Autosport Podcast: Al Unser Jr on his ups and downs and IndyCar 2022
Two-time Indianapolis 500 and double Indycar champion Al Unser Jr is a guest on the latest edition of the Autosport podcast, discussing his recently released book with co-author Jade Gurss.
Unser, the son of the late four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Sr, enjoyed considerable success in a racing career that also counted two Daytona 24 Hours victories and two International Race of Champions crowns.
But, for all of his on-track achievements, which earned him million-dollar contracts, Unser’s personal life was one of turmoil that contributed to his downfall.
Drug dependence, repeated relapses into alcoholism and multiple arrests led to the collapse of two marriages and him contemplating suicide on his 50th birthday.
Unser reveals all in his compelling book, A Checkered Past, written with prolific author Gurss - whose previous books cover Team Penske’s 1994 Indy 500 ‘Beast’ engine and the life of the late John Andretti.
Unser and Gurss join Autosport Plus editor James Newbold on the podcast to discuss the process of writing the book, their pick of the best stories revealed in the book and the feedback they received.
Unser also shares his thoughts on modern IndyCar ahead of the new season, and reveals his favourite car and team-mate from his career.
Review: A Checkered Past
Unser’s memoir covers all the stories you’d expect from his racing career. Why he turned down Bernie Ecclestone for a Brabham F1 seat in 1986, and why he didn’t follow through with his initial plan of flipping the bird at Emerson Fittipaldi following their 1989 Indy 500-deciding clash for example. But it also doesn’t shy away from the painful memories as his life spiralled out of control into “crazy benders” that lasted for days at a time, “drinking so much that I was killing myself”.
By his own admission, his story “can be seen as a tragedy” and he laments frequently all that he lost from being “too ashamed” to ask those around him for help – either with his finances because he “didn’t have any confidence outside of my little box”, or his addictions. Unser smoked marijuana for most of his career – he’d got into the habit of calming himself with the drug after his sister’s death in 1983 – and frequently used cocaine.
“Whether things were great or awful, I reacted the same way,” he says. “I was either celebrating my success or numbing my losses.”
He maintains that for most of his career, there was “still a line between the two Al Juniors”, and that he was still putting in good drives despite Team Penske’s late 1990s decline as its Goodyear tyres and Mercedes engines were surpassed by Firestone and Honda respectively. But, he concedes, “I was abusing so many substances, I don’t know if I was sober enough to judge”.
Roger Penske, his team owner from 1994 to 1999 and who writes the book’s foreword, was the last person Unser wanted to know the extent of his troubles. With hindsight, he reckons “I might have gotten the help I needed to kick all of it” if he’d approached ‘The Captain’ sooner.
Al Unser Jr regrets not confiding sooner with Roger Penske about his troubles
Photo by: Sutton Images
The book, Unser acknowledges, was good therapy for him after years of attending AA meetings – these proved little help as he was frequently recognised – and repeated visits to rehab, his first stay treated by his then-sponsor as “a damn publicity stunt”.
“I want to share my life with honesty and candour, with all the laughter and tears included,” he says in the introduction. The result is an engrossing read that ends on a positive note as Unser explains how his reaffirmed faith has made him better equipped to face adversity head on, rather than feel a need to “numb myself into oblivion” as he did following Penske’s failure to qualify for the 1995 Indy 500.
Given his family’s esteemed racing background, with father Unser Sr and uncle Bobby Unser counting seven Indy 500 wins between them, Al Jr was always likely to end up in the family business. The name helped, but his talent spoke for itself – after learning the ropes in sprint cars, he won back-to-back titles in Formula Super Vee and Can-Am before, in his third Indycar season, challenging his dad for the Indycar title with the underdog Doug Shierson Racing team in 1985.
A first title arrived in 1990 with Galles-Kraco Racing, before he got the call from Penske he’d been dreaming of. But, after a strong start, his personal problems overtook him, and Indy 1995 marked a significant turning point. He’d already missed important tests earlier that year, which made “clear my drug use was beginning to infringe on my career”, and victory at Long Beach staved off his friends’ planned intervention. But after Indy, the previously unshakeable belief in his ability was rocked and resulted in his mental stability “crumbling”.
He comments on his “stupid and naive” decision-making during that time almost as if it was another person. And readers will get the impression that Unser today is indeed a man changed by his experiences, even if he sees his redemption as still a work in progress.
He hopes that his story will help others facing similar demons – and should it do so, it would be no less an achievement in climbing back from rock bottom than having his face appear twice on the Borg Warner Trophy.
Al Unser Jr. Galles-Kraco Racing
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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