Remembering Al Unser

We all woke up to the sad news on Friday morning that Al Unser passed away at his home in Chama, New Mexico at the age of 82. Since then, we have all been treated to an avalanche of personal remembrances of the great four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, throughout the weekend. I hope you will indulge me and take in one more, since this is my first opportunity to offer my thoughts on the life and career of Al Unser.

I’m not sure what else I can add to the multitude of accolades that have poured in from all over the world. I never met the man, but I did see him up-close on several appearances in the IMS Media Center over the past few years. The most recent was this past May on the morning of Carb Day. He appeared frail and sad. He had just lost his older brother, Bobby, just a few weeks earlier. The cancer that he had battled for so many years, appeared to be taking its toll.

I feel very fortunate to be able to say that I was present for Al Unser’s first and last Indianapolis 500 – in 1965 and 1993, respectively. I was also present for his first two wins, in 1970 and 1971 – in the beautiful Johnny Lightning Specials.

I was also present in 1992, for what I consider is one of Big Al’s most underrated and overlooked drives. On that frigid day, Al Unser, Jr. stole the headlines by winning his first Indianapolis 500, in what is still the closest margin of victory in the race’s history. What is overlooked on that day is that the 53 year-old Al Unser, Sr. drove to a third-place finish – one of only four cars to finish on the lead lap – in a Buick V6-powered Lola, owned by John Menard. Unser had been named to the ride, after missing the 1991 race and only after Nelson Piquet crashed his car in practice, seriously mangling his feet. The elder Unser started twenty-second and was somewhat of an afterthought, yet he drove a smart race and brought the car home in third – giving the powerful, but unreliable Buick V6 its highest finish.

Those that followed Al Unser’s career were not surprised. He had a reputation for taking care of his equipment, while getting the most out of it.

Over the past few days, we’ve seen the tributes and accolades for Al Unser pour in. The same words are used repeatedly for a reason – smart, patient, wise, smooth, quiet, reserved, understated, calculated – are all words that have been used to describe Al Unser. One other word that kept being used repeatedly over the weekend, was the word nice. He was considered a good and decent man.

After struggling in practice for what would be his rookie year at Indianapolis in 1965, in a car powered by Maserati, his big break came when pole-sitter AJ Foyt offered him the Lola he had at his disposal. Foyt claims to have liked the younger Unser brother, because he was a good driver, who was unpretentious and never ran his mouth. As teammate to the defending champion; Unser started thirty-second, but drove a smooth race and finished a very respectable ninth. After the race, everyone remarked what a smart race Al Unser drove.

Normally, such a rookie drive in the Indianapolis 500 would be worthy of the Rookie of the Year title. This was no ordinary rookie class, however. Fellow rookie Mario Andretti won the coveted award, by starting fourth and finishing third. The 1965 rookie class at Indianapolis was arguable the greatest ever. Aside from Unser and Andretti, the celebrated rookie class included Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, Masten Gregory, Arnie Knepper, George Snider and Jerry Grant. Bobby Johns, Micky Rupp and Billy Foster. With Unser’s passing, only Andretti, Johncock, Snider and Rupp survive from that outstanding class.

Al Unser could not have been more different from his older brother Bobby. While Bobby was a colorful character that lived life to the fullest, Al was quiet and seemingly mild-mannered. Even on the race track, Bobby was a hard charger from the drop of the green flag, while Al would carefully analyze each race before carefully deciding when to make his move. One thing they both shared was an unbelievably competitive spirit. Bobby’s was obvious, but those that were closest to Al say that his competitive nature burned just as fiercely as Bobby’s. It was just kept under wraps.

As successful and celebrated as Al Unser was in his on-track accomplishments, Unser’s life was filled with tragedy. His oldest brother, Jerry, was fatally injured in May of 1959 while practicing for the Indianapolis 500. After winning the Indianapolis 500 back-to-back in 1970-71, his marriage to his wife Wanda (mother of Al, Jr.) collapsed. Unser hit a drought where he only won six races in seven years.

But when he married Karen Sue Barnes in 1977, Unser’s fortunes changed. He won his third Indianapolis 500 and finished second in the championship. He also won the USAC Triple-Crown – the three 500-mile races on the schedule; Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario. He was the only driver to ever do so.

Tragedy struck again for Unser in 1982; when his younger teenage daughter, Debbie, was killed in a freak accident involving friends at a weekend trip to the lake in a dune-buggy. As it would anyone, it greatly affected him – probably forever, to some extent. But Al Unser was old-school. When his brother Jerry died, the family taught him that this was just the way it was and to move forward. It built an inner-strength that ha called up to deal with the loss of his daughter. Instead of taking time away from his craft, he buried himself into racing as an escape.

In 1985, Unser was faced with a different sort of family dilemma. It was the last race of the CART season at Tamiami Park in Miami. As the race was dwindling down, Al Unser, Jr. was leading the championship by a single point and was running third in the race. His single point lead was over his own father, Al Unser, who was driving for Roger Penske.

The elder Unser was running fifth with Roberto Moreno between him and his son. With the race winding down, Unser, Sr. was catching Moreno. His crew radioed him that he had to pass Moreno to win the championship away from his son. He could have backed off of the throttle ever so slightly and not passed Moreno. At that moment, Al Unser, Sr. had to choose between being a racer or a father. He chose to be a racer and passed Moreno. Unser, Jr. finished third in the race, while his father finished fourth – but the results handed the championship to Al Unser, Sr. Al Unser later commented on what an empty feeling it was to win that championship and he told Little Al how sorry he was; but he explained that he could not have faced his crew, his sponsors or ultimately, even his son had he given the championship away. As excruciating as it was, he later said he would do it the same way. Being a father myself, I know that would be a very tough position to be in.

One of the greatest stories in the history of the Indianapolis 500 is the 1987 race. We all know the story about how Big Al was a last minute substitute for Danny Ongais, and Unser ended up winning his fourth Indianapolis 500. As she was in 1978, Unser’s wife Karen was alongside him in Victory Lane in 1987. But they divorced in 1988.

In 2004, brother Louis Unser – twin brother to Jerry Unser – passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.

Unser’s older daughter, Mary Unser Tanner, tragically passed away in 2009 at the age of forty-nine. Having buried both of his daughters, Al Jr. was his only remaining child. I can only imagine how painful that must have been. Although Little Al and ex-wife Shelly had been divorced for several years, Al Unser lived to witness Shelly’s death in 2018, the mother of some of his grandchildren.

This year has been especially hard for the Unser family. Bobby Unser passed away in May at the age of 87. Just six weeks later, Bobby Unser, Jr died unexpectedly after complications from surgery for a broken hip. Now just seven months after losing Bobby, we have lost Al – the youngest of the Unser brothers and the last surviving member of his generation. Now they are all gone.

There is something sad and final about the end of a generation. When my own mother passed away, it marked the end of all of my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It makes you look around and realize that the next family death will likely involve a first cousin, a sibling or yourself. It is a sobering thought, and a not-so-gentle reminder that time marches on for all of us.

Time marches on for our childhood Indianapolis legends also. When Helio Castroneves became the fourth member of the Indianapolis 500 four-time winners club, someone had the foresight to assemble the exclusive club together for a photo shoot at IMS in July. The photos of AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears and Castroneves from that day are all the more valuable now. While Helio could conceivably win a fifth Indianapolis 500 before he is done, I feel fairly certain that there will never be another four-time winner added to the club in my lifetime. I’m currently 63, and in all honesty – that suits me just fine.

Godspeed Al Unser! My condolences to the entire Unser family.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Remembering Al Unser”

  1. Bruce Waine Says:

    George thank you for the additional Unser family history that I was not aware of.

    A gentle giant ………….. Al Unser

  2. I have met and talked with Al Unser several times and I always found him gracious, friendly and very humble. He told me that each win was a team win. I’m sure they were, but the team had a winner in the driver’s seat. How cool it is to have had his brilliant career unfold in front of me.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Big Al was the rare driver who may have retired too soon, putting in regular competitive runs well into his 40s and taking the championship in his final full time season. He was masterful in both 92 and 93 and always maintained he had a great chance to win in 93 had his car not lost a cylinder.

    What a remarkable contrast he was to his brother Bobby, both finding tremendous success via very different approaches to racing. His impressive 1978 Triple Crown got a lot of press in the many memorial columns that have been written, but his 1970 championship season was probably his finest hour, winning the 500 and sweeping the five dirt miles.

    We’ll miss him badly.

  4. I personally hope the 4 time club is done for many decades and I hope Helio stays put right there too. So glad we got to see those 4 time pics from July done. No one is getting younger. I feel for Al Jr, he’s quite alone in the world at this point and he’s had his share of struggles. Al Sr seemed like such a polity and well-mannered man, will miss his presence.

  5. It can be argued that Al Sr was the greatest driver at The Speedway. He knew how to get the most out of a car and in an era of car breakdowns, he had a knack of bringing them home. Hope he is enjoying the big racetrack way up above!

  6. Thank you George for another wonderful tribute. I’ll never forget that ’87 race and Al’s big 4th win at the brickyard. The look of satisfaction on my dad’s face when one of the old guard beat the top guys of that time (Mears, Sullivan, Rahal, etc.)….reminds me of the look I had last May when Helio beat the top guys of today. I guess everything sort of comes back around from one generation to the next.

  7. James T Suel Says:

    I really can’t add anything to what has already been said, about AL Unser Sr. He was one of the best at race craft. I was lucky enough to see all his 500 wins. Also seen some very impressive wins on the mile dirt tracks in the 70s. RIP

  8. My first visit to Indy was Qualifying in 1987, we went across the street that day and I bought an Al Unser T-shirt. Little did I know he would win the race that year!

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