“Al Unser, Jr: A Checkered Past”

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The Halloween decorations are already up, the NFL season has not yet started and there are three races left in the IndyCar season. That means it’s a perfect time to start thinking about what to give the IndyCar fan in your household for Christmas. I say that, because I’ve already told Susan about the next IndyCar-related book that I want. That gives me motivation to finish the two books I bought this past May; Indy Split by John Oreovicz and Hello, I’m Paul Page: It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, obviously by Paul Page. I was anxious to read both and started them both at the same time. They are both good books, but I put them both down by mid-summer. I need to finish them both by Christmas, to make room for an upcoming book that promises to be an excellent read.

Al Unser, Jr.: A Checkered Past goes on sale October 1. The blurb that I read over the weekend quotes Al Unser, Jr. as saying that he actually took a class on how to write a book himself, but as he began the project – he realized early on that this was too big of a project for him.

Checkered Past

He turned the task over to noted author Jade Gurss to write it as an “as told to” book. That name will sound familiar to IndyCar fans, because he is the one that wrote the outstanding book Beast, about the Mercedes pushrod engine that won the 1994 Indianapolis 500. A book about a one-off engine may not sound that exciting, but the writing style of Gurss coupled with the tremendous amount of research he did, made that book a must-read among IndyCar fans. I read it a few years ago and literally could not put it down. He told the back story of Team Penske, the formation of Ilmor Engineering and the steps everyone took to make sure the powerful engine was developed in total secrecy.

I expect nothing less from Gurss on Al Unser, Jr.: A Checkered Past.

The story of Al Unser, Jr. is a fascinating tale, even though it has a lot of warts that many would prefer to sweep under the rug. On the surface, early on it looks like a the script from a Lifetime Channel movie. The son of an eventual four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who had a brother that won the race three times before becoming a broadcasting celebrity – came up through the ranks on his talent as much as his name.

Many times in sports, the next generation carrying a famous name falls way short of the expectations hoisted upon them. Whether it is a lack of talent or drive – seldom do the future generations meet or exceed what those before them accomplished. The Manning Family is the most obvious exception to that rule in football. In racing, Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. both came up at the same time and they both flourished, despite having huge family shoes to fill.

Al Unser, Jr. won two CART championships and won the Indianapolis 500 twice, as well. His first win in 1992 is still the closest margin of victory in the race. Two years later, he won driving for Roger Penske in a car powered by the aforementioned Mercedes pushrod engine developed in total secrecy. He could have won another one in 1989, when he lost a late-race battle with Emerson Fittipaldi as they were going for the same piece of real estate in Turn Three. Little Al ended up in the wall as Fittipaldi cruised under the subsequent yellow-flag to the first of his two Indianapolis 500 victories. Al Unser, Jr. would have to wait to taste the milk.

As a fan, it was hard not to like Little Al. He was successful, as he drove for a hometown car-owner in Rick Galles, before making the expected jump to Penske. He drove one of the best looking liveries in the field. Fans were drawn to his “aw shucks” demeanor and genuine likeability. He was not like his outspoken uncle, nor his quiet and reserved father. He had carved out his own career and personality. He had what seemed to be a good marriage to the equally likeable Shelley, and he had a beautiful family. None of us realized at the time, what demons were lurking just beneath the surface of Al Unser, Jr.

Just after 1994, when he won his second Indianapolis 500 and his second CART championship – the unthinkable happened. Team Penske failed to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500. Making that even more unbearable was the lurking possibility of a split in the sport beginning in 1996. I remember being at IMS all three weekends in 1995. The uncertainty of the future hung over the Month of May like a pall. Everyone knew there was a possibility that 1995 could be the last year of the great race as we knew it, but we as fans chose to ignore it and enjoy what was in front of us. Most of us figured it would all get worked out before the following May. It didn’t.

As hard as The Split of 1996 hit us fans, it hit Al Unser, Jr. even harder. Failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1995 and having to sit out several more years took its toll on Little Al. Not knowing when or if he would ever return, sent him into a personal downward spiral.

Unser, Jr. tried filling the void with alcohol, which eventually cost him his ultimate dream job at Team Penske. He and Shelley divorced about the same time his then-twelve year-old daughter, Cody, was stricken with an illness that left her in a wheelchair. Shelley suddenly passed away in 2018 at the age of 59.

If things were not bad enough, Little Al was arrested for domestic assault and battery in July of 2002. He hit his girlfriend in the face and left her on the side of the interstate, in a drunken incident. Al Jr. had been dating her for four years, but he initially told police he did not know here. Suddenly, the likeable Little Al was no longer likeable.

As a one-time incident, this was bad enough. But it happened again…repeatedly, each time involving alcohol. Each time it happened, Little Al would beg forgiveness through the court of public opinion. He told us he had taken the proper steps to get his personal life under control. But there would always be another incident.

The most recent that we know about happened in May of 2019, when he was working for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. It was qualifying weekend for the Indianapolis 500. On Saturday, I remember seeing Unser, Jr. walking confidently down pit lane as their driver, Colton Herta, had qualified for Sunday’s Fast Nine. That night, Unser, Jr was pulled over in nearby Avon for DUI. Little Al had already lost his job with IndyCar as a member of Race Control. His job with Mike Harding was essentially his last chance. Suddenly, that job was gone.

I don’t say this to be self-righteous or intolerant, but I don’t understand demons. I don’t for a minute claim that they don’t exist, I just don’t understand why some people have them and some don’t. I define someone with demons, as someone who knowingly and consistently indulges in self-destructive behavior and activities. I don’t consider myself to have demons. I have a lot of faults, and I have traits that many people may dislike – but I do not partake in activities repeatedly, that I know will end poorly for me or for someone else. I am very fortunate to not have an addictive personality. In my past, I could hold my own throughout a weekend of binge drinking – but it was never a problem for me to just walk away from it. I found recreational drinking to be fun and entertaining, but it never consumed me. As I grew older, social drinking just became something I did less and less. Others are not that fortunate. Apparently, Al Unser, Jr. is just one of those that does not have the ability to say No to himself.

After watching Little Al go from a likeable young kid from a famous racing family with tons of racing talent, to throwing it all away to the point where he has seemingly bottomed out many times, only to reach a lower point each time – it is literally like watching a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just can’t. It is sad, yet fascinating – all at the same time.

Many times, I have said on this site that I hope Al, Jr. can exorcise the demons that have controlled him for the better part of two decades. So far, it hasn’t happened. With the bulk of the content in Al Unser, Jr.: A Checkered Past, coming from Little Al himself, maybe we fans will have a window into what has driven the former champion to such self-destructive behavior. Was it his love for the Indianapolis 500 and missing out on several years of his prime that got to him? Did the weight of the Unser name finally become to heavy to carry? Was he predisposed to alcoholism to the point that it was out of his control even as early as forty years ago?

I am anxious to read this book. Like many of you, I watched everything happen through the media as Little Al lived his private life under a microscope. From his rookie year at Indianapolis in 1983 to 1995, he seemed to lead a charmed life. After that, his life has been a struggle – both personally and professionally. By all accounts, Al Unser, Jr. has been remarkably candid in his step by step portrayal of the events that have led to his downfall. I look forward to reading this, not only to get a better understanding on why he did the things he did, but also to learn what steps he is taking to make sure none of these things happen again.

Al Unser, Jr. is now 59. Some say he is a lost soul and it is way too late to right the wrongs in his life. I don’t think so. This book could help him to finally come clean and to confront the demons that have haunted him for decades. I tend to not go beyond a second chance for anyone. I’m not really for third, fourth and fifth chances. So why am I more lenient with Little Al? I don’t know. This is why I want to read the book.

Al Unser, Jr.: A Checkered Past will be available on October 1, and is available for pre-order now through Octane Press for $27.00. It would make a great Christmas gift and should be a mesmerizing book to read.

George Phillips

7 Responses to ““Al Unser, Jr: A Checkered Past””

  1. Thanks for the preview, George. I didn’t know when this book would be available. I will pre order it today.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    George this book is a must read. I have it on pre-order. I still hope AL can bring his life back under control.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    “You do not know what it means,” words spoken by Al in reference to winning the 500.

    Al saying this shed some light (for me) on another insight into racing that I was unaware of from a driver’s perspective.

    Not knowing the multitude of challenges & pressures that drivers or each and every one of us face daily, it sometimes is easy to armchair judge what we only see on the outside ………..

    Or in other words, what the wisdom to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes means before judging someone, you must first understand their experiences, challenges, thought processes, etc.

    Perceived addictions, if you will, are oftentimes an illness. An illness that sometimes is able to be cured entirely, to an extent, or incurable.

    If one is unable to walk a mile in that individual’s shoes while still criticizing, how about researcing the causes and providing support & guidance, etc. ?

  4. Addiction is an insidious disease.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I definitely look forward to reading this. Little Al was my first racing hero (my dad even finagled a cardboard cutout of him away from an auto parts store as a Christmas present for a young me) and watching him founder with his addiction has been a sad thing to watch, constantly giving me as a fan a cycle of hope and disappointment.

  6. because my brother-in-law, who died at 59 (alcoholism, drug addiction,and whatever) had a consistent ability to do wrong to anyone trying to do right by him, we, as family, had to handle his hardships which included at least three divorces, child endangerment and estrangement, and a felony (or more?) which kept most relatives far away from him with the revealed realization of an anticipated future without recovery or reconciliation.

    it is our hope that AU, Jr.’s family finds what we could not grasp.

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