As an IRL driver coach, Al Unser Jr has found a way to leave his problems behind and give something back to the sport in which he’s achieved so much
By Gordon Kirby
Through the height of CART’s Indycar World Series, Al Unser Jr was one of the men to beat. He won the championship twice with Galles-Kraco Racing in 1990 and Penske in ’94, was title runner-up three times and won 31 races, including two Indianapolis 500s.
Unser started his career aged 15 in sprint cars and, like his father and uncle before him, won the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in 1983. Through the 1980s and ’90s, Al claimed races and titles not only in Indycars but also in the IROC series. He was IROC champion in 1986 and ’88 when that series was at its apogee, and caused Dale Earnhardt no end of heartache by repeatedly beating him in races at Daytona and elsewhere. He won four straight Long Beach Grands Prix from 1988-91, and added two more victories in the Californian street race in 1994 and ’95. Unser also co-drove Al Holbert’s Porsche 962 to win five IMSA races, including the 1986 and ’87 Daytona 24 Hours. For some time it could fairly be argued that he was one of the world’s most complete drivers.
But in the late ’90s, as he approached his 40th birthday, Unser’s career began to veer off-course as he battled alcoholism, went through a bitter divorce and saw his teenage daughter Cody stricken with Transverse Myelitis, leaving her paralysed below the waist. Following a couple of arrests for drink driving, Unser went into an alcohol rehabilitation programme, and following a long struggle he hasn’t had a drink since February 2007. Since then Al has moved into a new phase of his life as an IRL official, working in race control with Indycar’s chief steward Brian Barnhart and former Champ Car race director Tony Cotman.
“I’m officially a driver coach but I’m also another set of eyes in race control to help Brian make the calls,” says Unser. “If anybody does anything on track that’s unsportsmanlike, he’ll ask me about it, and the same thing with pit infractions or mistakes.
“I bring to the table the same thing that my father does. We’re drivers, and we know what’s happening on the track and in the pits from a driver’s perspective. I alternate races with my dad. Whichever races he doesn’t want to do, I’ll do.”
Essentially, Al is an understudy to his father, Al Sr, who became the IRL’s driver coach in 1996 when the breakaway series was formed. But in recent years, and this year in particular with the influx of former Champ Car drivers into the IRL, the need for coaching has declined, although Unser does some work in the Indy Lights series. “Rick Mears is the official driver coach and is in race control for the Lights series,” he explains, “I work across the whole spectrum.”
Unser’s transition from driving – his final race was last year’s Indy 500 with A J Foyt’s team – to official and coach began two years ago. He ran his last full season in 2003 and won an IRL race at Texas. Al believes his new life of sobriety has been ordained from above.
“I’ve been sober since 2007 and I’ve really got a new outlook on life,” he says. “God gave me the talent to become one of the best race car drivers in the world and I learned from that and did it for a lot of years. Then my personal life got a little sidetracked – I should say a lot sidetracked – and with God’s help I’ve been able to put it back straight again, and this is what He wants me to do. I feel this has been His plan from the beginning.
“I’m in a position to help so many people on so many fronts. I’m not a team owner who is only thinking about how to advance my own situation. I spent the first 20 or 25 years of life doing that.
“When you’re a racing driver it truly is all about the winning. It’s like when Emerson [Fittipaldi] and I got together at Indy in ’89, there’s a time in the race when nobody’s lives matter any more.
“Now, my life is not about me. It’s about helping other people and it’s in all areas of racing, not just the drivers. It definitely helps my sobriety to give back in a bi-partisan way to something that gave me so much.
“I’ve worked with more than three-quarters of the mechanics in the IRL today. When I walk through the garage area and pitlane, I’m talking with those guys. What I learn I keep to myself. In time everybody will see that and know my goal is that Al can be trusted. You can come to me and I’ll tell you the straight truth.
“I would compare that to my driving,” Unser adds. “Back then anybody could run next to me and know they were in good hands, and I hope that to be the case as I become a full-time official.”
Today, Unser can talk frankly about his struggle with alcoholism. “The toughest thing was to recognise and acknowledge it,” he says. “I had the hardest time believing that one beer or one glass of wine had that much power over me. I was an Indy 500 champion, I’ve won many races and all of a sudden it was a very depressed time in my life when I crossed the line in ’99.”
After 19 years of marriage, Al and his first wife Shelley were divorced. Then out of the blue their daughter Cody fell ill one day while playing basketball. “Going through the divorce was very bitter. And then three months later, after Shelley and I separated, my little girl was put into a wheelchair. That was when I really lost my faith in God and when the big spiral began.
“It was February 1999 when Cody got ill and I couldn’t understand why God would pick on a little girl. I didn’t understand it when my sister died when I was a teenager, and when Cody got ill it was the same thing. Somewhere during that time I crossed a line.”
Unser says the line is invisible. “Nobody can see it. Other people do, but not the alcoholic. The alcoholic always thinks they’re hiding it. For me, it was so hard for what we alcoholics call ‘to surrender’. It was very difficult to admit that my life had become unmanageable. It was a seven-year run.”
One night in 2002, while in a drunken rage, Unser stopped at the side of Interstate 465 in Indianapolis and told his girlfriend to get out of the car. He left her stranded at the side of the freeway and drove off. “When I left my girlfriend Geena, who is now my wife, alcohol was involved. I went into rehab after that.
My sponsor paid for it and I thank them very much, because I always said I didn’t have a problem. When Geena told me I had a problem, I told her ‘No way!’”
A drink-driving conviction resulted in Unser having to enter an alcohol rehabilitation programme. “The place I went to, I wouldn’t call it a rehab centre,” he says pointedly. “I went to an insane asylum, and that’s what true rehab is. It’s a hospital for insane people and that’s what alcoholics are. They’re people who are mentally insane under the influence of alcohol. When they’re not, they’re good people. But when they get to drinking they turn insane and make insane decisions, and I was doing that.
“That was the first time I was ever in group therapy. It was school for me. Rehab was where I learned that I was, in fact, an alcoholic.”
It took a few more years before Unser could get to grips with his problems. “When I came out I tried to follow the programme they recommended, which is not to drink and to talk to other alcoholics. I did that for a bit, but I had excuses not to do it, simply because I always believed it was the last drink that got me into trouble. I always thought if I hadn’t had that last drink I would have been alright.
But it’s not the last drink, it’s the first. And that took a long time to figure out.
“I wouldn’t wish my path on anybody, but I would like to see a lot more people where I’m at today in my way of thinking. In this world of computers and machines that man has built and controls, I’ve learned that we don’t have any control. We can guide ourselves, but God is the one who has the ultimate control.
“When I was drinking I should have killed myself several times,” he adds. “I was way out there and should never have pulled through. For me today, it’s a daily challenge. The first 30 days, you’re still kinda in the fog, and 90 days was a real big accomplishment. Six months was another one. Then, I would say somewhere between the sixth and the tenth month, it started getting a little easier. Now I don’t think about it nearly as much.
“Don’t forget that alcohol is everywhere. It’s legal, and for good reason. When alcohol is used in a proper way, it’s good stuff. It’s good for people to unwind.”
Among the highlights of Unser’s career were testing and developing the under-financed, underdog Galmer with which he won the 1992 Indy 500, and enjoying a more thorough and well-funded development programme with Penske and Mercedes-Benz to win the 500 again in ’94.
“I was blessed with a strong talent for driving and developing cars. I took great pride in that. My rookie year at Indy I had the only Eagle in the field, and then developing the Galmer was a real treat. Joining Roger and being able to develop a car and engine at the same time – the 209 Mercedes – that was just great.
“It’s sad that those days are gone in American open-wheel racing. It’s so much more ‘spec’ now. You don’t develop wings, tunnels, engines, or anything.”
Unser hopes such development and a more open rulebook will return to Indycar racing. “Hopefully someday there’ll be another engine manufacturer to rival Honda, and then the development process will begin again. But as far as the cars go, that’s pretty much gone, until they come up with some new materials that are going to keep the driver safe at 250mph. When that technology comes along the officiating body will allow speeds to start rising again, to where teams can develop the car to its fullest.
“The technology in safety is the key thing. The tyre technology is there. Everything’s there, except the safety aspect, and that’s getting there. The absorbing walls help but they’re not everything. I hope the technology arrives soon because I’d like to see the 250mph barrier broken.
“I thought we’d do it in my career and we came pretty close. Gil de Ferran set the closed course record at almost 241mph, but the speed was out-running the safety technology.
“What was fun about those days was developing the car. There wasn’t the computer. The engineer wasn’t telling you that you’re not flat there and you’re using too much brake here and what’s your foot’s resting on the clutch for? Back then, you’d come in and tell the engineer what the car was doing! Today, they don’t even go to the driver. The car pulls into the pits and they download data from the computer.
“You still have to feel the car,” Al continues. “What I’ve found is that the data accelerates the driver’s learning curve, but you still need the talent to catch it when it jumps out. You still have to get out of the throttle when it pushes before it goes up into the fence.”
Bobby Rahal has said for many years that Unser was the most talented driver he raced against, but he believes that Al Jr would have achieved even more without his troubles.
“A lot of people have said that and it can go both ways,” says Unser. “The results could have been a little better, but only maybe five races better at most. What would have made the biggest difference was that I personally would have enjoyed the racing more. I would remember more detail and I’d have been living life to its fullest instead of recovering from the night before.”
Many people saw Al Unser Jr as a simple country boy living the family trade. But for those who got to know him and appreciate the man inside he was a complex character whose intellect outran his early education. Today, at 46, after an epic racing career and a long journey of many personal and family tribulations, Al has started to discover the real man inside.