s how each driver handled that “Moment of Truth” that makes the 1989 Indianapolis 500 the No. 2 Indy 500 of all-time.
“I dreamed about the Indy 500 as a kid,” said Unser, the son of four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser and nephew of three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser. “To me it was more important than life itself. Really what that day was all about was you have two guys that are at the top of their profession and you are coming around for the last lap of the Indy 500 and you are going into Turn 3 there and nothing matters except winning.
“Your own life doesn’t matter so it doesn’t matter about anybody else’s life.
“It was not about the money; it was about winning the race. Emerson is a dear friend of mine and he was before and he still is after. Emerson genuinely cares about his other drivers on the race track more than any driver I’ve ever met. He truly cares about that so I truly understood that was the competitiveness of the sport other than anything else. That’s why I gave Emerson the thumbs up. He led the race the whole day. That was OK. I didn’t want to lead it. I wanted to lead the last lap; not the laps earlier because the only one that matters is the last lap.”
The “Moment of Truth” was Turn 3. As the two cars sped into the corner two were going in but only one was coming out.
Unser’s Galles Racing Lola/Chevrolet was on the outside when Fittipaldi’s Penske PC chassis powered by a Chevrolet engine took the inside line.
“You had the two drivers at the top of their game and it’s the last lap of the Indy 500,” Unser recalled. “You are not going to lift.”
Paul Page was calling the race that day on ABC. For most of this battle he remained silent and let the pictures and sound on television tell the story.
But his call as both cars went into the third turn was legendary.
“Fittipaldi comes inside Little Al! A drag race on the back side again… Slower traffic moves to the right… Can Fittipaldi get past? Little Al brings it down low… They touch! Little Al into the wall, Fittipaldi continues on! Little Al slams the wall, as Emerson Fittipaldi screams toward the white flag – the yellow flag comes out!”
As the fans filling the massive grandstands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway waited to see who would be in front when the two drivers came into Turn 4, the only car that came out was Fittipaldi’s red-and-white Marlboro car for Patrick Racing.
Unser’s blue, white and red Valvoline car for Galles Racing had smacked the third turn wall hard. One of the wheels broke off the car and went flying into the air like a Frisbee before it hit one of the poles that supported the catch fence, snapping it in two.
“Let’s just say the soft wall technology wasn’t there yet,” Unser said. “It was pretty much in the center or before the center of Turn 3 when we touched each other. The angle of impact was pretty steep. It was a hard hit. It knocked the wind out of me.”
After the two cars made contact Fittipaldi nearly lost control of his race car in the North Chute between Turns 3 and 4. He was able to regain control and had to make one more lap around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway behind the Pace Car to take the checkered flag.
That meant he would have to drive by Unser, who admits he was quite upset with the turn of events.
“Oh, for sure,” Unser admitted. “I just lost the Indy 500 and I was leading it. Everything was going like clockwork all day – the strategy, the way the car handled, the pit stops. Nobody made any mistakes. It was exactly the way we planned it. We were there at the end and we had the fastest car.
“Even when my momentum got wrecked with traffic and he had the run on me and Emerson got beside me he was next to me and I started pulling him into Turn 3. We had the fastest car there.
“It was a shame that I didn’t get to go Victory Lane with it.”
After climbing out of his car, he wanted to let Fittipaldi know how he felt about the battle.
“Honestly, the way it came down is I got out the car and Safety Crew got to me and I was out of the car and I’m standing there and it’s under yellow,” Unser recalled. “I start to walk out towards the track and one of the safety team stood out in front of me and asked, ‘Al, where are you going?’ I said, ‘Out there.’ He said, ‘You want to flip him off?’
“I said, ‘Yeahhhhh….’ Like ‘Duhhh…’
“He stepped aside and said, ‘Go right ahead.’ All he wanted to know is if I had a concussion and knew were I was going.
“Once I was out there I waited on Emerson to come around because it was under yellow. There was just a moment of clarity there. That’s the only way I can put it. There are people everywhere and it’s like standing in the middle of a full football stadium. I thought, ‘Hey, he’s led the whole way. He’s done a great job. He’s coming around to get the checkered flag.’ So I congratulated him on his win.
“He had no choice but to look at me. I was in the middle of the track. Yes, he looked at me.”
Instead of a “One Fingered Salute” Unser clapped his hands and gave the Brazilian victory a “Thumbs Up.”
It was a spectacular ending to a brilliant race for Fittipaldi, a two-time Formula 1 World Champion who became the first foreign driver to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill in 1966.
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time. Sunday’s guests include three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and front row starter James Hinchcliffe. Show host Rob D’amico and Martin will preview Sunday’s 98th Indianapolis 500.